Netflix’s new miniseries illustrates the painful, ugly road to justice after a sexual assault.
The way our society handles sexual assault is both puzzling, and hypocritical. Sexual violence is often, rightly, considered one of the lowest criminal acts. Yet, victims of sexual assault are treated with more suspicion than victims of other crimes. They’re often accused of provoking the attacker, or putting themselves in the situation, or “misremembering” it, or even making it up all together. For many, the response they receive from investigators, and the public at large, feels like a second violation. Netflix’s latest limited series, Unbelievable, is an exploration of how this mistrust of rape victims can help their abusers escape justice.
In 2008, 17 year-old Marie Adler (Kaitlyn Dever) was raped in her apartment in the Seattle suburb of Lynwood. However, when the police notice certain inconsistencies with Marie’s story, compounded with a dearth of physical evidence and Marie’s odd behavior, they push her to rescind her allegation. After the case is dropped, Marie’s life goes into a tailspin, and she’s branded a liar by her peers. The isolation this causes, as well as the city charging her for making a false allegation, causes her to lose her friends, her job, and her home.
Three years later, in Golden, Colorado, another young woman, Amber (Danielle Macdonald), is raped in a manner similar to Marie. The detective on this case, Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever), notices that there are similar reports across the Denver Metro area, and teams up with Westminster detective Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette) to find the rapist before he attacks another woman
While the mystery of Unbelievable is a compelling one, its the investigation and the obstacles that impede it that are the heart of the show. The case is a real puzzler, as the rapist is obviously aware of how the police investigate sexual assault. His victims vary in age, race, and build, so he doesn’t have a predictable “type,” he ensures that there is not enough usable DNA left at the crime scene, and he never attacks twice in the same police district, since police departments generally don’t communicate with each other. As such, progress is made much more slowly than in a normal procedural drama, with no real breakthroughs being made until the seventh episode.
While the mystery and its twist and turns as the cops follow dead leads are fascinating, it is the compelling characters and the cast’s stellar performances that make Unbelievable binge-worthy.
The tedium involved in solving a crime is the focus of the series, and its slow pace may be a turn-off for some viewers. This isn’t helped with the unusual plot structure. Unbelievable switches between Marie’s story in 2008, and Karen and Grace’s 2011 investigation, with the first episode only showing Marie’s subplot. From the second episode, the show mostly follows the investigation, with brief flashes to Marie coming to grips with her situation. While you can acclimate to the structure quickly, it is a bit disorientating at first, especially since the show didn’t make it clear that when it switched back to Marie’s subplot that it was also switching back to 2008.
Despite the plot and pacing issues, once the viewer gets into the groove of the show, it will keep them captivated. While the mystery and its twist and turns as the cops follow dead leads are fascinating, it is the compelling characters and the cast’s stellar performances that make Unbelievable binge-worthy. Dever does a fantastic job portraying Marie as a damaged teen, giving her a resilience that masks her vulnerability, even when her continuous bad decisions become exasperating. Wever and Collette are triumphs in their roles. Grace is shrewd, acerbic and often demanding, but Collette gives her a caustic charm that keeps her likeable. Wever has an easier time making Karen sympathetic, since the character is softer and has a maternal air about her. That said, Wever also brings an unyielding determination that keeps the character motivated without being angsty or brooding
Netflix has been in hot water with more progressive viewers in the last couple of years with how it handles “sensitive topics” (concerns over its glamorization of suicide in 13 Reasons Why come readily to mind), and it seems like they are courting liberal audiences with Unbelievable. The show is a condemnation of how the police (and society in general) treat rape victims. Many of the other victims that Karen and Grace interact with have felt dismissed by the (male) police during their investigations, and as such don’t trust the institution. The detectives also discuss the high rate of domestic abusers in the police force and how rapes receive less attention than murders. It’s no surprise that the two detectives who investigate, and dismiss, Marie’s case are men.
That isn’t to say that the detectives on Marie’s case are treated as stereotypical misogynists, and they don’t dismiss the case for no reason. There are definitely some inconsistencies in Marie’s retellings of the assault, and the seed of doubt was planted by her foster mother, Judith (Elizabeth Marvel). Marie has been in the system since she was three, and suffered a lot of abuse, so it’s not entirely unreasonable that she would make something up for attention. The cops do treat her case seriously at first, and they aren’t portrayed as having malicious intent on pushing her to say she lied. They’re simply ready to believe that she made it up because it’s easier for them.
At first, the title Unbelievable seems to be in reference to the way the police view Marie’s story, then it feels like it’s in reference to how unbelievably hard it is to crack the case, but by the end of the series it’s clear that what’s “unbelievable” is how the system so often fails women when it comes to sexual assault. Admirably, Unbelievable treats this as a systemic problem: there are no “bad cops” who are taken off the force, fixing the problem forever. In fact, none of the more misogynistic cops are ever given any real consequences for their actions. Instead, it shows that making the world a better place for victims of sexual violence will be arduous, and often thankless. And while the series has it’s problems, it’s also a great tool to help the public feel more empathy for those who don’t act like “perfect victims.”
Unbelievable airs on Netflix starting September 13th.