Honestly, ten minutes into the first episode of Netflix’s Unbelievable, I wasn’t sure I could stick with it.
The series opens in Washington state in 2008 with Marie (Kaitlyn Dever in a gut-wrenching and amazing performance) sitting on the floor, huddled under a blanket, her eyes vacant and glassy. Shortly before, alone in her apartment, she had been restrained and brutally raped over the course of several hours by a masked intruder who made her shower for twenty minutes afterwards, and was careful to leave no DNA evidence behind. Now, her former foster mother, Judith (Elizabeth Marvel), officious, but clearly rattled, waits with her for the police. When an officer arrives, he kneels down in front of Marie, introduces himself and says, “I’m here to help.” Without further preamble he asks Marie to, “tell me what happened.” Almost as soon as she begins he cuts her off to ask a question. Again and again this happens. Marie begins to tell the story—she struggles to get the words out, her face contorts with effort to comprehend what happened, to recall the trauma—and the officer cuts her off, asks for more details, stops the flow of her words and thoughts. Interspersed, there are flashes of Marie’s memories of the assault, less graphic than is customary in television series and movies about rape, but no less difficult to watch. “You have to be more specific,” chides her former foster mother at one point. When the detectives assigned to the case, Parker (Eric Lange) and Pruit (Bill Fagerbakke), arrive on the scene, Marie is asked to repeat everything again. Detective Parker stands over her as she sits on the couch, interrupting her narrative over and over. She’s then shuttled through an invasive hospital exam without much concern given to her emotional or physical state, where she has to tell the whole thing over again. Then she goes to the police station where the detectives ask her to tell the entire story again, and then to write the events out in a statement.
Whenever she contradicts herself, forgets a detail, or appears emotionally distant—things that are all very normal in victims of a traumatic event, especially when they are sleep-deprived and asked to repeat the same things over and over—they seem perturbed and suspicious. Soon they are investigating Marie, reading through her thick file from child services that recounts every foster home, every incidence of abuse (of which there have been many). They interview people who know her, and her former foster mother comes forward to say that she has recently observed Marie using “attention seeking behavior.” And soon enough the detectives begin to really doubt Marie’s version of events. They find her unreliable. They find her unemotional. She is damaged by years of abuse. Something just doesn’t feel right, they say. And, they say, it’s because of the lack of forced entry into the apartment and the lack of physical evidence left at the scene. (But I hope you know it’s only because of their own biases and prejudices, and, of course, because of the fucking patriarchy in general.) They interview her again, and they use the word “inconsistencies” about her description of what happened so many times that I wrote in my notes that I wanted to punch them, which is still true. They harangue and coerce her until, confused, frightened, and overwhelmed, she recants her story. Maybe she dreamt it, she says. Maybe there was no rape. This, of course, the detectives readily believe, no further information or corroborating evidence needed, thank you very much. When word gets out, she is vilified by her peers in the apartment community, and later, when the story is picked up by the media, by the public at large. It’s difficult to watch if you’ve ever been sexually assaulted or ever tried to retell a traumatic event or ever been doubted because you didn’t present things “properly” (basically, if you’re a woman) or—I like to believe—if none of these things have happened to you, but you’re in possession of at least an ounce of empathy.
As you can imagine, I started the second episode with a lot of trepidation, but I felt an obligation, almost, to keep watching, to not look away. The series jumps to 2011 in Colorado when Amber Stevenson (Danielle MacDonald) reports that she has been raped, and the details of the attack are incredibly similar to Marie’s. Detective Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever) takes the case, and as she interviews Amber, I felt myself begin to exhale. In fact, much of the rest of the series felt like one long exhale, finally getting to see people treating victims of heinous sexual assaults with respect and dignity. Duvall invites Amber to speak in a car, where it’s more private and comfortable, and she repeatedly asks if Amber is ok, explains why she needs Amber to recount what happened to her, reassures her that it’s normal for victims to forget details or to be confused. Her questions are respectful and she listens, rather than interrupts. When she swabs Amber’s face, with her explicit consent, to check for errant pieces of DNA, she does it so gently and with so much care that I had tears streaming down my face. Detective Duvall is dogged in her approach, refusing even to let officers take a break while they are processing the scene. She begins to research every recent reported crime that could be related to the rapist, but she does not investigate the victim, instead she just believes her.
Soon she teams up with Detective Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette, but forever in my heart Muriel Heslop) who is investigating a very similar case in another Colorado district. Rasmussen and Duvall are different in their ages, their approaches, their personalities, and even their religious beliefs. This balance of softness and gruffness, of older, reluctant mentor and younger, eager mentee feels familiar to crime dramas, but their shared empathy for victims, their respectful language around sexual assault, and their common drive to get justice for these women is certainly not (but it is very welcome). Do I even need to tell you how much I loved them both? Together, they build an investigation to find the man who has raped several women across several police districts. None of this should feel novel. It should be the standard. But, of course, it does feel novel and it’s not the standard.
The rest of the series moves back and forth between Marie’s story—she eventually loses her job and her apartment, spirals into self-destructive behavior, and is tried for lying to the police, but that’s not the end for her—and Duvall and Rasmussen, who are carefully and persistently searching for the serial rapist and always interviewing victims with respect and understanding. I read a review that found the series too tedious, but I thought it did an excellent job of demonstrating the tedium involved in this kind of case—the dead ends, the false starts, the frustration, the long nights, and the determination it takes to not give up—while still moving the story forward. That review also took issue with what the author saw as stilted conversations between Duvall and Rasmussen where they cited statistics about domestic violence and rape, and where they pointed out the importance of believing survivors, but I found these moments to be deeply gratifying, and, I feel, hugely important for a viewing audience that may need that kind of education, or maybe just needs a reminder (and maybe we all need that).
There is a tendency in crime procedurals, especially once they are finally captured, to focus on the perpetrator, to try to see inside their psyche, to touch the monster. Unbelievable doesn’t do that. Instead it focuses almost exclusively on the victims and how the crimes affected them. We hardly see the rapist and we almost never hear him speak. When he does finally say something, it is mostly as an indirect indictment of the detectives in Marie’s case. Had they listened, had they believed, had they fully investigated, he could have been stopped so much sooner. And Marie could have been spared so much. So much.
It’s important to note that Unbelievable is based on actual events as reported by ProPublica and the Marshall Project, as well as by This American Life. And while “based on actual events” often means the events are simply a jumping-off point for a made-up story, this series stays very close to the actual facts, something that is extremely painful and sickening to acknowledge while watching. This isn’t the twisted fantasy of a writer, this is what actually happened. Which, I mean, fucking hell.
The series was created by Susannah Grant (Erin Brokovich) and the writers Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, and the episodes were written and directed by many, many women (something that always gives me a thrill when I watch a good movie or show).
So look, I think this is an extremely important, well-made series that shows us what happens when detectives believe victims and prioritize their needs. And if you, like me, find that, ten minutes in, you feel like you can’t watch, maybe keep watching anyway. And if you don’t keep watching (or don’t watch at all), know that that’s perfectly okay as well. We all have limits. That’s perfectly valid. But, either way, please always BELIEVE WOMEN!