The burning questions we’re left with after finishing ‘S-Town’

A stunning listen

Warning: spoilers for S-Town follow

Before S-Town landed online last week in one Netflix-style dollop, the podcast was assumed to be a continuation of the true-crime formula which its producers had nailed on their other podcast series – Serial. But that premise unravels early on, and instead, S-Town becomes an astonishing insight into the life of the eccentric genius John B. McLemore as he airs his grievances about his native town of Woodstock, Alabama – and the world in general.

The most profound and touching material arrives after his suicide is revealed in episode two. The rest of the podcast deals with understanding the man from beyond the grave, and the untimely mess he left behind. So, naturally, in only seven episodes it’d be impossible to answer every mystery brought up. These are the biggest questions we’re left with after listening.

What did Tyler say off the record?

In the final episode of the series, host Brian Reed makes clear to his John’s close friend Tyler Goodman that he should be careful about telling him whether he has found John’s alleged horde of gold or not. Tyler then asks Brian to turn the recorder off, obviously to tell him something.

One has to assume that Tyler has either found the gold or is actively on the case and wanted it off the record. For the most part, Tyler was very forthcoming throughout the process, so whatever he told Brian must either be too important a secret to spill, or could have legal ramifications down the line.

Did John melt his gold when he was fire-gilding?

We know John was big into the lethal process of mixing gold and mercury during his clock restorations – and its mercury-poisoning effect may have been played a part in his downfall. But judging by the rate he was doing the process (at least a dozen times a year), is there a possibility that John used his alleged stash of gold in the process?

Did John really believe there was a murder?

Brian’s rationale for coming to meet John in the first place was to investigate the alleged murder of a young man called Dylan Nicholls in the town. This was disproved pretty early on by Brian when he spoke to the alleged attacker, Kabram Burt – and this opens up questions about John’s motivation for approaching Brian in the first place.

When the pair are doing some research into the case early on, John is distracted and deliberately not helping Brian. Could it be that John knew that the murder would be disproved fairly easily, and wanted to Brian to come investigate Bibb County in general?

Why did John not leave a will?

John had clear intentions of divvying up his estate, and to give Tyler “whatever he wanted” but opted not to put that in writing – jumpstarting a scramble after his death by his cousins and others. We know that John was cynical about law enforcement and the establishment, which would go some way to explaining his aversion to handing over his property and possessions to a third party.

What happened to the maze?

In the last episode we learn that John’s house had been sold by his cousin Rita to the Burt family – who owned KyKenKee Lumber, and show little interest in the incredible maze that John had built in his backyard. By all accounts, it’s still standing, though its condition is unknown.

On April 4, a GoFundMe page was set up to help Tyler with some legal costs, to get John a proper headstone and even try and buy back the land the maze is built on.

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Are the Burts in the KKK?

Early on in the series, we learn about the KyKenKee Lumber company, owned by the Burt family. Their son, Kabram, was the alleged ‘murderer’ that brought Brian to Bibb County in the first place, and his father, Ken, was caught by John discussing the ‘murder’.

Their background is explored less than we’d like, but not for a want of trying. When Brian speaks to Ken in the final episode about the purchase of John’s property and the company’s initials KKK, Ken is deflective about the link. He goes on to call Brian one of “those city liberal types” who were disappointed by the election and that, “I got no issue with the name 3K”. 

How many kids does Tyler have, for real?

At the end of the last episode we learn that Tyler is expecting his fourth child, despite being only in his mid-20s. Just how many kids will he end up with?

Why did Faye Gamble ‘skip’ all the people on the list?

One of the most infuriating unsolved parts of the story regarded Faye Gamble, the town clerk who was on the phone with John when he committed suicide. After his death, it was revealed that John had left a list of people to contact after he had died. It was Faye Gamble’s responsibility to work through the list of his close friends and clients to inform them of his death, but several of the people on the list, including John’s old professor William, were not contacted in time to come to his funeral. They said that they were only aware of his death after the funeral, and were deeply upset by this.

Faye disputes this, saying that she couldn’t reach everyone on the list, but that she tried. On the list, however, were cousin Rita and her husband Charlie, who were told almost immediately after his death. This led to several questions from the friends who were bewildered that some people were contacted in time and others weren’t. Was there some kind of conspiracy to keep certain people out of the picture?

It’s impossible to decide who’s telling the truth, and tough to work out a motive for a potential cover-up. The only prevailing theory they weren’t called is, supposedly, to ensure that the police department, Bibb County and the cousins could come and take their share of John’s property before anyone else – though that’s a tad far-fetched.

Is the podcast unethical?

So here’s the tricky part. What started as a radio series about a potential murder unfolded into a deeply personal insight into John’s life, his legacy and the town around him. During his life, John is incredibly forthcoming with Brian about his thoughts on the world, Bibb County, his own mortality and more, but some are questioning whether the podcast goes too far after his death.

Over the final five episodes, we hear Brian reciting passages from John’s haunting suicide note, investigating his previous jobs, his education, as well as learning very intimate moments of his sexual history from a past friend. You could see all of that, in particular the last part, as deeply intrusive.

John wasn’t particularly guarded about his sexuality with Brian, nor with certain members of his friends and family, but would he have told Brian so much about his life? Brian is forthcoming with his reasoning for airing even the most personal portions, citing that it helps us understand John better – but that doesn’t make the debate any clearer.