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“Unbelievable” show has a relevant thank you message for college women

[Content warning: This piece discusses, in detail, scenes of rape and trauma resulting from sexual assault.] 

Netflix’s new, original limited series Unbelievable begins with a misleading premise but is based, horrifically, on a true story. Episode One tells the story of Marie Adler (Kaitlyn Dever), a 17-year old girl raised in foster care who has just moved into a new apartment complex for underprivileged teens in Washington, when she is raped by a masked intruder. This attacker breaks into her apartment, ties her up, rapes her repeatedly, forces her to shower, and then exits without leaving behind any fingerprints or semen. 

Marie calls the police and, at first, the detectives who arrive, Parker and Pruitt (Eric Lange and Bill Faggerbakke) investigate thoroughly. However, they run dry of any leads and have no physical evidence, and when Marie’s foster mothers come forward to tell them of Marie’s troubled past and attention-seeking behavior, the case begins to be seen as one of false reporting. The viewer even begins to doubt Marie because we are not shown many scenes of the actual attack, and Marie is so traumatized she can barely discuss what happened. When she is brought in for questioning in the first episode, it is evident that the detectives want to believe she has lied to them and want her to recant her first witness statement. Marie, who was abused as a child, struggles to give the male adults in the room what they want. Dever’s performance is devastating and brilliant— her past history of abuse is only hinted at but can be imagined through the micro-expressions on her face and her struggle to convey her emotions. Marie fights to prevent tears, and her desperation is evident, as well as her inability to communicate with the dominating men in the room. Ultimately, she gives them what they want: she recants her statement, and goes home a deeply traumatized young woman who has now been deemed a liar. 

The show really begins, however, with Episode Two. Some time has passed, and we are now in Colorado, following a detective named Karen Duvall (Merritt Weaver) who is responding to reports of a break-in and rape in an apartment complex. We follow Duvall as she arrives on the scene and begins talking with the survivor, and because of our experience with Marie in Episode One we are on edge, desperately hoping that we can trust this new law enforcement official, unsure if we can have faith in her, and unsure if she will protect us. Through her slow, soft, steady speech and her quiet but firm dedication, Duvall’s deep devotion to the case and the plight of violated women earns our trust and then some. 

Weaver’s performance of Karen Duvall is a powerhouse. Duvall is straightforward, passionate, and refreshingly normal. She is not skinny and stunning, she does not have refined skills, she is not a tragic heroine. She is a woman who understands what it means to be a woman. She speaks with the survivors of sexual assault and she understands what it means to feel unsafe in your own home and in your own body. She understands that this attacker is evil. She empathizes, and she is heartbroken when her leads go nowhere. 

Due to a stroke of good luck, Duvall learns that another case of rape, identical in circumstances to hers, is being investigated in another district. Duvall seeks out the lead detective, Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette) and the two women begin working together to find this serial rapist who is stalking, targeting, and violating multiple women. 

Collette (of Hereditary fame) is the big name in Unbelievable, but her character, while entertaining, continuously feels like a cliché. She drives a sports car, curses frequently, does not care who she pisses off, and has a no-nonsense attitude. Duvall remains the much more grounded and fascinating character. Her hyper-realism and the slow burn of the series are best reflected in her character, and Weaver deserves a substantial amount of credit for the brilliance of this series. 

Duvall and Rasmussen’s investigation is agonizingly slow to watch. Like them, we are desperate for this man to be caught, and we suspect everyone they do. We are uneasy around men the more we watch, and like them we understand that the trauma of rape is lifelong and tragically ignored. We are devastated when Duvall and Rasmussen pour over the data of the law enforcement officers convicted of domestic violence who remain on the force, but we already knew this. The series is not exploring anything we, as women, don’t already know. We know to lock our doors at night, to close our windows, to carry pepper spray, to walk with our keys between our knuckles in the dark. We know the fear of being watched by a strange man. The show is simply highlighting this reality. 

Unbelievable is incredibly hard to watch. The image of waking up to a masked intruder is terrifying, and that is when the show goes from thriller to horror. What is also the most difficult to watch is Marie’s journey. As Duvall and Rasmussen are investigating these attacks years later and in another state, Marie remains isolated and alone. In eight episodes, Unbelievable provides one of the most accurate portrayals of depression I have ever seen. There are no moments of loud sobbing or extreme anger. Instead, Marie appears constantly on the verge of tears, fighting against expressing the deep sadness plaguing her down to the bones. She lies on her couch for days, eating junk food and watching TV on her laptop. She tries drinking and smoking. She pretends she’s fine, but inside, we see her falling apart. We can see Marie crumbling, the cracks forming, the fragility of her mental state, and we worry for her. We want to take care of her. We want Duvall and Rasmussen to find her, somehow and some way. 

While Unbelievable is a difficult show to watch, it was also impossible to forget. While I had to take breaks in between viewings to watch some cheesy comedies, I could never forget Duvall and Rasmussen’s investigation. Going through my day, washing dishes, doing homework, scrolling on my phone, I could not forget their search and Marie’s plight. 

I, like them, wanted to get to the end of the story; I wanted this case to be settled and for it all to be over. While I desired justice, a large part of me prepared to see injustice served. When the series did reach its conclusion, I was so relieved and satisfied I was in shock, blinking back tears. As I watched Duvall and Rasmussen part ways, I felt a profound sense of peace beneath the heartbreak. Life may never be easy or fair, but like the characters of Unbelievable, I felt relief in knowing that women like them exist in our world. I feel relief today knowing that we may support each other and care for one another. While the hope is that all detectives and police are like them, we know that the sad truth is that many are not. Not all police officers, or women, believe each other and understand the irrefutable pain of rape. Unbelievable has a message to all women who have stood up for other women: thank you.

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