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Review: The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez Stokes Outrage but Fits a Predictable Mold

The Netflix miniseries suggests a sort of virtual, one-stop-shop Wikipedia page.

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The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez
Photo: Netflix

Netflix’s The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez will stoke your outrage, and it should. The six-part limited series provides what feels like an expansive primer on one of the most horrific child abuse cases in the history of the United States, and there’s a sense that it wants to fill in gaps for those who might have been swept up by some other outrage shortly after eight-year-old Gabriel Fernandez’s death made national news in 2013, or just weren’t privy to the ins and outs of the case as reported by Los Angeles news outlets.

The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez suggests, like the recent Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez, a sort of virtual, one-stop-shop Wikipedia page about an infamous case, though it arguably goes further by indicting the faceless systemic forces that aligned in cruel harmony to crush a human life. At one point, the series even delves into the 2018 abuse case of Anthony Avalos, the 10-year-old Lancaster boy who was also tortured to death by his mother and boyfriend, to get at how the cracks in the child protective services system that cost Gabriel his life in nearby Palmdale were barely patched up in the five years following his death.

Gabriel died on May 24, 2013 after years of torture and abuse at the hands of his mother, Pearl Sinthia Fernandez, and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre. As detailed by various individuals, including Deputy District Attorney Jon Hatami, Pearl and Aguirre starved Gabriel, fed him cat litter, shot him with a B.B. gun, and burned him with cigarettes all over his body. They even bound and gagged him in a cubby. The series isn’t shy about providing us with photo evidence of that horrifying abuse, and it spends much time simply sitting with people and those photos, trying to fathom how a parent could do such things to a child. In one episode, Hatami opens up at length about his own abuse at the hands of his father, and in the moment, the prosecutor’s outrage in the courtroom is tinged with a wrenching melancholy, as if he’s fighting on behalf of a pain that he only recently came to understand.

The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez is at its strongest in such periods of reflection, when it’s trying to understand that which would appear to defy understanding. It lingers on the visible pain of those who came into Gabriel’s orbit, in life and in death, from those who tried to give him a chance at a happy life before he was placed in his mother’s care, to those who tried to report to police and the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) that he was being abused, to those who wanted justice for his torture and murder. Impressively, too, it makes space for interviews with a character witness who testified on Aguirre’s behalf and several jurors in his case, including the man who couldn’t initially bring himself to sentence Aguirre to death. The series has us grapple with questions of justice and morality, and there comes a point in the final episode where calling Aguirre “evil” feels as if it has no meaning given that the word can just as easily be applied to so many who turned their backs to Gabriel’s abuse.

Throughout The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez, you will know how responsible some of those individuals probably feel for the little boy’s death simply by their not having given interviews to the filmmakers. But those aren’t the only elisions here, and some aren’t so easy to rationalize. For one, the series never really gives a particularly concrete sense of who Aguirre was before he met Pearl, and after a while it feels as if the only systemic issues it cares to confront are those that prevented police and DCFS from properly responding to reports of Gabriel’s abuse. Though it mounts a strong case for why the boy and not his two older siblings were targets of their parents’ abuse, The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez doesn’t contend with the systemic social contexts that made Aguirre and Pearl’s violence an inevitability. And had it done so, the series might have reached the magisterial heights of Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America, which found new ground on the oft-reported case of O.J. Simpson by framing the fallen star’s life against the violence of L.A. and the ideals of a nation, its moral rot.

During Aguirre’s trial, Hatami argued that the man not only liked what he did to Gabriel, but that he did so because he perceived the boy to be gay, though the series tells the story of that perception in half-shades. From birth, Gabriel was raised for several years by his gay great-uncle, Michael Lemos Carranza, and his boyfriend, David Martinez, so we can intuit that the boy’s torture was at least in part an attempt at a correction. While Gabriel was in Pearl’s custody, someone reported that Michael molested the child, and it’s an allegation that journalist Melissa Chadburn states hasn’t been confirmed nor disproven. There’s a sense that no one in Gabriel’s family who had his best interests at heart seem to believe the allegation to be true, and while the series attests to the kindness Michael and David showed Gabriel, it does conspicuously glance past discussion of this matter, as well as the methods, legal and otherwise, by which the boy was able to land and remain in their care for so long.

Nor is mention made of Michael and David’s advocacy work as part of Gabriel’s Justice, or that Michael died of cancer in 2014. In San Salvador, the filmmakers interview an agonized David about what happened to Gabriel, and you may be frustrated by the missed opportunity to explore why and how David came to be deported by ICE and connect that to the other systemic forces of race and class that contributed to Gabriel’s death. There are times throughout the series where it’s difficult to tell if a story—like the one about Gabriel’s first-grade teacher posing with a noose alongside three other teachers—was swept under the rug because the filmmakers simply didn’t know how to incorporate it into the series or because it might have undermined the dominant narrative they’re seeking to put forth.

The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez, though, does find time for the sort of aesthetic bells and whistles that have become de rigueur for projects such as this since The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, whose lurid reenactments could at least be justified because Andrew Jarecki’s entire project was to ascertain the exact nature of Durst’s crimes. But the uncomfortably ominous reenactments of this series—by and large suturing devices between interviews and courtroom footage—do nothing to enhance our understanding of the Gabriel Fernandez case. At times, they even work against what we already do know, such as the sight of the actor who plays Aguirre mostly from the neck down quaking in his cell with the sort of fear that’s never evident in Aguirre’s body as he sits still and silent in court.

But that’s nothing compared to the tactlessness of the show’s title sequence, which heavy-handedly literalizes the idea that Gabriel “fell through the cracks” before ending dramatically, distastefully with the sight of the cubby where he was imprisoned by his torturers. In such moments, when it’s trying to summon an aura of mystery—that there’s something here that’s waiting to be cracked open, something to be solved—it’s as if the desire of The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez to entertain, to ensure that we are as spellbound as possible by yet another example of the atrocities that humans are capable of, is greater than any need to inform and educate.

Network: Netflix

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