“Here comes the help. Here they are.” says Judith, Marie Adler’s foster mother. A 15-year-old, Marie is still in a daze, still unsure of what she went through last night, and what is now happening around her. The events flash in front of her eyes, yet she is unable to grasp reality.
The first scene of Unbelievable, a Netflix original series, is tone-setting and narrative-defying in today’s content that often plays on thrill, excitement, and darkness rather than empathy. Created by Susannah Grant, Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, this series is an investigative drama about sexual assaults and rape on multiple women in Colorado, USA. It is based on the 2015 news article “An Unbelievable Story of Rape”, written by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong, and originally published by ProPublica and The Marshall Project.
The series opens with the innocent Marie Adler (Kaitlyn Dever) of Washington, USA, going through a horrible incident and the subsequent police procedure. That’s when Judith (Elizabeth Marvel) tells her that the help’s here, but truth is often stranger than fiction; Marie goes through an excruciating procedure which tests the extremes of her patience and mental strength; she has already gone through a lot.
As the story progresses, detectives are assigned to her case, and as an audience, we are left dumbfounded by the truthfulness of her accounts. Detective Parker is confused by her turnarounds while giving the statement, and so are we. Poor Marie suffers a different trauma: her friends have already abandoned her; everyone is suspicious about her story and now… the media knows who she is – a girl who filed a false report of rape.
Parallelly, we see Detective Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever) approaching a 22-year-old girl, Amber, a rape victim in Golden County, Colorado. At first, both women are awkward but then, Det. Duvall comforts Amber, takes her to a hospital for the mandatory medical exam, and stays with her through an arduous process. Here, we realise there is a difference: Det. Duvall approaches Amber with a compassion, that was lost on Marie Adler. Det. Duvall investigates carefully but it goes nowhere as the rapist, unfortunately, is meticulous. Amber has to live with the horror of not being able to grasp the injustice that has come her way and Det. Duvall has to deal with a big roadblock, rather, a wall.
Destiny plays its part when Det. Duvall’s husband, a Police officer in the adjoining county of Westminster, suggests she talk to Detective Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette) who is investigating similar cases in which a woman has been raped and there are no traces left by the assaulter.
What follows is a game of egos and a rookie-versus-veteran conflict between the two detectives. Det. Duvall’s constantly enthusiastic approach and efforts to bend heaven and hell to find the perpetrator of these heinous crimes faces Det. Rasmussen’s cold, methodical, yet highly efficient approach, and unbridled frustration ensues. Both detectives finally arrive at the same conclusion, that there is a need to cast a wider net.
The process of finding at least one clue, something, anything that fits everything right and gets them one step closer to who did it and why, is excruciating. Ultimately, it is a careful process and a painful wait that leads to a minor victory: a small piece of evidence which points to a real person.
Amidst the detectives’ struggle to find a breakthrough, Marie’s life spirals downwards. The system, which was supposed to protect her, has charged her for filing a wrongful accusation. She doesn’t understand this – what system is she part of? As a foster child, she has seen the system inside out and knows it has never done anything right by her. But for someone who’s gone through hell already, how much more should she suffer?
Marie says, “I do not need help, I just want the bad things to stop!” but is left no choice but to take matters in her hands along with the help of an unwilling public prosecutor.
Finally, the detective duo’s fight yields result; the suspect is apprehended, and proofs are found. There’s a sigh of relief with another monster taken off the streets. The proofs reveal that this evil person has committed multiple assaults on women, of which the detectives have no idea. Indeed, the first of them is Marie.
The brilliance of this poignant drama lies in the fact that it has been written and directed by women. As a man, I do believe that no matter how gifted a creator men are, we do not fully understand a female perspective. We need to look through a woman’s eye to understand what women go through when they are subjected to such a heinous crime and then a system that fails them further. The series is a testament to the view that while tackling issues faced by humans of different perspectives, it is essential we listen, sans assumptions, to the voices that have actually faced the issue.
Many argue, even in the series, that when someone cries foul against a certain person, suddenly their entire community is demonised. Perhaps! However, it is our duty as humans to listen to the victims. As the series shows, the monster is caught. But the life of the 15-year-old girl is ruined forever. We can argue over certain technical aspects, but do we do that at the cost of the life of a young girl with dreams and aspirations, who, ultimately is a fellow human?
The series rightly points out the fallacies in ‘normalisation’; and the bogus positivity surrounding the victim’s post-trauma experience. Normalisation of such a traumatic event through saying “things will get better”, blatantly disregards the emotional and psychological turbulence of the victim.
Such Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is perhaps the unnecessary ‘normal’ victims live with; however, its potential downturn should be dealt with empathy, and not a false sense of sympathy. It should definitely not, as the series shows, be dealt with complete apathy and ignorance. Our selfish social structures often feel better about letting victims remain victims and move on with the ‘self’, rather than tending to them.
What makes sense of the series is a comment by Marie’s lawyer: “You know, no one ever accuses a robbery victim of lying or someone who said he was carjacked. Doesn’t happen.” As a system, we are inherently sceptic towards sexual assault victims. Even the rapist himself says that had the police done their job properly when he assaulted “that little girl in Washington” (Marie Adler), he would have been caught and none of this would have happened. The series begins with Marie hearing that help’s here and sadly, it ends with her telling the detective, “Next Time, Do Better!”
We cannot neglect the importance of this series, especially when we are seeing a rise in crimes against women everywhere. “Unbelievable” may not be on your must-watch list, I understand. But this series is needed. Much needed to be seen.
Aneesh Prabhune works as a consultant, and a producer in Film, OTT, and advertising field. He occasionally writers for different news publications about Cinema, series and so on. He loves coffee (strong, black, without sugar, duh!) and to talk!
The views and opinions expressed in the above article belong to the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official opinion, policy or position of Lokmaanya.