Inside the Trauma and Triumph of Netflix’s ‘Unbelievable’
On September 27th, 2018, most of America was frozen in front of a TV screen, watching Christine Blasey Ford testify at the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh. Voice shaking, she apologized preemptively (and, later, repeatedly, over hours of questioning) for gaps in her recollection of the assault she said she’d suffered at his hands as a teenager — “I don’t have all the answers, and I don’t remember as much as I would like to” — while at the same time recounting vivid details of the incident, which she said had been “seared” into her memory.
Nearly 3,000 miles away, in Los Angeles, the director Lisa Cholodenko was in an editing bay, cutting footage of the new Netflix series Unbelievable. Based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning ProPublica-Marshall Project investigation, it follows the real-life story of a young woman whose account of being raped — sometimes fuzzy, sometimes inconsistent from retelling to retelling — comes under such intense scrutiny from cops and even her own family that she is eventually accused of filing a false report. The connection was not lost on the production team.
“That was very meta,” Cholodenko says.
Unbelievable, which premiered Friday, almost one year to the day after Ford’s appearance in Washington, is a unique blend of intimate character study and addictive police procedural. It unites a murderers’ row of talent behind the lens — in addition to Cholodenko, there’s Justified producer Sarah Timberman, Oscar-nominated screenwriter Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich), and the authors Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, among others — with an all-star cast. Booksmart breakout Kaitlyn Dever plays the young woman whose case is mired in controversy, Patti Cake$ star Danielle Macdonald is a woman who endures an eerily similar assault, and Emmy winners Merritt Wever and Toni Collette are cops doggedly pursuing a serial rapist. The result is a series that transcends genre, far more nuanced than a straightforward docudrama or dragged-out episode of Law & Order.
Landing in the TV firmament amid a widespread cultural reckoning surrounding sexual assault, it may seem to be a show cannily tailored to the current moment. But Unbelievable was four years in the making — much longer, if you go back to the real-life events it depicts, which commenced in 2008 and stretched into 2012. And while it could be described as a show about rape, the series is really an exploration of trauma, the way it infects memory, the way it refracts through lives in unexpected and often imperceptible ways, bending through one person and bouncing off of another, changing shape but never disappearing.
Journalists Ken Armstrong and T. Christian Miller’s original reporting “really illuminated the prevalent misconceptions about how victims of trauma ‘should’ behave,” says Timberman, who was approached independently by Grant as well as Chabon and Waldman about collaborating on the project shortly after the article’s publication in 2015. “What their story gets at is that there is no correct response to trauma.”
Hence why Dever’s character, Marie, appears detached when police first interview her at her apartment in the suburbs of Seattle. (To the responding officer’s first question — what happened — she replies flatly and without elaboration: “I was raped.”) As she takes them through the harrowing events that occurred there during the early-morning hours, her voice is small and monotone, eye contact minimal. Flashes of her experience — a masked face in the gray, pre-dawn light; the sudden gleam of a knife’s edge; the sound of a bag being unzipped over heavy breaths; blinds clacking against each other by the sliding door — stand in at times for narration. She can’t say for sure how long the attacker was there, can’t really describe what he looked like. (“Tall?”) He tied her up with her own shoelaces, she says. He took her picture (cue a blinding flash, the guttural burst of a shutter). It is an impressionistic painting that tracks as more true-to-life than any work of photorealism could.
“One thing I took with me throughout the series is that Marie would refer to her ‘on-and-off switch,’” says Dever. As we soon find out, Marie has bounced through foster homes for most of her 18 years, a victim of abuse in several of them. “That was her coping mechanism,” Dever says. “When she is feeling so low, she can turn her emotions off.”
When the action shifts two-and-a-half years forward and 1,300 miles southeast to Colorado, we meet a different rape victim, Amber (Macdonald). In contrast to Marie, she is poised and eager to please investigators, studied in her recall and methodical about describing every minute of her hours-long ordeal (presented in the same subjective-flashback style), including information her rapist revealed as she talked with him. Her response, says Macdonald, was simply a different chord struck by the same act of violence. “Amber’s way of coping was to remember every single detail while it happened,” she says. “She was humanizing herself to him so that she could live, because she had a gun to her head the whole time. So at first [she’s] like, ‘I made it, and here are all the key points that you need to know. I remembered everything.’” Only after the initial commotion dies down does the shock seem to settle into Amber’s bones, with later episodes revealing that she’s pulling away from family and friends, coming undone.
What is consistent throughout is the sensitivity with which the material is treated, and the creative team’s ability to extract dramatic tension and narrative urgency from the source material without being exploitative. Grant says she had never written a sexual assault before, but she knew right away when scripting Marie’s ordeal the tropes she wanted to avoid. “I immediately thought, This absolutely cannot be written from an objective viewpoint,” she says. “There’s just too much rape porn in the world. This can’t be a voyeuristic experience. So I decided it had to be one hundred percent subjective and told from her perspective. And since so much of the plot hung on her credibility I thought, Why don’t we just hear it all from her and see it as she’s telling it. I think it was the right way to show the sexual assault, but it also put you in that moment of not really being sure, because there are moments where it’s a little bit contradictory.”
There is only one departure from that subjective viewpoint: During one of Marie’s many retellings of the story, amid those flashes of horror, we see her look at a picture of herself on the beach — her “happy place,” as Cholodenko tells it. Suddenly she is there on a sunny day, slow-motion jogging into the surf, beaming as she looks over her shoulder at whoever is taking the photo. It is another path to self-protection, Cholodenko says, an idea borrowed from a scene in the Patrick Melrose novels where the young Patrick, being raped by his father, projects himself into the body of a gecko he spies on the floor, and imagines himself scurrying to safety.
“I was told Marie had this picture of herself by the ocean and I thought, maybe that’s a thing where she’s sort of satelliting out of herself,” Cholodenko says. “A person like that, one way of preserving your mental health during an abuse like that is just to go somewhere else.” Of course, that same cognitive escape prevents Marie from recalling many details of what was happening in the moment — which in turn handicaps the narrative she provides to the police. “So the thing that preserves her spirit,” Cholodenko says, “is the thing that turns against her.”
Perhaps the most remarkable achievement of Unbelievable is that, despite the heaviness of its subject matter, it is compulsively watchable. The series picks up steam as local cops in two Colorado towns begin connecting the dots between their respective rape cases — and the show becomes in large part a two-hander between Wever and Collette. Their characters, unlike Marie, are more loosely based on their real-life counterparts (whose partners were not interested in having their lives mined for dramatization, Grant says). But the essence of their work — dogged, meticulous, and, against some forms of police convention, collaborative rather than territorial — cuts through. Drawing on volumes of source material — from the Pro Publica article to a This American Life podcast and a subsequent book, as well as input from one of the Colorado detectives, Edna Hendershot, and a technical consultant who was on set daily — Grant, Timberman, Cholodenko, et. al. delved into aspects of sexual assault investigation that they found most fascinating (or depressing), and followed the cops down every false lead.
But Grant also thought one aspect of the investigation deserved a “longer look”: namely, the dynamic between “two women who had worked, independently, in really male environments.” Where Collette’s Detective Grace Rasumussen is salty and jaded, Wever’s Detective Karen Duvall is greener and slightly softer in her approach, though no less resolute. (One telling detail taken from real life: a Biblical quote affixed to the dashboard of Duvall’s car — “Here I am. Send me.” As she explains, it is Isaiah’s response when “God shows up, lookin’ for someone to be of service, clean things up a bit, and asks, ‘Whom shall I send?’”) They, too, had developed their own coping mechanisms — for surviving an intrinsically hostile workplace; for facing victims’ trauma again and again, bearing the weight of their pain and the pressure of their expectations.
“A lot of the footwork that Toni and I are doing in this show is that ragged, relentless pursuit of the case,” Wever says. “And a big challenge was finding a way to make that personal, so it wasn’t just information. That was our job, we were holding that space. And Marie holds the other half of the space. She in a lot of ways is the heart of the show.”
Improbably, the story ends on a hopeful, redemptive note, as Rasumussen and Duvall not only nab their serial rapist, they link him, nearly three years later, to Marie’s assault. In a final grace note again drawn from the true story, Marie — having garnered a personal apology and a $150,000 settlement from the Lynwood Police Department — calls Duvall, from the beach, to express her gratitude. “I just love the idea of these two women working their asses off to solve this thing, having no idea that they’re reaching across the country, through the years, and helping this girl stand back up on her feet,” Grant says. “I think it’s so moving. I love that the last line is, ‘Thank you.’ Because it’s just, you know, the notion that you have no idea how much you’re doing when you’re doing the right thing.”
As for the Washington detectives who so dramatically bungled Marie’s case (or her various foster parents and friends who also questioned her story), Unbelievable makes no effort to vilify them. But the creators do hope the show shines a light on how sexual assault cases are still poorly handled, and trauma still poorly understood.
“It was a case of an investigation just gone horribly wrong, in contrast to one that was handled with such diligence and brilliance,” Timberman says, “and looking at how that happens so frequently. It is not just this story. It’s a much broader story.”
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