The true-crime boom of the past decade extends into all manner of media. Novels, movies, podcasts, newspapers, magazines, TV shows – wherever it is, we can’t get enough. I, for one, couldn’t stop listening to the Dr. Death podcast last year, fully on the hook for each surprising, practically pulp novel-esque twist in the strange saga of Christopher Duntsch aka the “madman with a scalpel.” However, there is a general familiarity to the arc of these stories – be it a corruption scandal or serial killer investigation – which calls on the creators to find new angles to take and deeper understandings to impart. The stranger than fiction twists will always pull in the curious, but how do you get at the larger truth and injustices behind it all?
Unbelievable – which began its life as a Pulitzer Prize-winning Politico report and then became both a non-fiction novel and an episode of NPR’s This American Life – stands out as an especially success advancement of the form. At a glance, it might come off as a more female-focused version of Netflix’s Mindhunter or HBO’s True Detective, asking us to follow along as a spiritually-inclined rookie detective (Merritt Weaver) and a far more pragmatic, no-nonsense veteran (Toni Collette) track down a serial rapist. False leads are followed, victims are profiled, inter-agency bureaucracy rears its ugly head, home lives are glimpsed, and cops do indeed have some deep conversations while stuck together in a car. (Time, however, is never referred to as “a flat circle.” So, there’s that.)
However, that would be a rather reductive reading of Unbelievable. Functionally, this is indeed a true-crime cop story which will have you guessing right along with the detectives, but the proudly beating heart of Unbelievable is, in short, #MeToo and everything it entails.
The opening episode, importantly, doesn’t even feature Weaver or Collette. Instead, it’s a harrowing depiction of rape from the victim’s point of view. The actual rape is shown in spurts as pained flashbacks, with the girl unable to describe anything she couldn’t see from underneath her blindfold and thus that’s the only point of view we get.
We follow Lynwood, Washington resident Marie Adler (Kaitlyn Dever) from the moment she reports her attack and up until she is brow-beaten days later into claiming she made it all up, betrayed in her moment of need by family, friends, and the criminal justice system represented here in the form of cold, dispassionate male detectives clearly inclined to question the victim. They get her on the inconsistencies in her criminal report, failing to realize that her version of events both before and during the rape never change and it’s only the small details in the immediate post-rape period which fluctuate, not least because she was in a traumatized state and their aggressive tone towards her made things worse. By the end, you will be angry at just about everyone other than Marie.
A small timejump takes us into the second episode where an attacker fitting the one Marie described rapes another woman, Amber (Danielle Macdonald), in Golden, Colorado. Arriving on the scene, Det. Karen Duvall (Weaver) immediately stands out as superior to her Washington counterparts. Everything they did wrong, she does right. She’s thoughtful, patient, empathetic, doesn’t force the victim to awkwardly answer questions while standing outside the crime scene as CSIs do their work and neighbors look on, goes with her to the hospital and calmly explains the procedures she’ll have to go through.
The two experiences – Marie’s with the Lynwood cops versus Amber’s experience with Det. Duvall – is practically a PSA begging to be used in police training videos.
However, while Duvall works the case Marie’s life in Washington continues to unravel. Only a close friend/ex-boyfriend and her foster mom (Bridget Everett) – er, one of them, she has several – step up to offer any moral support, but even they are of limited use since they think they’re helping her through whatever trauma caused her to lie about being raped. It’s almost harder for her to be around them and their well-meaning “I’m here for you” platitudes than it is to be alone.
Thus, Unbelievable’s dual narrative formula is established:
Duvall’s investigation takes her into neighboring Westminster where Det. Grace Rasmussen (Collette) has a rape case of her own fitting the same MO – victim tied up, raped repeatedly over several hours, forced to shower for at least 20 minutes afterward, and naked pictures taken as a means to threaten the girl with public humiliation if she reports the crime. Duvall and Rasmussen quickly partner up and combine their respective teams, with the Golden cops repeatedly marveling at how many more resources the Westminster cops have available to them. With their powers combined, they try to find a serial rapist who is damn good at leaving no material evidence behind. At the same time as all of that, Marie suffers one indignity after another, spiraling into depression and suicidal ideation.
You know the two stories will eventually collide. In my case, being unfamiliar with the true history before watching the series I kept expecting Marie to somehow prove key to Duvall and Rasmussen cracking the case. Spoiler warning, that doesn’t happen. There is no crucial detail of her case which leads to some thrilling climax. Instead, the harsh truth of her experience hangs over everything. If the cops had actually believed Marie and been better at doing their jobs, so many victims could have been spared. She, ultimately, never gets a face-to-face with her attacker, but she does make sure to have one final conversation with the cops who dropped the ball. Her parting advice: “Next time, do better.”
That’s the mantra of the entire series. It is a PSA for why we should believe victims and what can happen when we don’t. The system, Unbelievable argues, isn’t entirely broken. The Duvalls and Rasmussens of the world – fictionalized versions of the real detectives in the case, Stacy Galbraith and Sergeant Edna Hendershot – are out there fighting the good fight, but everyone could do better.
Based on the critical and social media reactions thus far, those with personal experience with sexual assault as well as those already inclined to believe victims find Unbelievable to be a powerful viewing experience. Those, however, who believe it’s not as simple as blindly believing victims since there are indeed women who file false reports for various reasons might not be moved by Unbelievable’s story. Yet others might find their worldview either reinforced or rejected by Unbelievable’s implicit argument that women are better equipped to handle this job and the men need to stop and learn from them.
Whatever the baggage you bring the table, however, just watch the first episode and tell me if it doesn’t move you. It’s a pure empathy machine, putting us in Marie’s shoes and desperately wishing the world was a better place and our institutions more capable of doing their job.
Unbelievable is available on Netflix. It’s an 8-hour binge, and it’s totally worth it.