Unbelievable begins with an hour-long episode that may count among the darkest and most hopeless hours of television that I have watched this year. This includes Chernobyl, which is like Unbelievable in that it tracks a catastrophe from the horrible effects on its victims to the trial meant to reveal who is responsible, to explain what happened and reach a meagre catharsis. The first episode follows Marie (Kaitlyn Dever, destined for greatness ever since her break-out run as Loretta McCready on Justified eight years ago) through the first moment after a rape. The first police officer arrives to take her statement, and she relives what happened – the details of a sexual assault, the impressions of a violation, and her attempt to tell a story about them as clearly as possible, while having to go through the memories of something so horrible. And then, other cops show up, and make her re-tell it again. And again. And then they take her to a medical examination without much explanation or preparation, and she must tell her story again. And again, at the police station. And again, a few days later, after her most recent foster mother has decided to approach the police and to insinuate that Marie’s story must be untrue, because she has reacted differently than expected to the rape (this is a moment in the story that I find utterly unforgivable, the character of Judith, who hides behind wanting the best for Marie, and yet doing the worst). It is then, at least, that we, the viewer, realise that the purpose of this exercise is not to find as much information about the perpetrator as possible to apprehend and stop him from raping more women. It is to discredit Marie, to write her experience and her trauma off as lies. Inevitably, this is what happens – and Marie, under severe pressure, wanting the torture that a psychologist will later call a second assault to end, recants her statement, says she has lied. We know she didn’t, that from the little backstory that we have of Marie’s life, this is just another person who should take responsibility for her well-being, and for the community, failing utterly in their duties.
This is maybe a good time to point out that all of this is based on a true story, that much of Unbelievable follows the reporting in ProPublica’s An Unbelievable Story of Rape, step by step, from incompetency to betrayal. All these things happened to Marie. All these things happen, day after day, to other women who report on being raped, and aren’t believed or taken seriously.
And then we begin the second episode of Unbelievable, which mirrors the first in that it tracks the first moment of an investigation into a rape. But this time, everything is different. This time, the detective that we follow is Karen Duvall, played by Merritt Wever (who, impossibly, follows up Zoe Barkow from Nurse Jackie, and Mary Agnes from Godless, with another performance that takes her to completely different places – and I think this is the right moment to say that Wever is one of the most interesting and talented actresses currently working). This time, the first moments of Amber’s (Danielle Macdonald) interaction with the police investigating her rape aren’t traumatising, but gentle, empathetic, suited to the occasion. Where Detective Parker approached Marie like a perpetrator, like someone who had to prove that the crime had happened, Karen never doubts what happened to Amber. She is here to collect evidence, to catch who did this, and she respects Amber enough to explain the process to her, to not have her be overwhelmed by what will be asked of her. The interview that follows, the statement that Karen obtains, is the opposite of Parker’s. She knows what she is after, and she finds Amber brave and brilliant, capable of revisiting the moment of her worst trauma in great detail, providing information about the perpetrator because in this moment of her worst nightmares, she was present enough to keep him talking, to learn as much about him as she could.
It’s impossible to describe how different this interaction is from what is done to Marie – I think it should be widely studied, not just by law enforcement but by any institution that interacts with traumatised people. I think the conclusion here that women should be the ones first to interview rape victims to prevent what happened to Marie is incorrect: anyone who is incapable of doing what Karen accomplishes here should be disqualified from police work, regardless of gender. There is nothing inherently feminine about Karen’s approach to Amber’s questioning, it’s just that she sees her as a person, takes her seriously as a human being who has just gone through a horrible experience. If you can’t do that, you shouldn’t be a detective.
Unbelievable walks a fine line here between being concerned about the statistics of crime (the most discrepancies between rapes and reported rapes, the fact that so few perpetrators are ever convicted, the correlation between domestic violence and rapes) and showing the people who are affected by it. The show makes a point about the former by portraying the latter – removing the veil of the anonymous victim, showing in detail how gruelling the process is, how by default the retelling of the story reinforces the trauma. It also gives ample space to each of the women who share their stories with Karen – and later, to Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette), once Karen has realised that the perpetrator is a serial rapist who knows that police departments in different counties do not speak to each other about the details of the crimes they are investigating – it is impossible not to see them whole beyond this one experience. Amber, Evelyn (Traisa Gary), Daisy (Hendrix Yanzey) and Doris (Jayne Taini). Each of them has things to contribute to the investigation that end up being essential, and each of them has their life made smaller and more terrifying because of the man who has committed the crime. In the end, after all it done, the most galling thing, the most unforgivable thing, is the fact that the first time Christopher McCarthy (Blake Ellis) did this, he was sloppy enough to leave enough evidence for the police to find him. In the end, the most unbelievable thing is that if Detective Parker had believed that Marie was the victim of a crime, he may have captured McCarthy before Amber, Evelyn, Daisy and Doris ever had to suffer.
The quote “Here I am. Send me” is a bible quote that Karen Duvall, as well as the detective she is loosely based on, have affixed to their dashboard. It is a reminder that they have chosen to do this job that needs to be done by someone. It is also a reminder of how seriously Duvall takes the job, so much so that she stays behind if the job isn’t finished, that she foregoes nights with her family when she knows that the perpetrator is still out there. Grace Rasmussen isn’t any less dedicated, but more experienced than Duvall, and some of the best and most memorable moments in the show come from them talking about the job, about the responsibility and the toll that it takes to do this day after day. The almost are the worst part of this. During the investigation, Marie’s case is almost connected, until Parker says he’s dismissed her, he’s reclassified her statement as false. As much as this is a series that follows the meticulous investigation that eventually leads to the arrest of the perpetrator, it is also a harrowing portray of how Marie is let down again and again.
It’s a narrative choice following the original reporting of the case to track the progress of Duvall and Rasmussen along with the fall-out that Marie faces from her attempt to report her rape. After recanting her statement, she loses her friends who blame her for falsely reporting a rape. Then she loses her job, one of the few things tethering her to a pathway out of the foster system she has grown up in. Then she loses her housing, in a final straw. A series of events, all caused by Parker’s decision to not believe her, a pathway which has only one slim bit of light: a court-appointed psychologist (Brooke Smith, memorable in a small role) who realises half an hour into their appointment that Marie was raped – and does so, astoundingly, after asking her for her interpretation of Zombieland. Marie correctly states that the monsters to look out for in zombie narratives are always the humans, because the zombies can’t help their violence - whereas the humans opportunistically choose to do damage. A series of events that ends only when Duvall and Rasmussen are successful and apprehend the rapist.
They find photos of Marie in the rapist’s stash, and in a phone call to Parker, reveal her story to have been true all along. Parker is shamed for his incompetence, and he is not forgiven for it, not by Rasmussen or Marie, even though he approaches both of them to find some kind of absolution (in a moment of self-awareness, he says he always knew about bad cop but he never thought that this would apply for him -and that maybe, the force would be better off with him gone). The payout from the city once Marie sues it is enough to begin a new, freer life somewhere else, and in the closest this show comes to actual catharsis (because somehow, the consecutive life sentences for the rapist could never be enough to make up for the suffering) is a phone call between Duvall and Marie, in which Marie thanks both her and Rasmussen for finding justice. It’s one of the most moving moments in the story, because it opens a whole parallel universe in which Marie’s suffering would have been reduced if only the first person at the scene had been either of these women.
As incomparable and without peers this show is, I was reminded of Mindhunter’s second season, which has a similar focus on what happens if the criminal justice system does not take the concerns and the sufferings of one marginalised group seriously. The great grief of Unbelievable is the fact that maybe, had Parker done his job, some of the suffering could have been prevented. The perpetrator himself claims that he could have been stopped earlier, when his methods were less involved. Similarly, in Mindhunter’s second season, Jonathan Groff’s Holden Ford stumbles into a non-existent investigation into the Atlanta child murders, realising that the unwillingness to take young, black victims seriously or to award them the same kind of importance that they would a white child has made Atlanta police blind to the presence of a serial killer.
Television shows and movies about police procedure have been overwhelmingly over-represented for decades now – I think the question here is, what should we expected from them? Especially where one the least comprehensible characters in Unbelievable, Marie’s foster mother, used her knowledge of one such popular crime show as an excuse to justify why she thought Marie’s experience of rape had never happened. And what is the moment of justice in Unbelievable? Is it the conviction of the rapist who pleads guilty at the trial? Is it the $150,000 of compensation that Marie is awarded in a settlement with the city? Is it when Parker finally apologises to her, and she asks of him to do better next time? It’s the same, in Mindhunter. The apprehension of the serial killer paints over the systemic issue that the crimes against black children were not investigated for so long. Marie’s moment of personal justice is when she finally free – at the beach, where she drove in her own car, finally free of the institutions that have determined her whole life, thanking Karen for her efforts. More widely, there will never be a satisfying answer to this question of justice for as long as the statistics looks the way they do.
Unbelievable (2019) created by Susannah Grant, Michael Chabon, Ayelet Waldman, starring Toni Collette, Merritt Wever, Kaitlyn Dever.
Mindhunter (2017-), created by Joe Penhall, starring Holt McCallany, Anna Torv, Jonathan Groff.