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Merritt Wever, Toni Collette in Unbelievable.
Kaitlyn Dever as Marie.
Wever, in her debut as a series lead.
A rape scene on television tends to go one of two ways. If it’s airing on premium cable — Euphoria or Game of Thrones , for example — it tends to be extremely graphic. If it’s on basic cable — like on Scandal or Downton Abbey — it is brushed over. Graphic or not, rape scenes are often gratuitous in television drama, rarely used as anything more than a plot device.
So when a rare viewer discretion advisory appears before the first episode of Netflix’s Unbelievable — an eight-part series about a real-life case in which an 18-year-old Washington girl named Marie reported her rape and was then accused of and charged for lying about it — viewers can be forgiven for making a few assumptions of what is likely to follow.
But as it turns out, Unbelievable deals with the subject of rape because it has to — and in a way unlike any show before it. The series opens with Marie (Kaitlyn Dever) the morning after her attack. We follow her as she speaks to police, as she is invasively examined, as she is repeatedly asked to recount the painful details of the hours-long attack and then, as she is convinced she made up the entire thing. We are there alongside her as her mind tries to piece together what is happening in the present as she still recovers from what happened the night before.
It’s a brutal hour of television, intercut with quick flashes to the rape itself. We hear her muffled cries, we see the perpetrator’s terrifying ice blue eyes, we see the ties around her legs, we see his hands grab her body, we hear and see the struggle. They’re brief moments, but their impact is stronger than any prolonged, arduous rape scene that has appeared onscreen before.
That’s because the perspective of every shot never veers from Marie’s. The audience knows she’s telling the truth and is never made to question her, unlike the detectives who coerce her to recant. That direction places the viewer in her shoes so that simply watching these men interrogate her — as if she has committed the crime — feels physically uncomfortable; it’s a triggering perspective to anyone who has faced or feared sexual violence.
As the season goes on, we see more of the impact on Marie’s life: She loses her friends, her family, her job, her home and considers suicide. The impact is staggering. It’s a relentlessly unforgiving journey, but the part most difficult to swallow is that it’s true. The series takes its time exploring the consequences in her life in a way other shows don’t; Unbelievable doesn’t want to take it easy on the viewer, and we’re better off for it.
Closely following the details of the 2015 ProPublica and Marshall Project story by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong, its cold reality makes it a refreshingly honest portrayal of rape. But it also presents a challenge: How do you make a show with such difficult subject matter entertaining and not totally devastating?
By Episode 2, Unbelievable answers the question as it morphs into a buddy cop drama. Merritt Wever’s Karen and Toni Collette’s Grace, two detectives from separate jurisdictions, team up to catch a serial rapist. At this point, the series becomes an addictive mystery; Wever and Collette’s chemistry is electric and fun even in this merciless landscape. They go on stake-outs, they run data searches, they have a team of agents just a little quirkier than they are. But they’re also incredibly competent workers with none of the personal trauma their peers typically face on other series (ex. True Detective, Law & Order, The Killing ). They’re there to do their job and that’s it, granting a much-needed space to the victims of the story.
Their search is interlaced with Marie’s story and those of the rapist’s other victims who range in age and ethnicity (another factor unlike similar series). Underneath the thrill of the mystery is a terrible doom — something that only a smattering of U.K. series have accomplished before it, like Broadchurch and Happy Valley . The answers Karen and Grace find only work to devastate, but the hope is in whether they will find answers at all.
And that’s what makes Unbelievable work so well; the series elicits a sense (certainly only a fraction) of the pain these victims felt, and an understanding of the injustice they so often face. That’s a heft of emotional work for a dramatic television series, but Unbelievable proves how effective it can be.
With a powerhouse team behind it, including director Lisa Cholodenko, writers Susannah Grant, Michael Chabon, Ayelet Waldman, and producers Katie Couric and Ira Glass — all of whom wanted the rights to the story but quickly decided to simply work together because the material was so necessary — it’s clear this was a series carefully crafted.
When Amber, another victim, explains to Karen why she hasn’t yet told any friends or family what happened to her, so keenly afraid her credibility may be on trial as it often is for assault victims, the detective gently assures her, “You don’t have to explain yourself to me.” She then accompanies Amber to the hospital for her exam, later driving her and walking her all the way to the door of her friend’s home, taking a pause after the door closes. It’s glaringly different from Marie’s experience and grants an unmistakably feminist lens in a way that isn’t brassy or ball-busting — it just is .
It also clarifies that, in the current television landscape where anything goes, it isn’t so much a question of what is the right way to shoot a rape scene, but do we need one at all and, if so, who is it about and what purpose does it serve?
This series, first and foremost, is about the victim and it never leaves her behind or questions her. All of which might seem a simple feat, but Unbelievable is a first.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019