September 18, 2020TV
Content Warning for Unbelievable: Depictions and discussion of sexual assault, PTSD
You might be reluctant to watch a series about a rape victim coerced by the police into recanting her report of the crime - I certainly was. But if you can overcome that and give Unbelievable a chance, you’ll find three protagonists you can really root for, all impeccably portrayed by the series’ leads. There are two parallel stories being told: One follows a young girl overcoming system upon system that is stacked against her after she endures a heinous assault. The other is a gripping detective story anchored by two women who join forces to bring a particularly deplorable criminal to justice. Though it was often both painful and infuriating to watch, I don’t regret it. This is storytelling worth your time.
Based on a true story by reported by Pro Publica (link to story at the bottom of this post) we join the story outside “Oakdale Apartments for At-Risk Youth”. Marie Adler (played by Kaitlyn Dever) has been raped in her home by a masked assailant who broke in while she was sleeping. She is forced to repeat the details of what has happened to her again and again, first to the officer on the scene, next at the hospital, and again to the detectives (played by Eric Lange and Bill Fagerbakke) who have been assigned to her case. She is primarily supported by two of her former foster mothers (played by Elizabeth Marvel and Bridget Everett). The trajectory of Marie’s story changes as her foster mothers begin doubting what she has told them happened, primarily because they’ve decided she isn’t acting the way they think a rape victim “should”. Elizabeth Marvel’s character calls Detective Parker to share her suspicions, which she is very careful to frame as well-meaning “concerns”. Somehow all these well-meaning adults decide that is more probable that Marie invented this brutal story for attention, than that she has actually been subject to such a horrifying crime. Detective Parker and his partner change their approach with Marie, confronting her with what they present as inconsistencies in her statements to them. Their questions turn into traps, and Marie, who is traumatized and dealing with an accumulated lifetime of disappointment and mistrust in the very systems and people who are meant to protect her, continues to turn further and further inward in her anguish. The detectives finally badger and bully her into retracting her report. The series continues to follow Marie as the repercussions of both the original crime and the travesty of the detectives’ malpractice impact every corner of her life.
In episode two we start splitting our time between Marie’s story in Lynnwood, Washington, and three years later in Golden, Colorado. There we meet Detective Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever). She is interviewing a young woman who has been raped in her apartment by a masked assailant who broke in while she was sleeping. Later that evening, she downloads some of the details of the case to her husband, who is a police officer in another district. He recognizes some details in the rapist’s means of attack, and suggests she connect with Detective Grace Rasmussen (Toni Colette) from his department, to learn more about a similar case.
This sets up the chain of events that will lead the two detectives to join their cases to hunt the man they quickly realize is a serial rapist.
Thoughts from Your Pop Culture Concierge
I avoided watching this series for awhile after it was released, because I was sure it would be too upsetting to bear. And, honestly, the series can be difficult to watch. The first episode in particular can be excruciating - for the brief glimpses of the actual assault Marie suffers, but even more so the emotional violence she is subjected to in the aftermath. But I’m glad I gritted my teeth and overcame my reluctance because, while I was right that the story can be devastating, it is also an important and necessary study of how something like this could happen. Once the focus is split between Marie’s story and the investigation in Colorado three years later, a glimmer of hope starts to emerge. Spending time with Detectives Duvall and Rasmussen, with their steady competence and steely determination, is both reassuring and inspiring. In the three lead characters, we get both stunning performances and also women to admire.
Kaitlyn Dever as Marie Adler probably has the most difficult acting job because her performance is so internal and constrained. She is so tiny and she even seems to shrink during certain points of the story, trying to make herself smaller so she can escape from the prolonged horror of her trauma. Her pain is so clear, and you just want to scream at all the supposed care-givers for not listening to her and so willfully misunderstanding her reaction to what’s happened. She tries so hard to contort herself to the expectations of the police, while still telling the truth of what happened to her. Watching her endure everything through sheer force of will and with little or no help from the people around her, I was thoroughly invested in her story and continued watching because I was sure she would ultimately prevail.
From Merritt Wever’s first scenes, she presents Detective Karen Duvall as almost preternaturally empathetic. As she interviews Amber, the survivor of a rape we know to be very similar to Marie’s, she conveys so much respect, care and reassurance. As a viewer it’s such a relief to finally feel that an investigation is in the right hands. She’s that compelling in her projection of her abilities. There’s a stillness to her, whether she’s taking a statement or observing a crime scene. You get the impression that this heinous assault has her full attention from moment one, and that’s enormously comforting given what we’ve seen in how Marie’s case was handled. When various officers (mostly men) on the case either imply or state outright that the investigation is a lot of work, she simply replies “Yes, it is”. She is courteous but unyielding. It is so good to watch a female character who is unapologetic about the instructions she gives.
Toni Collette gets a more badass introduction, chasing down a potential suspect after a stakeout. She is portrayed as the older, more experienced, and somewhat more cynical of the two. As Detective Duvall first lays out what she sees as the similarities in their cases, Collette creates an air of impatience, almost glibness, continuing along with her business while Duvall chases after her. But she’s clearly listening carefully and as it becomes clear to her the cases are linked, she commits fully to joining the investigations. And when she and Duvall revisit the survivor of her case, she demonstrates a more restrained, but no less effective empathy, that you might not have anticipated at first while watching her interactions with Duvall.
The two detectives have some conflicts, but mercifully it’s not rooted in the typical woman/woman pettiness that so much pop culture portrays. It comes, at first, from some fundamental differences in how they both see the world - Duvall more optimistic, Rasmussen more pessimistic. But as characters they are allowed to grow through that and ultimately become excellent complements to one another.
It’s a huge relief to watch the investigation by Duvall and Rasmussen unfold, having seen the approach of the Lynnwood police and others. When you watch the officers, health care workers, and detectives interact with Marie (at least at the beginning) they are all matter of fact and efficient. No one is unkind, but no one is particularly helpful. It’s all too easy for the detectives (and later everyone in her life) to decide Marie has fabricated this horrifying story, and get angry with her in the process. In contrast, Detectives Duvall and Rasmussen are clearly committed to unearthing the truth, on behalf of the victims they represent. They’re unrelenting in exploring every possible avenue of information, and in fact their break in the case turns on painstaking review of video footage, making note of every vehicle that passes near one of the crime scenes over the course of hours. They get discouraged and frustrated, but never give up. I recently read The Wright Brothers* by David McCullough. Of course, I had previously known the bare bones of their story, but the details of how they mastered flight were new to me. They had so many setbacks and disappointments, but they quickly got up off the mat and tried again. They were exceedingly creative and resilient problem solvers, and it’s just a comfort to know there are people in the world like that, tackling the big challenges that can seem unsurmountable. That’s how I came to feel about the portrayals of Detectives Rasmussen and Duvall. They are confronted with a potentially intractable problem, they hit a lot of dead ends, but even through their frustration they solider on. Marie has an analogous, more difficult path for her own survival and recovery. But by the end of the series you, like her, have had some hope restored.
A Netflix Original Series
385 minutes or 6.4 hours total
TV MA (Depiction of sexual assault, swearing, brief nudity)
Kaitlyn Dever (Loretta Mccready on Justified, Amy in Booksmart, Eve on Last Man Standing)
Merritt Weaver (Emmy winner for Zoey on Nurse Jackie, Denise on The Walking Dead, Mary Agnes on Godless and Ruby on the new Run on HBO)
Toni Collette (Muriel in Muriel’s Wedding, Harriett in Emma, Tara on United States of Tara, Joni in Knives Out)
Here is the link to the Pro Publica story. Content warning: Explicit descriptions of sexual assault.
*Disclosure: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org and I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase of The Wright Brothers.