Content Warning: This post contains references to and descriptions of sexual assault and rape.
In the early hours of a March morning in 2008, an 18-year-old woman in Lynnwood, Washington, was awakened by a stranger in her apartment. Holding her at knifepoint, he tied her up, raped her for hours, photographed her, and said that if she went to the police, he would post the photographs online. Then he left.
I begin my review of Netflix’s new limited series Unbelievable with this harrowing account in order to make one thing as clear as possible: this really happened. Not just in the show, but in real life. It was the crime at the center of the Pulitzer Prize-winning ProPublica article “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” and the This American Life episode “Anatomy of Doubt,” both of which served as the basis for Unbelievable. Both the article and the podcast state plainly, from the beginning, that whether the crime they’ll be discussing really occurred is not up for debate — it definitely did. Many individuals in the victim’s life — in every version of the story, she goes by the name of Marie — may not have believed her, but the people telling her story want us to know that they do and that we should.
The same is true of Unbelievable, a true-crime drama that is — somewhat ironically — built on a rock-solid foundation of belief. The first episode opens on Marie (Kaitlyn Dever) during the hours immediately following her attack, as she and her former foster mom, Judith (Elizabeth Marvel), wait for the police to arrive. Almost immediately, something feels off. Marie is asked to describe her attack over and over to a parade of strangers with notepads and cameras. Everything is very official, and we know the police and the medical personnel are “just doing their jobs,” but there’s something in the repetition and the cool sterility of the process that feels almost cruel. It’s easy to understand, watching Marie being interrogated, examined, and photographed, why so many victims of sexual assault choose not to report their attack.
Still, despite all the relentless poking and prodding of Marie’s body and story, and the rising doubt from both the police and the people who are supposed to serve as her support system (by the end of the first episode, no one will believe her), Unbelievable makes it clear that she’s telling the truth. It’s evident in the brief flashbacks of the assault that are peppered throughout the series, in the way the camera frames Dever during moments when Marie’s story is being challenged, and in the consistency between Marie’s account and the eventual accounts of the rapist’s other victims. Unbelievable’s tale unfolds over a tight 385 minutes, and there’s not a single one in which we’re asked to question the veracity of Marie’s account.
In episode two, the series jumps ahead three years and shifts locations to Colorado, where we meet Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever) and Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette), based on real-life detectives Stacy Galbraith and Edna Hendershot. Duvall and Rasmussen work in different precincts but are brought together by the similarities in the rape cases they’re investigating. Duvall’s case: a 22-year-old woman named Amber (Danielle Macdonald) in Golden. Rasmussen’s: a woman in her late 50s named Sarah (Vanessa Bell Calloway) in Westminster. It’s not standard procedure for officers from different precincts to share the details of their cases, and it’s a fluke that brings these two together — Duvall’s husband works with Rasmussen, and recognized some of the details of her case in his wife’s.
On paper, Duvall and Rasmussen don’t have much in common aside from their chosen profession. Duvall is soft-spoken and gentle while Rasmussen is direct and abrasive. Duvall is patient; Rasmussen is constantly on the move. Duvall is young and optimistic; Rasmussen is seasoned and jaded. Duvall is a person of faith; Rasmussen believes in hard work and the power of a strong drink.
Yet when it comes to how they interact with the victims of their respective cases, similarities shine through. Repeatedly, they assure the women that they don’t need to explain how they’re processing their trauma or apologize for not reacting in a typically expected way. They tell them that it’s okay to not remember much, or to remember everything. To seek medical attention, or not. To want to talk about their attack, or try to put it behind them and move on.
In one early scene, after we’ve watched Duvall question Amber with the gentleness and empathy that was so painfully absent from Marie’s experience, the two detectives go talk to Sarah together. Rasmussen tells Duvall not to speak, but toward the end of the interview, picking at a thread Sarah loosened with one of her answers, Duvall asks Sarah a question about her assault, while in the background, Rasmussen quietly seethes. Sarah begins to apologize, explaining that she doesn’t remember many details, and Rasmussen quickly reassures her, telling her that it’s self-defense, that it’s common, that she shouldn’t apologize for doing what she had to do in order to feel safe.
Later, when the two detectives are alone, Rasmussen explains to Duvall that Sarah’s “psyche is held together by spit and a prayer,” and that being questioned about the rape by yet another stranger with a badge is going to do more harm than good. Watching the scene, realizing that even the kind, soft-spoken Duvall may have unintentionally traumatized Sarah further with her single well-intentioned question, it’s hard not to think about Marie having to describe her assault over and over, in painstaking detail, to a constantly rotating carousel of mostly male strangers who thought she was making it all up.
It’s this juxtaposition that Unbelievable does so well, especially as Duvall and Rasmussen’s case picks up steam. The two detectives are brilliant, spinning even the barest whispers of clues into solid gold leads, but with every break in the case, we always come back to Marie. Remember, the show seems to urge as we watch her struggle to come up with the five-hundred dollars to pay her court fees after she’s charged with false reporting, or pedal her bike furiously away from clusters of prying reporters wanting to know why she lied, or weep helplessly into her pillow. Remember, not everyone gets a Duvall or a Rasmussen. Some have no one at all.
Marie, at least, has us. Unbelievable makes sure of that. We can’t help her, but we can believe her, and bear witness to the many injustices she is forced to suffer. We can remember, even in moments of triumph, that she is still out there, alone.
Equally hard to shake while watching Unbelievable is the knowledge that it is all based on a true story. If you read the ProPublica article or listen to the podcast before watching the series (I’d highly recommend both), it’s hard not to be blown away by how closely the dramatization hews to reality. Showrunner Susannah Grant, along with co-creators Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman have taken meticulous care to get Marie’s story right, to the point where it almost feels as though they’re attempting to personally atone for the three years when everyone else got it wrong.
And Unbelievable gets more right than just the facts of the case. Dever more than holds her own alongside Emmy winners Wever (Godless, Nurse Jackie) and Collette (United States of Tara; Collette also has a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination under her belt), with all three leads delivering powerhouse performances that make it feel as though they’ve been embodying these characters for eight years rather than eight episodes. And the supporting cast — which, in addition to the actresses mentioned above, also includes Annaleigh Ashford, Dale Dickey, and Brooke Smith — is wall-to-wall outstanding.
Further, while the writing is definitely elevated by the quality of the cast, the script is lean and moves along at a snappy pace, striking a perfect balance between exhilarating tension and deep despair, and explaining just enough of its technical procedural elements to never leave the audience behind. (In a clever workaround of a common procedural pitfall, Rasmussen’s office is given an inexperienced intern to ask what all the jargon means, so that more experienced characters are never forced to explain it to each other for the benefit of the audience.) If there’s any area where the script gets a little repetitive, it’s in how frequently it reminds us of the importance of listening to victims, how there’s no one right way to exist as a survivor of an assault, and how healing looks different for everyone — but that’s hardly a flaw. These are messages we could all probably stand to hear a little more frequently.
When it comes to the rapes themselves, Unbelievable handles its potentially traumatizing subject matter with sensitivity and grace rarely found on TV (or anywhere, for that matter). While the screener that I received did (rightfully) include a content warning at the beginning of the first episode, and the series does include a number of split-second flashes of numerous assaults, they are never gratuitous or voyeuristic and are always from the victim’s point of view. Never once does the camera linger on exploitative images of female nudity; rather, it focuses on the women’s faces, their memories of their attacker, and occasionally a fleeting shot of a hand, foot, or stomach. Later, when the photos the attacker took of his victims are discovered, we’re told that they’re difficult to look at, but we never see them. We don’t have to. This is not a series about reliving trauma, but about healing from it.