A first-time filmmaker tries to get to the bottom of his own mother’s murder in Murder on Middle Beach, streaming on Neon. Its intense emotional moments—coupled with the show’s investigative twists and turns—make it easy to watch and hard to forget, writes Laumata Lauano.
There are times during the four-part documentary series Murder on Middle Beach when you think first-time filmmaker Madison Hamburg has bitten off more than he can chew by investigating his own mother’s unsolved murder. However, as we follow him on this journey we realise perhaps it’s more about discovering who she was than who—or what—ended her life.
Investigating a murder can be taxing, just ask any hardened detective inspector or their therapist. Trying to track down someone who has taken another person’s life is a gruesome job, and partly why police officers and detectives do not handle cases involving family members or others with whom they have a close personal relationship.
So imagine, then, investigating the murder of your own mother.
Barbara Hamburg, Madison Hamburg’s mother, was brutally murdered on March 3, 2010, near her home in the upper-middle-class enclave of Madison, Connecticut. Investigators speculated it was a crime of passion, but without sufficient evidence, the case grew cold.
So, over the course of eight years, Hamburg interviewed his family members and many others to learn more about his mother’s life and gather evidence in hopes of solving her murder.
What he discovers is a web of familial and local secrets, connections to shadowy figures, and years-old resentments in his deceptively serene hometown. He invites the audience into what I can imagine is a traumatising experience for himself. The college project turned four-part HBO series isn’t just novel, it appears to be the most honest way to tell a story full of deception, surprises, twists, and many unanswered questions.
The top of which is who, or what, murdered Barbara Hamburg, his mother.
The series isn’t just about uncovering the truth behind the murder of his mother but rather you come to find that Hamburg discovers more about who his mother was beyond the title of ‘Mom’.
“When you become an adult you get to meet your parents as a person—I don’t get that, this is the only way I can do that,” Hamburg says in a voiceover, as he goes about doing just that.
Through every person interviewed, he discovers just a little bit more about who Barbara was, finding out things he never knew about her and incidentally about some of his surviving family members.
“You want to know why it happened and who mom was,” says Madison’s sister Ali when asked about her take on what his documentary is for.
“What do you hope I get out of it?” he asks, to which she immediately responds: “Peace.”
We hope that he does eventually find peace, but it’s certainly not what the series offers its audiences. What it offers is a subversive take on the true-crime genre where Hamburg has us questioning the motives of all of his family members as he says outright he’s looking to absolve a few of those members.
The series flickers across the timeline, switching between the past and present in relation to the day of his mother’s murder, and works much in the same way someone stumbling through the solving of a case would.
From way back into the past, delving into archival family footage of Barbara and her siblings, to the present day where Madison asks those very same siblings about Barbara’s character, and their whereabouts on the day that she was murdered.
Murder on Middle Beach also includes somewhat ethically questionable moves on his own part as he wears a wire into a meeting with someone or records a conversation without the other person’s knowledge.
It’s messy although calculated, and certainly leads Hamburg into some interesting lines of inquiry as we come to find that his mother, her ex-husband and Hamburg’s dad Jeffrey Hamburg, and her sisters all had secrets, each of which could have been motive for the murder.
Hamburg makes us feel as uncomfortable as he is when he’s asking people like his own sister the question “did you kill Mom?” He does it all with a more or less stoic expression as he tries to remain not just calm but impartial—until the cracks appear and he is transported back to being that lost 18-year-old who didn’t know what to do when he lost his mother.
This is true-crime but with a twist. At first, you think the twist is that one of his family members came forward and we discover exactly what took place on March 3, 2010. As the docuseries comes to an end, and you discover more not just about Barbara but about certain family members, you realise that the twist is in the journey.
Hamburg is consumed by the process of completing the project and solving his mother’s murder but it’s in that process that he finds peace, it’s in discovering new bits of information about Barbara that he never knew that he grew as a person.
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“Grief is very personal and don’t let anyone ever tell you how to grieve.” This advice from his grandmother, Barbara’s mother, is rather apt as you realise that Murder on Middle Beach is Hamburg’s way of grieving.
Grieving the loss of his mother, the loss of the opportunity to know her as an adult, and the loss of a relationship with his father who spends the majority of the docuseries in an almost villainous role.
As much as the series is a true-crime series—as Hamburg goes through all the facts and details of the murder in order to try to come to some sort of conclusion and solve the case—it is also just a series investigating the internal workings of a family marred by tragedy and loss. More striking is how it is a series about a son, trying to know more about his mom.
The intense emotional moments, coupled with the twists and turns that come from an open murder investigation, are what make Murder on Middle Beach easy to watch and hard to forget. You’ll find yourself replaying moments thinking surely there’s something in this piece of evidence or in this interview that speaks to the unknown truth about Barbara’s death.