‘Unbelievable’ is Essential TV That Gives a Voice to Sexual Assault Survivors

‘Why didn’t she go to the police?’ — A brutal and insensitive line commonly spoken by society in reference to victims of rape. Nobody can assume to know that reason and should also never ask. We don’t get to judge the victim and their actions after a traumatic event —maybe they did try to tell the police, but they never listened. Thankfully, new Netflix show Unbelievable unveils and expands on the components that hide behind the question above. 

Starring Kaitlyn Dever, Toni Colette, and Merritt Wever, the series, quickly after premiering, appeared on the lips of viewers and easily grew to be one of the best television series of this year.  Creators Susannah Grant, Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman based the eight episode limited series on a true story that was published by Pro Publica in association with The Marshal Project

The series depicts two stories that connect yet are so different from one another. The one is from 2009—eighteen-year-old Marie Adler (Kaitlyn Dever) reports her rape to the local Washington Police. After repeating the statement over and over—how the perpetrator broke in, gagged and bound her, then brutally raped her, she was finally left alone. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of her nightmare. Two male officers didn’t take the case seriously enough. After talking back and forth, Marie started doubting her memory and, in the end, admitted that she made it all up.  In the aftermath, she was charged with a gross misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail. 

The second story showed in Unbelievable is set in Colorado, 2011. Detective Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever) arrives at the scene, a small neighbourhood which seems rather safe. She notices a young, curly-haired woman (Danielle Macdonald) nervously clutching her belongings. That’s the only sign of her anxiety— her face remains calm, almost focused. Amber Stevenson is a rape victim. A masked male broke into her apartment and put a gun to her head. He then dressed her as a doll and raped her for four hours. Duvall collects any remaining DNA traces with cotton swabs. The case doesn’t leave her mind even when she kisses her kids goodnight and welcomes her husband (Austin Hébert). After telling him the story, he says: “We have one just like that” Later on, Duvall joins forces with extremely perceptive Detective Grace Rasmussen (Toni Colette).  

Unbelievable is a dramatisation of the events from Lynnwood, 2009, and Colorado, 2011. The real Marie Adler, who’s portrayed in the show by Kaitlyn Dever, watched the series. As Cinema Blend’s article informs, the woman contacted Ken Armstrong, the co-author of the original report: “Two weeks ago, I got a call from Marie. She told me she had just watched the series. Watching it was hard, she said. ‘I did cry quite a bit,’ she said. But she had decided she wanted to and was glad that she did. She called the show ‘excellent.’ The statement of the woman single-handedly is proof that the series was needed; to tell the story, to inform, and most importantly—make people aware of their words and actions. 

There are two plots, two stories: what’s the difference? One lacks compassion and understanding. The other one receives it. It’s not only the fact that Duvall and Rasmussen’s characters are women. Of course, they perceive the case of rape more sympathetically (isn’t it sad?). But it’s rather the numbness of humanity that makes us question everything that other person does. Said numbness settled in society years ago. It forces us to judge and hate over and over again. The series, however, makes us think over our actions. Unbelievable characterises the insensitivity and detachment of male police officers towards Marie. The story is not only brutal because of the subject—a series of rapes that occurred between 2008-2011— but it’s also incredibly sad when looking at outsider’s reactions. Mary was left all alone. After spending almost all her life in foster care, being abused (both emotionally and sexually), nobody believed her—even her former foster parents. Her newfound freedom was taken from her when she had to fight the charge of gross demeanour. It would be dropped if the young woman got counselling for her lying.  Mary was forbidden to drink and was placed on a curfew. Additionally, she had to pay $500 out of her pocket. Unbelievable shows that ultimately, the person paying for the crimes ends up being the victim.

The real Marie Adler focused on the scene where she is confronted by the police. In that scene she said Kaitlyn Dever captured her struggle. ‘It was, like, perfect,’ she said.  The cast selected for Unbelievable was transcendent. They surpassed all expectations and set the bar for the 2020 award season very high. The most complex/incredibly played character is that of Kaitlyn Dever. The actress delivered exceptionally nuanced work and gave the part a layered personality. She admitted that during shooting, she listened to a lot of Avril Lavigne to fully capture the character of Marie. In the opposing picture portraying injustice, Merritt Wever and Toni Collette deserve a ten-minute standing ovation. Both are absolutely remarkable in their fervently performed roles. Merritt Wever’s soothing voice has the power of calming not only a victim in the series, but also a viewer who’s watching the story unfold. On the contrary is her partner, Toni Collette’s rough, but caring character depicts the strength of women.

The characters of Detective Rassmussen and Detective Duvall break the stereotype of the female police officer often portrayed on television. Their bond, which grows stronger over the course of a few days, is exceptional. On the contrary to a typical ‘women working in the police force’ trope, they are both happily married, with a stable life. Both Grace and Karen make a great team of two smart, compassionate women who stop at nothing to find the serial rapist. Unbelievable is, without any doubt, one of the most culturally relevant tv shows in circulation right now. It’s meant to show the story of a young woman badly hurt by the system, disappointed by the police forces, and reflects a time when the mic is slowly being handed (finally) to the victims. We must listen more carefully to women. And never again ask that original question.

Unbelievable is currently streaming on Netflix


by Zofia Wijaszka

Zofia lives in LA and is passionate about pop culture, television and Stevie Nicks. She graduated from the University of Wroclaw, Poland with a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism and Social Communication with Creative Writing. Her work revolves around women in television and film. She previously has written for GirlTalkHQ, Reel Honey and Polish film portals. She loves the Scream movies, Carol and Big Little Lies. She wants Sarah Paulson to be her buddy and go for drinks with her. Her Twitter – @zoshugrochu 

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