There are a few moments in Murder on Middle Beach, HBO's latest true crime docu-series, where you might find yourself covering your eyes or fighting the urge to crawl out of your skin. And it's not because of the violence or gruesome images. The filmmaker just has a very intimate and intense relationship with his interview subjects.
Madison Hamburg was just 18 years old when his mother, Barbara Hamburg, was murdered outside of their Madison, Conn. home in in 2010. More than a decade later, the crime remains unsolved. But Madison has never stopped searching for answers—even when it meant asking his family members uncomfortable questions, like, "Did you murder my mom?"
You know, just for example.
What started off as a college project at Savannah College of Art ultimately became Murder on Middle Beach, the gripping four-part docuseries that comes to a conclusion on Dec. 6. Madison has spent more than eight years working on the documentary that, really, isn't a true crime series at all.
Rather, it's a coming-of-age story about a son discovering who his mother was as a person, not just a parent, while searching for an answer he may never receive. It's a fly-on-the-wall observation of the devastation a tragedy can have on a family. And it's an exploration of the different ways we grieve and process trauma.
"That was part of the goal," Madison told E! News of working to subvert the true crime genre. "I think with true crime it's really easy and, even for me, before my mother was murdered, you watch a murder on TV and there's a disassociation of the people involved. And even within the true crime spectrum of documentary, it's really easy to disassociate it and, like, fetishize the brutality of the murder and the possibly murderers."
Murder on Middle Beach, however, puts the humanity front and center, detailing the personal journey Madison went on after losing his mother and trying to move forward with no closure.
"It's very human for people to tie loose ends, especially with a murder. If someone is murdered and you don't know why it happened, your world is that much less safe," he said. "If you can figure out why it happened, I think there's...self-preservation to be able to prevent that from happening to you or someone you love and it's scary."
For Madison, making the documentary was his way of facing his grief head-on after initially "running" from the tragedy through an addiction to opiates.
But after going to rehab and taking a year off from school, Madison had to finally face a life without his mom.
"I think looking at it in a sort of colder way has helped me have some finality to her death," he explained. Though he admitted to, at times, "using his craft" to avoid dealing with his loss.
For viewers, though, the whole project is an emotional rollercoaster.
It's jarring and, admittedly, gripping to hear a son ask his estranged father if he had anything to do the murder, for instance. Jeffrey Hamburg was the main person of interest, largely due to the fact that his ex-wife's killing after he allegedly owed her hundreds of thousands of dollars in alimony and child support. The very day she was murdered they were set to be in court. And throughout the documentary, he is uncooperative and almost combative when questioned about Barbara's death and his business dealings.
It's just as unsettling to hear Madison's aunt, Conway Beach, confidently assert her gut feeling that niece Ali Hamburg—Barbara's daughter and Madison's sister—committed the crime. It's almost as if we're all intruders listening in on family therapy sessions—a wild one, where everyone is pointing fingers and spilling secrets and the stakes are unspeakably high.
Walking that fine line between filmmaker and family member took years for Madison to finesse.
"I started this in 2013 as a school project and I was on the family member side of the spectrum more so than the investigative documentarian," he explained. "It was really difficult and I didn't really press my family members. I didn't ask people if they had anything to do with it."
But when he received funding from SCAD in 2016 to continue working on the project, his crew, made up of fellow alumni, encouraged him to use his documentary as an opportunity "to look people in the eye and ask if they had anything to do with it and record authentic answers," he recalled. "I think they [were] right. If I didn't ask these questions, it would go unasked and I wouldn't be able to move on."
In the third episode, Madison's sister Ali explained the difference in how she and her aunt Conway, who were together when they discovered Barbara's slain body, chose to process their grief. While Ali moved overseas and developed a whole new life, Conway, she said, had chose sit in her trauma.
Madison, though, admitted to picking a similar path to his aunt. "I think what I wanted as a character was to know why my mom died," he told E!, "and I think my sister puts it really beautifully—I needed this peace."
Still, peace can come with a price.
"I was concerned at certain points in the documentary because I was asking myself, 'Is my life driving the documentary or is the documentary driving my life?'" Madison admitted.
Ultimately, Murder on the Middle Beach blurs the line between his life and documentary because they seem to define one another, which makes it more cinéma vérité than investigative filmmaking. Here, the camera feels like a welcome observer, capturing the small moments only two family members can share. A knowing look, a reaching for a hand, a long but comfortable pause.
"Some of the most intimate scenes are just me, a camera and my grandmother or me, a camera and my sister, just unplanned in-between moments that are real moments in my life," Madison said. "And that's the difference. These are not just structured interviews about who did it. We wanted the interviews to be scenes themselves because I was in the room, I was asking the questions."
The same ones he's been asking for the last decade.
Murder on Middle Beach's final episode airs Sunday, Dec. 6 at 10 p.m. on HBO and HBO Max.