The following contains spoilers for Unbelievable.
Based on a true story first chronicled by ProPublica’s T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong, Unbelievable follows teenager Marie Adler (Kaitlyn Dever) who is accused of and eventually charged with lying about having been raped. While Marie suffers from the consequences of a world not ready to believe her, two detectives, Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette) and Karen Duvall (Merritt Weaver) work to track down a serial rapist who, unbeknownst to them, may exonerate a young girl they’ve never met.
Unbelievable is a deeply empathetic and intelligent television experience for many reasons. The show has a deep respect for its detectives and its victims and depicts a maddeningly realistic world where the only thing that can take down evil is hard work, patience, and a little luck. Still, it never loses sight of the damage these evil acts do along the way.
While the entirety of Unbelievable is special for this empathy and attention to detail, there are three moments in the series that stick out in particular. The TV landscape is so crowded and overwhelming that sometimes all that we can ask of new shows is to provide us with one moment to carry forever with us in our hearts and minds. Unbelievable is not only a perfectly crafted piece of work, but it also generates at least three moments that I’ll personally remember forever. And in this oversaturated era of entertainment, that may be the highest praise possible.
Unbelievable’s first 20 minutes do something that I don’t recall ever seeing on television before. We open with Marie the morning after her violent sexual assault at the hands of a masked stranger. At first it seems as though Unbelievable has decided its audience doesn’t need to witness the grim details of the rape. In a way, that proves to be the case. Unbelievable doesn’t want us to witness Marie’s attack, it wants us to shed our own perspectives and experience it in as close a way as we can.
As Marie explains her memory of the event to Officer Curran, the scene cuts to flashes of the previous night in which we see the masked assailant from Marie’s point of view. It’s traumatic and terrifying…but at least it’s brief. Then Detective Parker arrives on the scene and Marie is asked to recall the events once again. As she does, the narrative places us right back on the fateful night. We’re close enough to Marie to hear her elevated, panicked breathing. Marie is then whisked away to the local hospital to undergo an examination. After Marie is processed through the system in a sterile, dehumanizing fashion, she is asked yet again to recall the details and yet again the audience is asked to experience them alongside her.
This approach of presenting details from Marie’s rape as she recalls them is not just creative in a technical sense, it’s essential in establishing an empathetic tie between viewer and the abused young protagonist at the center of the show’. Marie has been through hell already and she’s going to continue to go through more. The show’s opening minutes assure us that we’re going to be there right alongside with her. Plunging us right back into the traumatic night of Marie’s assault also highlights what a living, breathing, repressive beast trauma is. By continually asking Marie to relive it, the supposed trusted adults around her have already betrayed that they don’t fully understand how to attend to her best interests.
The dehumanizing way in which Marie is processed at the hospital is bookended with a scene near the series’ end, and the juxtaposition between them is another thing that I’ll always take with me from this show. After Detectives Rasmussen and Duvall get their man, Christopher McCarthy, he is arrested and sent to prison. While there, he is processed into the system in a way that’s cathartic at first.
As McCarthy sits on a cold, rigid bench, a nameless, faceless guard walks in wearing black gloves and carrying a black case. “Take off your clothes,” the guard says. ”All of them.” McCarthy is stripped down to nothing, cold and exposed, as the guard yanks hairs from various places on his body. Finally the guard takes snapshots of McCarthy’s nude form then exits with his clothes, leaving the man standing naked awkwardly in the center of his cell.
Unbelievable isn’t asking us to feel any sympathy for Christopher McCarthy and at this point in the story it’s impossible to anyway. This rough, casual treatment is beyond appropriate given the nature of his crimes thus far. Still, the manner in which Unbelievable juxtaposes McCarthy’s processing with Marie’s processing from episode one is truly unsettling.
The nurses who attend to Marie back in episode one aren’t unkind, they’re just … task-oriented. They go about the business of investigating this young woman’s bruised body with the same level of detachment that the prison guards use in examining McCarthy’s. When Marie’s initial examination is complete, an unnamed physician hands her a bag of pills and says “If you experience any of the following: excessive bleeding, vaginal discharge, shortness of breath, difficulty swallowing, hives, thoughts of killing yourself…there’s a number there. I listed it on your instructions.” The doctor then nods with a slight smile and walks out of the room.
Finally, there’s a moment in Unbelievable’s penultimate episode that may just be the most devastating and illustrative of the series themes of them all. Marie has been placed in therapy as a byproduct of her plea deal with the state for her “crime.” At first, Marie has no desire to talk with yet another authority figure who has the capacity to make her life even worse. Thankfully, Dr. Dara is bright enough to see what has happened here.
“So basically you were assaulted twice. Once by your attacker, and once by the police,” Dr. Dara says.
“I guess,” Marie says.
“I am so sorry, Marie. It’s brave of you to revisit it. It’s not easy. Can I ask you one thing before you go? Understanding that none of this was your fault, it was something that was imposed on you, I wonder if there’s something of value you can take from it. This might not be the last time in your life that you’re misunderstood or mistrusted. I just wonder if there’s a way to think about it. About how you might manage this kind of injustice if it were to happen again.”
Marie thinks about the doctor’s words for a moment, then begins a careful, halting response that is utterly devastating.
“I know I’m supposed to say that if I were to do it over, I wouldn’t lie. But the truth is, I would lie earlier. And better. I would just figure it out on my own. By myself. No matter how much someone says they care about you – they just don’t. Not enough. I mean, maybe they mean to or they try to but other things end up being more important. So yeah, I guess I’d start with that. Lying. Cuz even with good people, even with people you can kind of trust – if the truth is inconvenient, if the truth doesn’t like fit, they don’t believe it. Even if they really care about you. They just don’t.”
It’s always been apparent that Marie has been traumatized from her experience with uncaring authorities. Here, she reveals to us and herself just how conscious she’s been of that trauma this whole time.
The right thing is only the right thing is everyone agrees it is. The right thing for Marie should have been to tell the truth and then fall gently into the hands of practiced adults ready to believe her and tend to her physical and emotional wounds. But the adults weren’t ready for that. The world wasn’t ready for that. So the “right thing” in this instance as far as Marie is concerned is to take care of herself because surely nobody else is capable of it. And given the evidence of the past seven episodes, it’s hard to disagree with her assessment.
Marie eventually receives something resembling a happy ending. Rasmussen and Duvall discover that she was indeed one of Christopher McCarthy’s victims. McCarthy is put away forever where he can never hurt anyone again and Marie receives an apology and $150,000 to restart her life somewhere far away. She even gets to call Detective Duvall and tell her how much it meant to her to find out that there really was someone out there who cared all along.
Still, above all else, when I think of Unbelievable I’m going to think of those three scenes – the repeated interrogations, the processings, and Marie’s monologue. While Marie is able to achieve some semblance of peace and comfort, I’m not sure any of us should be let off the hook so easily. Good television’s magic trick is making you feel something. Great television’s magic trick is making you feel responsible for something. Unbelievable makes us feel responsible for never letting the unbelievable happen again.