The last year has felt like a constant barrage of news stories about politicians, celebrities, and every day people abusing their status and power resulting in the harassment and assault of women, minorities, and those disadvantaged in our social structures. While there have been moments of progress such as the success of the #MeToo movement, Ronan Farrow’s destruction of Harvey Weinstein, and the momentary cancellation of comedians like Louis C.K. and Aziz Ansari, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. One way we can do our part in this quest for justice is supporting pieces of art like the miniseries Unbelievable, on Netflix.
This story, based on a 2015 article called “An Unbelievable Story of Rape” by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong, begins by following Marie (Katelyn Dever) as she attempts to report the assault that was perpetrated against her. I want to give you a fair warning before we go any further. I am purposefully being vague about the plot and that is going to continue. This is one of those viewing experiences that is best if you are unspoiled. Instead, this is going to focus on some of the broader themes and the character development that occurs in the series.
I really drug my feet on diving into this show. I had a vague idea as to what it was about and that was enough to give me concerns. I was worried that it would be triggering or too much to handle after a long day at work. However, one of the greatest strengths of this miniseries is that while it does tell the story of rape, there is very little grotesque violence that the viewer actually sees. Don’t get me wrong, you still witness the trauma of the survivors, but the director (Susannah Grant) chooses to utilize other methods to explore that trauma. There are a few, albeit very brief, moments where the violence is actually depicted on screen. Mostly though, the script and character development tell the story of what these women have endured. I really applaud this choice by the screenwriters (I use this description instead of naming them because there were 7) and the director. It allowed a very real problem to be more accessible to your average viewer.
One of the more remarkable things this series is able to do is really put the viewer in the mind of the survivor. While we as the viewer will never be able to truly understand the lived experience of these characters (or the survivors they are based on), this series is about as close as you can get. They specifically do this in the first episode. Marie (Dever) is asked to repeat her account of the attack over and over again. As the viewer, you hear the story from her point of view no less than five times. This simple choice by the show runners shows how the average survivor is re-traumatized as they are asked to repeat their account over and over again to various people involved in the investigation. As we are introduced to more rape survivors, we see this trend continue. These women are constantly being asked to relive the worst experience of their lives. I wish I could chalk this up to just being part of the narrative. However, this is a very real problem that survivors face today.
This leads to the other two thematic focuses of this series: the very real problems that survivors face and the constraints of investigators in our criminal justice system. These women experience some truly atrocious things at the hands of investigators, their families, and the justice system as a whole. It is a surreal viewing experience if you consider how realistic this situation is for victims of sexual violence. The series pulls no punches in depicting the flaws of our criminal justice system. A good portion of this story is focused on the investigation itself. Two detectives, played masterfully by Merritt Wever and Toni Collete, team up to solve two cases in different districts. However, the problem lies in the fact that they only found each other based on dumb luck. This story demonstrates the very real issue that there is not a database or uniform reporting system that investigators can rely on to find cases similar to their own. This often means that cases go unsolved because of a lack of resources and little cooperation between agencies. I could go on and on about how accurately this investigation plays out (I think I just outed myself as a true crime junkie), but I will allow you the viewing experience of seeing the story play out on the screen.
The last thing that makes this miniseries worth viewing is the performances and how well the female characters are crafted. Kaitlyn Dever’s performance as Marie is heartbreakingly raw. Sometimes, you forget you are watching a performance. Oftentimes, she is difficult to watch her on screen. Not because she is giving a bad performance, but because the performance she is giving is so unbelievably real.
Merritt Wever and Toni Collette both play dedicated detectives. Their characters are polar opposites. While they find a way to work together, it is not without its challenges. What is really great about the crafting of these characters and their narratives is that they are not forced to become friends. Oftentimes, when two female characters don’t get along, they are forced together in the end to form a friendship. That is not the case here. You can tell there is a deep level of respect, but these two are not going to go grab a beer together after a long shift. It was refreshing. In general, all of these characters were developed to a level that often takes other shows seasons to get to. This, combined with an awesome supporting cast, makes it a show that is hard to stop watching.
I am not going to lie; this story probably isn’t for the faint of heart. However, if you can bring yourself to make it through the first episode it is worth a watch. The first episode is by far the hardest to make it through. Given the world we live in now, this story serves as a stark reminder that we need to believe women. Always