One of the most compelling aspects of true-crime stories, particularly ones that involve conmen, is that the more outlandish, the more extreme they are, it’s easy to tell yourself there’s no way you would have been fooled by this. It’s certainly easy to feel like that while watching Netflix’s riveting new true-crime docuseries The Puppet Master: Hunting the Ultimate Conman. In terms of the villain at the center of it, here’s a normal-looking guy who could be anybody, who burrows his way — slowly and insidiously — into the confidences of his victims. And then, once he gains their trust? He sets the hook.
More or less, he breathlessly tells them a whopper of a lie: I’m actually an undercover MI5 agent. Unfortunately, you and everyone you love are in danger of assassination by the IRA.
You need to come with me. Leave everything behind. Right now.
Puppet Master Netflix
The series goes on to show us that once his victims complied, the conman known most often as Robert Freegard (though he employs other aliases) went on to fleece them out of tons of money. And sometimes subjected them to abuse. It’s a jaw-dropping ploy, made all the more so by the fact that it only works if the victims take this guy at face value. And something like more than half a dozen of them, at least, did just that.
From a distance, of course, it’s a heck of a thing to be asked to take at face value. You can tell yourself you wouldn’t fall for this kind of thing. That you would have Googled this guy much sooner than one of the victim’s family members did (by which point, the victim was too far down the rabbit hole, and didn’t believe the truth on this guy that a simple Google search turned up).
The deeper you get into watching this three-episode docuseries, you may even find yourself wanting to yell at the people on your screen. How could you all be so stupid? While also disregarding the fact that, we also know, ignorance comes in different forms. All conmen don’t come with shifty eyes and ridiculous stories. Maybe it’s a bank executive with the terms of a loan that, if you paid close enough attention, would sound too good to be true. Maybe it’s a political conspiracy, born out of the ravings of a shadowy leader known only by a single letter of the alphabet.
Rating and reaction
Point is, this is actually the most fascinating thing about Netflix’s The Puppet Master, at least to me. The lies we can be fooled by, and the lies we tell ourselves when we otherwise ought to know better.
The series currently has an 86 percent audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. And a similarly strong 7.2/10 score on IMDb. Definitely worth a watch for true-crime fans. Moreover, it’s only been available on Netflix for a week now. But, as you can see below, people are still gobsmacked by the audacity behind what the conman herein was able to get away with — for so long.