Netflix’s Murdaugh Murders is a cautionary tale of unchecked power and privilege

The new three-part series zooms in on a wealthy and influential family in South Carolina

From left, Paul, Maggie, Alex and Buster Murdaugh are the focus of a new Netflix limited series. Photo: Netflix
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The camera shots in Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal serve as a reminder of just how big America is.

And, in the three-part Netflix series, it's easy to see where something, or someone, could disappear in the country's vast rural swathes — and who could pull it off. The documentary focuses on the powerful and influential Murdaugh family, from Hampton County, South Carolina. A family who, according to filmmakers and those they interview, were capable of doing exactly that.

“This was a family that you didn’t want to mess with," says one person interviewed. "They could have something swept under the rug and no one would even know about it.”

Here, The National reveals everything to know about the story, so far.

Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal.

Who are the Murdaugh family?

The series centres on the Murdaugh family, who are currently making news headlines as the family patriarch, Alex, 64, stands trial in the US.

Alex, his wife Maggie and their sons Buster and Paul were the fourth and fifth generations of Murdaughs to call South Carolina’s low country home.

Having inherited the family law firm started by his great-grandfather, the imposing Alex knew and held influence over everyone that mattered, including judges, police officers and even the jury members he would see in the courtroom. “They were law and order here,” says one interviewee.

The 'cover-up' of Mallory Beach’s death

Left, Mallory Beach; right, an illustration of the boat on which she was killed was shown in court. Photo: Netflix

On February 24, 2019, a boat steered by Alex’s son, Paul, who was 19 at the time, which was carrying five of his friends, crashed into the bridge that spans Archers Creek between South Carolina’s Beaufort and Broad Rivers.

Passenger Mallory Beach, 19, was thrown from the boat, suffering blunt force trauma to the head before drowning. After an extensive search, her body washed up downriver eight days later.

Not that the Murdaughs appeared outwardly to care. Shown on CCTV arriving at the hospital after the crash, Alex and Paul’s grandfather Randolph greeted investigating officers, bullyied nurses and told anyone who would listen that another passenger, Connor Cook, had been at the wheel of the boat.

“Connor came to me in tears,” his father Marty tells filmmakers, “and said they’re going to try to kill me.”

Days later, Mallory’s mother, Renee, watched from behind a police cordon as Alex and Maggie were escorted to the crash site. “That’s when I started to realise they were more worried about a cover-up than trying to find Mallory," she says.

The body count piles up

Alex Murdaugh arriving at his murder trial in South Carolina on Thursday. AP

On June 7, 2021, two years after Mallory’s death, in a gasped 911 call, Alex is heard telling authorities that Maggie and Paul had been shot on the family property. Maggie died from gunshots to the chest and back “as though running away”, while Paul died from gunshots to his chest and neck.

Whether thanks to Murdaugh machinations or small-town gossip, three of the teenagers who had been on the boat with Paul that night, including Connor, his cousin Anthony Cook and Paul’s ex-girlfriend Morgan Doughty ,soon found themselves as suspects. A whispering campaign which, as Wall Street Journal reporter Valerie Bauerlein points out, proved misleading.

Baulerlein says after authorities failed to name any suspects, release any descriptions of those who may have been involved, issue any public warnings or identify any vehicles to look out for, it became clear they were looking closer to home.

An expensive addiction and two more suspicious deaths

Alex Murdaugh faces 11 lawsuits and 84 criminal charges, including fraud, criminal conspiracy and double murder in the case of Maggie and Paul. Photo: Netflix

With the local community no longer in thrall to the family who, according to those interviewed in the series, had flaunted their impunity for the past 100 years, old rumours linking the Murdaughs to two other suspicious deaths resurfaced.

In July 2015, Stephen Smith, 19, was found dead in the middle of the road in Hampton County, though his injuries did not fit a hit-and-run. Paul’s older brother Buster, who was later expelled from the University of South Carolina over allegations of plagiarism, was named in the police report, but according to Will Folks, a Fitsnews journalist interviewed in the documentary: “Nobody dug deeper.”

In February 2018, the Murdaugh’s housekeeper of 20 years, Gloria Satterfield, died from severe head trauma after being found at the bottom of stone steps, with the Murdaughs claiming she had tripped over their dogs.

Months earlier, Gloria had alerted Paul to prescription pills she had found hidden in Alex's mattress, an addiction he later claimed in court cost $50,000 a week to fund.

Later in the documentary, it's revealed Alex took out an insurance policy on his property one month before Gloria died, and pocketed the $4.3 million he collected over her death despite promising it to her children.

He was soon forced to resign from his law firm after having been caught misappropriating funds. Days later, in September 2021, Alex called 911 saying he had been shot in the head while changing a tyre on the side of the road.

A passer-by who also called the police said she didn’t stop because it “kind of looks like a setup". Something the prosecution would also later allege, claiming Alex paid a man called Curtis Smith to kill him so the life insurance money would go to Buster.

A cautionary tale of unchecked privilege

Buster, left, and Paul Murdaugh enjoyed consequence-free lives of privilege as the scions of one of South Carolina's most prominent families. Photo: Netflix

The archival footage used in Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal is detailed and extensive. From hospital CCTV to the courtroom, from 911 calls to interviews — including with Mallory’s parents — lawyers, private investigators and journalists weigh in on the case that has enthralled America.

However, the back and forth of the timeline proves less effective than a linear approach, not quite building the incredulity and sense of impending doom that Netflix hit Making A Murderer achieved across its episodes, particularly as the Murdaugh-adjacent body count starts stacking up.

“Five bodies in six years tied to this family, that is absolutely frightening,” says one person in the series. Which is true, except there’s no fear stoked here.

At its heart, this is less a series about five deaths and more about how unchecked privilege and localised power shaped a family for whom consequences became things that happened to other people; and how repercussion-free parenting created empathy-less generations.

Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal is available to stream on Netflix now

Updated: February 24, 2023, 12:48 PM