Please be advised this article includes discussion of sexual violence. This article contains spoilers for Unbelievable, currently streaming on Netflix.
About four years ago, I read a ProPublica article that I promptly bookmarked to use in online arguments with a certain sort of naïve dude. As a general rule, these guys felt compelled to jump into discussions of American rape culture and lecture me about a very simple solution to sexual assault: women just needed to report it to the police, who would then catch the rapist and help put him in prison. That was how it worked, right? At this point, I would direct them to the article and ask them to read the whole damn thing. They’d usually get back to me in about 45 minutes and say, “Oh. Wow.” Then they’d mention that they were planning on installing a home security system.
As the article makes clear, that is not how this process works. It begins with a Washington police department investigating a terrifying home invasion and sexual assault of a young woman. They conclude that she had invented the entire thing for attention and even fine her $500 for making a false report, then close the case. This is, as a more recent article in the Atlantic makes even more clear, exactly how this process usually works. Police officers, generally speaking, do not believe rape victims 1, and instead think that their role is to ferret out false reporting, latching on to the smallest inconsistencies in a victim’s report and using them as an excuse to close the case without any further investigation.
The first episode of Netflix’s new miniseries, Unbelievable, is an adaptation of the ProPublica article, and it focuses exclusively on precisely that process. A foster-system teenager named Marie (Kaitlyn Dever) wakes up in her apartment one night in 2008 with a kitchen knife at her throat and a stranger in a black mask threatening to kill her if she screams. He blindfolds her, ties her and gags her with her shoelaces, rapes her using a condom, and leaves with it, the blindfold, and her bedsheets, clearly very well-informed about DNA forensics. When she reports the assault after freeing herself, she ends up repeating her story over and over to multiple officers, including two of Lynnwood’s… well, they ain’t exactly the finest.
The entire first episode is hard to watch, though not so much because of the sexual assault scenes—they’re relatively brief and shot very carefully. It will not surprise you at all to discover that a woman (Lisa Cholodenko) directed it, along with the second episode. We get just enough information to know exactly what happened to Marie, and just how devastating it is to her in combination with what happens next. She has to go through a full rape examination, which the episode focuses on in far more detail, down to each swab. Dever is so tiny and so afraid in these scenes. Her pained facial expressions make you want to protect her from the blunt and detached nurses, and especially from the police officers assigned to her case, Detectives Parker (Eric Lange) and Pruitt (Bill Fagerbakke). They are out of their depths in a sexual assault case, as is blindingly clear from minute one. The miniseries makes it obvious from Parker’s brusque manner that he is far more comfortable extracting confessions than he is getting information. (The article mentions that he had spent most of his career in Narcotics.)
The interviews are more like interrogations, and these are the scenes that are most likely to make initial viewers tap out. Marie’s raw confusion at the detectives’ aggressive manner promptly shifts to terror as she realizes that, yet again, she is only an inconvenience to powerful people. What she doesn’t realize is how thoroughly she has been betrayed by literally everyone empowered by the state to protect her, as a foster kid: her two foster mothers have discussed her story and decided, without a shred of understanding of trauma, that her weirdly blank affect means she is lying to get attention, and that it is their responsibility to report it to the police. The detectives, in turn, are relieved to have some additional reasons to close a case with no leads and the barest physical evidence, and badger Marie into recanting, ignoring the very real possibility THAT THERE IS AN ACTUAL RAPIST OUT THERE BREAKING INTO WOMEN’S HOMES.
As the second episode begins, we learn just how tremendous Detectives Parker and Pruitt’s lapse in responsibility has been, as another detective named Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever) in 2011 investigates a home invasion and rape in Golden, Colorado. We realize instantly that this is the same guy, and also realize that he would have been prevented from hurting anyone else if Parker and Pruitt had done their fucking jobs. Duvall, unfortunately, has no idea, because police departments don’t tend to report crimes, even violent felonies, to other departments. She only learns about a second, nearly identical case in nearby Westminster because her husband happens to work there.
The second episode is a straight-up balm for the first, focusing on what a genuinely informed and caring sexual assault investigation can look like. The third episode focuses on what two of them look like, as Duvall teams up with the detective on the Westminster case, Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette). Duvall is calm, soft-spoken, and a well of empathy to a terrified and traumatized college student named Amber (Danielle MacDonald, whose American accent is amazing). Rasmussen is a hardass with a vanishingly low bullcrap threshold, who initially comes across as brusque and territorial, with a line of dialogue to Duvall straight out of a million cliched dudebro cop shows: “I told you not to talk!” Within a minute, it becomes clear that this is not a dick-measuring exercise but a protective streak worthy of a mother mountain lion; she didn’t want Duvall to traumatize her victim even more by forcing her to talk about and relieve her assault. The contrast with Parker and Pruitt is staggering.
Parker and Pruitt continue to completely betray Marie and their mission to protect and serve the public throughout the miniseries, which switches between 2008 and 2011 for the remaining episodes. Not only does Marie have to deal with PTSD, the loss of her entire support network, and the general effects of poverty, but she also learns about another, very similar assault about four months later in another town. For those of you counting along, Parker and Pruitt have now failed four women, and Duvall and Rasmussen discover a potential fifth who jumped off a balcony to escape the rapist after they team up with the FBI.
Dever and Collette settle into a rhythm that wouldn’t be out of place in a Tana French novel: two people with a job to do and a whole lot of barriers to doing it, but a great deal of growing mutual professional respect. Rasmussen has a crack about female mentorship that provided some of the most-needed comic relief I’ve seen in ages. Duvall, for her part, clearly wants to prove herself to an older and more experienced cop, but not at the expense of the investigation. Not once does either woman launch into a soliloquy about her motivations being grounded in personal experience. Their motivations are obvious: there’s a violent serial rapist to catch who preys on vulnerable women; what more does anyone need? We are miles from CSI: Whereverthefuck.
The comparisons are there to be made, all the same. There are technologies to exposit to a convenient naïve intern character, but they don’t work all the time, and they aren’t available to all departments. An awful lot of time is spent chasing down loose ends, including a not-unfounded concern that the rapist may be in law enforcement. It isn’t standard Netflix padding but rather a reminder: the police are very often not on the victims’ side, and an awful lot of them are domestic abusers (hovering unspoken in the background is the recent revelation that the Golden State Killer was a police officer during the early years of his home invasion/rape/murder career). This may be the most fuck-the-police cop show I’ve ever seen.
Unbelievable is not perfect. Some of the dialogue is clunky enough that Pulitzer Prize/Hugo/Nebula/etc. award winner Michael Chabon must have been asleep at the wheel as co-creator. It mostly falls to Toni Collette to make some of it sound vaguely plausible, which she does because she’s Toni Collette. There’s a fictional and unnecessarily creepy scene in the sixth episode that serves only as a red herring. Some cop show cliches are apparently unavoidable, as Duvall’s Christian faith comes in for some mocking and then Rasmussen sees at least some of the light.
And yet what this miniseries gets right blows a hole a mile wide through typical cinematic depictions of rape culture. Even some things that appear initially to be shortcomings, such as the almost cartoonish nature of the rapist, make sense in the context of focusing on the victims and not on their supposedly all-powerful tormentor. If you’ve been watching and reading a steady diet of Silence of the Lambs/True Detective-esque material for the past 30 years, this is beyond refreshing.
In fact, Brooke Smith, who most of us will probably remember seeing at the bottom of a well in a basement back in 1991, has a small role as Marie’s counselor in the penultimate episode. In addition, it includes a scene that made me hiss “YES” the way I’d previously only experienced in watching or reading one particular part of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, or watching Jameis Winston get sacked into the turf, or Kobe Bryant pout on the sidelines, or seeing Brock Turner’s mug shot. In it, the rapist is in custody in Westminster, and a technician is taking hair samples and mouth swabs only slightly less considerately than Marie’s rape exam nurses in the first episode. It is a perfect bookend narratively and emotionally. If you are on the fence about watching this miniseries, I can promise you catharsis and then some. (This is also true for the woman who Marie’s character is based on, as per one of the article author’s Twitter feed.)
In the final episode, after all those hairs and swabs are duly processed, some of the victims attend the sentencing hearing in a further effort towards catharsis and closure. The miniseries gives us something else instead in the form of Doris Laird’s (Jayne Taini) question to the rapist in court. Doris is the quintessential sympathetic victim, a frat house dorm mother in her sixties who we first meet making biscuits (rolled, not drop, but we won’t hold that against her). She asks him the question that is the queasy foundation of all American women’s lives: “What was it that I did to make you choose me? Tell me what it is, so that I can stop doing it!” She tells him all the ways her life has shrunk since his invasion of her home, privacy, and body, and begs him to explain what that one thing was—was it any of these things that she’s stopped doing, such as having her curtains open during the day? He just smirks and doesn’t say a word, which is both infuriating and perfect. The point is that there is nothing a woman can do to prevent someone from attacking her, no behavior she can avoid, no sensible precautions she can take that will control what another person actively decides to do.
Likewise, there’s a scene in the final episode in which Marie confronts Detective Parker and points out that nobody has actually apologized to her for everything that the Lynnwood PD has done to completely ignore its responsibility to her and the rest of the American public. Eric Lange delivers the simple lines “I’m sorry. I’m very sorry,” with all the sincerity and weight that they deserve, and it’s far more effective than, say, a ten-minute Sorkin-style dramatic monologue that makes everything about him. That said, I do wish that the miniseries had made it clear that the Lynnwood police department has since made dramatic improvements to officer training regarding sexual assault, as the article states. Partly, this is because the $150,000 settlement Marie received from the city is, as she observes, a lot of money. It’s also because things are changing.
I get into far fewer online arguments these days, and I could tell you that it’s because I’ve grown as a person, but mostly it is because I am simply too tired. Trying to explain American rape culture to strangers online is almost as successful as trying to empty the ocean with a teaspoon, and besides, I live in a desert. Watching Unbelievable made me think that we might possibly be getting to a point where I might not have to argue about these issues at all, if people would just watch this miniseries. If that’s true, it’s the best thing Netflix has ever done.
- I use the term “rape victim” instead of “survivor” here very intentionally in an effort to stress that people who have been through sexual assault have had something deliberately inflicted upon them by another person. People survive hurricanes, earthquakes, and other natural disasters; rapists are not a force of nature.