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A still from <i>Unbelievable</i>.
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‘Unbelievable’ Shows a Glimmer of Hope in a Flawed Judicial System

The show is based on the true story of the Washington-Colorado rapes.

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‘Unbelievable’ Shows a Glimmer of Hope in a Flawed Judicial System

“No matter how much someone says they care about you, the truth is they don’t” – these words by a teenage rape survivor, Marie Adler (Kaitlyn Dever), haunt us in almost every episode of the Netflix limited series, Unbelievable. Written by Susannah Grant, the series co-creator, with Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, the show is based on the true story of the Washington-Colorado rapes that took place between 2008-2011 outlined in An Unbelievable Story of Rape, a 2015 article by T Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong.

An interrogation digs up Marie’s troubled past and she is bullied into recalling the incident again and again till minor inconsistencies are flared up to look like major loopholes.

The show starts with a terrified Marie sitting in front of two cops and recounting the gruesome manner in which she was assaulted. However, even after a long medical examination and a thorough search of her house police can’t lay their hands on ‘evidence.’

An interrogation digs up Marie’s troubled past and she is bullied into recalling the incident again and again till minor inconsistencies are flared up to look like major loopholes. A helpless Marie breaks down in front of the officers and recants, which in turn ends with her being charged for a false statement. Her life changes after that. Friends start hating her, workplaces become unbearable, foster parents try and distance themselves and eventually Marie loses her ‘home’ too.

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Merritt Wever and Toni Collette in a scene from <i>Unbelievable</i>.
Merritt Wever and Toni Collette in a scene from Unbelievable.
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Cut to three years later in Colorado. Enter Detective Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever), investigating a similar rape case of a college student, Amber. The manner of assault is the same – hands tied, evidence wiped away, and graphic photographs of the act clicked. The difference? The approach. Already aware about the basics, Duvall calmly takes Amber through the process, punctuating every sentence with “if you are comfortable”, “if it’s all right with you”, and “take your time.” It is the reassurance that Marie never got. Duvall also accompanies Amber to the hospital but not for once does she look at her account with suspicion.

The relationship between Duvall and Rasmussen is refreshing. Their personal and professional lives are depicted without the unnecessary drama that most shows suffer from.

Thus begins a chase for a serial rapist who becomes bolder after his every crime hits dead end. Joining Karen in this impossible mission is the gruff senior Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette). As both these women reopen cases, two sides of the judicial system come to the fore – the efficient and the flawed.

Kaitlyn Dever in <i>Unbelievable</i>.
Kaitlyn Dever in Unbelievable.

Duvall and Rasmussen are symbolic of the former. Their strategy is meticulous – stray hand and footprints, a recovered security video and a vague sketch lead them to important clues. It is also a portrayal of how cases like these should be dealt with - listening to the victims, showing faith in their narratives and not brushing aside memory lapses that are part and parcel of trauma.

Detective Duvall in a still from <i>Unbelievable</i>.
Detective Duvall in a still from Unbelievable.

The relationship between Duvall and Rasmussen is refreshing. Their personal and professional lives are depicted without the unnecessary drama that most shows suffer from. Both battle their inner demons, struggle to not let the horrifying details of the case affect them and both are angry.

Detective Grace Rasmussen in a still from <i>Unbelievable</i>.
Detective Grace Rasmussen in a still from Unbelievable.

Angry at the sociopaths who have no remorse even after violating women, and leaving them in fear for the rest of their lives. Angry at the system for shielding cops who proudly beat up their wives and then nonchalantly return to work to “protect” the citizens of the country. Angry at the apathy of the people in power towards rape survivors.

In one of the best scenes from the show, we see Karen and Grace playing cards in the dead of the night, waiting for the case to come to an end. When coaxed by Grace to go home and get some rest, Karen narrates an incident from her initial days at work. She was summoned to arrest a man who “beat the lights out of his wife”.

“She refused to go to the hospital, so the paramedics patched her up. As I was drinking with my colleagues, the husband got himself a bail and finished what he started. So, when I hear a little voice inside me saying ‘don’t go home yet’ I pay attention,” Karen said. Pay attention – the show tells us that these aren’t merely words, they have the ability to make or break lives.

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Unbelievable does not try to paint a rosy picture when it comes to the police or law enforcement agencies nor does it only celebrate competence. Rather, it is a competent balance between the two. On one hand the protectors miserably fail the ones who are hurting, on the other, there are those who fight to make things right.

Kaitlyn Dever is flawless as the restrained Marie. With a life spent in foster homes, Marie’s trust in people dies when she is “assaulted” twice – once by the attacker and once by the police.

This series is as compelling as When They See Us, which is again a dramatized account of five young boys of colour being falsely accused of raping a white woman in Central Park. There too, the naked truth of racial discrimination was exposed when the teens were subjected to hours of unrecorded questioning without food, water and even toilet breaks.

Kaitlyn Dever is flawless as the restrained Marie. With a life spent in foster homes, Marie’s trust in people dies when she is “assaulted” twice – once by the attacker and once by the police. When she tells her therapist “the next time I will lie earlier and better”, it sends a shiver down our spine, and Dever delivers these lines with a terrifying calmness. On the other hand, Merritt Wever and Toni Collette feed off each other’s energy as Duvall and Rasmussen. While Duvall comforts us every time she appears on screen, Rasmussen’s commanding nature and her sweet gesture in the end makes us admire her even more.

“You don’t have to explain your decisions to me,” Duvall tells Amber in the hospital when the latter tries to explain why she didn’t confide in her friends and family about the rape. It’s time to address this age-old notion that is deep-seated in our society – why does a sexual assault survivor need to produce a certificate of credibility every time she speaks up against the crime? Despite the odds, Unbelievable signs off with a sliver of hope, marrying fact and fiction so beautifully.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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