Unbelievable is a heart-breaking illustration of how society has failed those it claims to protect. The Netflix series serves as a desperate plea to do better.
I won’t lie to you; this show is a hard watch. It’s a harrowing investigation of the crimes of a serial rapist, told through the eyes of the victims, and it’s not going to spare you the details. Which is exactly why you should watch it. Living in the wake of the #MeToo movement, at a time when the victims of sex crimes are being empowered to come forward, we, as a society, have a responsibility to understand the impact of a judgemental mindset and of a reluctancy to believe. Unbelievable showcases the detriment of such behaviour all too clearly, most pointedly in the story of 18-year-old rape victim Marie Adler (Kaitlyn Dever). The show follows the investigation into the crimes of a serial rapist and the trauma of the victims he left behind.
Episode one opens with Marie, accompanied by her ex-foster mother (and blatant embodiment of everything wrong with society) Judith (Elizabeth Marvel), speaking to the police department shortly after Marie was raped in her apartment by an unknown intruder. From here (spoiler alert), things go from bad to worse as insensitive detectives re-victimise Marie, forcing her to relive the attack in the brutal cross examination of her story, with an unsettling determination to discredit her. What the show does so well is draw its audience into the action. We are forced to relive Marie’s trauma along with her, as the rape scene is replayed each time she is asked to retell her story; like I said, it’s a hard watch.
The two detectives handling Marie’s case (Eric Lange and Bill Fagerbakke), along with Judith, serve to illustrate the prejudices of victim profiling and how we, as a society, seem to expect certain behaviours from victims. Marie doesn’t appear to handle her assault ‘typically’, her lack of emotion and unwillingness to discuss her attack leaves the detectives, Judith, her friends and even her councillor dissatisfied, a dissatisfaction that then becomes disbelief. Marie loses everything, even contemplating suicide, all because those around her felt that she didn’t comply to some sort of trauma checklist (PSA: victims don’t owe you anything).
Sadly, Marie’s story is all too common, and the character-based judgement she is subjected to is something we are all guilty of, whether we want to admit it or not. Marie is regarded as a ‘problem child’ as she comes from an unstable background of neglect and abuse and so reporting her attack is taken as attention seeking (or as Judith so patronisingly puts it ‘look-at-me-behaviour’). The detectives do little to hide their prejudices as they blatantly tell her that they ‘want to get a picture of who [she is] before this assault, as a person’ as if that was legitimately relevant at all. To further traumatise a rape victim, with a history of abuse under the guise of a perceptive professional opinion, is another example of how Unbelievable highlights the serious shortcomings of the criminal justice system, and of societal attitudes more generally.
Amber Stevenson (Danielle McDonald), another victim of the same rapist, is, realistically the only reason that Marie’s case was ever believed. Amber is a less controversial character than Marie, a sweet natured college student whose public image instantly earns her more credibility. As Amber’s attack took place in Colorado (and Marie’s in Lynwood, a Seattle suburb) her case was handled by a different law enforcement officer; Detective Karen Duvall (Merritt Weaver). Duvall is everything we need the police department to be. She is kind, sensitive, expects nothing from the victim and actually does her job. Partnered with Detective Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette), the duo lead a gripping investigation and unearth a string of attacks against young women, previously never connected to the same perpetrator. Though the work of Duvall and Rasmussen is infinitely better than the prejudiced ‘investigation’ of Marie’s case, the fact remains that it took the rape of another young woman for Marie to be believed. She had to be allied with another woman’s trauma to be validated in her own, a sad reflection of the modern justice system.
What is most shocking about Unbelievable is entirely based on true events. Marie Adler (referred to in the show by her middle name) is a real person who went through the same heinous attack and subsequent traumatic treatment depicted in the show. Unbelievable is a mirror, it forces audiences across the world to recognise the realities of the world around them and confronts them with uncomfortably familiar behaviours. This series is more than a Netflix show. It is a call to check yourself, to do better and to believe without prejudice, to not let there be another Marie Adler.