Making Victim Into Villain: Power and Vulnerability in Unbelievable

Image: Netflix

Content warning: This article includes discussion of sexual violence and trauma.

After teenager Marie Adler (Kaitlyn Dever) reports being brutally raped and gets bullied by police detectives into saying she made it up, her life falls apart. Everyone she knows and trusts believes her a despicable liar, she loses her job and housing, and the City even prosecutes her for false reporting. Having been in care for most of her life, Marie has very few people she can confide in, and she narrowly escapes the temptation to take her own life. 

Meanwhile, in a different state, Detectives Grace Rasmussen and Karen Duvall (Toni Collette and Merritt Wever) join up the dots of a series of eerily similar rape cases across the United States, and make the serendipitous discovery that a handful of different precincts in different states are actually hunting for the same guy.

The series – which, harrowingly, is based on a true story – follows both Marie’s spiralling downfall and the female detectives’ progressive headway with tracking down the rapist that ruined Marie’s already-fragile life. The latter storyline is punctuated with insights into the lives of the attacker’s many other victims, as well as the detectives’ own personal lives.

As a viewer it is at times immensely frustrating to watch the two storylines winding ahead separately from one another. We are tantalised with a couple of brief intersections of these two plotlines where breakthroughs for Marie are maddeningly close, but not quite close enough. Most notably, we watch Detective Robert Parker (Eric Lange), who is primarily responsible for Marie’s second round of trauma at the hands of the police, resolutely asserting that Marie is no victim to a detective at another precinct, and that she is therefore not relevant to the serial rape case being conducted there. 

Unbelievable is about women standing up for other women. It’s about women in powerful positions fighting for the vulnerable. The core detective team led by Detectives Rasmussen and Duvall is almost entirely female, with the exception of a likable young intern (Omar Maskati). This team of women are just as tough and imposing as their male counterparts who dismissed Marie, but they know how to conduct themselves and whom to direct their strength at – i.e. not the victims.

If you’re paying attention, you may notice that several of the female characters other than the main victims mention in passing that they have experienced sexual assault themselves, yet these revelations are not taken any further than passing comments. In fact, so many women have experienced it, including both Marie’s foster mothers, that we are almost immunised to the sexual violence when it crops up outside of the main rape case. Unbelievable exhibits the way that society allows sexual assault to be brushed off and normalised, how it expects women to ‘deal with it’ and move on, as if it doesn’t scar them for the rest of their lives. 

At the same time, the series attempts to tell of the lasting damage of rape on women, of how much they lose as a result of it. We hear from some of the rapist’s victims first hand: aside from jobs, money and freedom from pain, they also speak of the loss of the ability to feel safe, to do anything that might constitute routine, the ability to trust people, and the loss of relationships

Marie has a particularly special friendship with a boy called Connor (Shane Paul McGhie) throughout most of the series that seems to surpass all other relationships in her life – but this friendship is among Marie’s losses. Despite the fact that it seems salvageable, we are painfully taught that some things are irretrievable for rape survivors. Even when Marie starts to gain some things, such as compensatory money, the knowledge of her rapist’s conviction, and even an apology from Detective Parker, it is made quite clear that life post-rape will require an entirely fresh start – and while she gains some new things, she does not regain any of her old life, Connor included. 

Fleshing out its already sturdy social commentary, Unbelievable is rich with multi-dimensional characters. One of the series’ greatest accomplishments is the way it illustrates how a network of people who do not necessarily mean to cause harm – who in fact may genuinely believe they are ‘doing the right thing’ – are capable of bringing about the utter breakdown of an innocent person’s life. Through a brutal chain of cause and effect, the actions of misguided adults accumulate in a most destructive way to the detriment of Marie. 

One of Marie’s foster mothers, Colleen (Bridget Everett), who Marie herself deems ‘a good one’, is sceptical of Marie’s story because her behaviour is not what she would personally expect of a rape victim. Her other foster mother, Judith (Elizabeth Marvel), who we could believe cares about Marie, feels it’s her duty to share with the police what she knows of Marie’s sometimes attention-seeking behaviour. And police officers, who we can also believe do want to do their job of looking after society, act on this information by accusing Marie of lying. Neither Judith, Colleen nor the police have a particular vendetta against Marie and their intentions are not cruel. But both have a complete disregard and lack of empathy for the effect their unfounded hunches will have on such a vulnerable young woman.   

However, while Detective Parker seems to learn from his dire mistakes, showing some remorse for his actions, his colleague Detective Pruitt, who was equally to blame and arguably more aggressive than Parker, stands idly by, no more than vaguely curious when Marie confronts Detective Parker. While Parker does eventually give an apparently sincere apology after Marie demands one of him, Marie does not bother to ask Pruitt for an apology and he does not offer one. Once Marie has departed, leaving detective Parker in silent reverie, Detective Pruitt merely trots down the stairs to continue with his life, entirely unscathed and unaffected. There is no telling whether he will make the same mistake again. 

The rapist himself, Chris McCarthy (Blake Ellis), is another complex character – evil but complex. One of his victims notes how he was oddly tender at a few points during the rape, putting a blanket over her when she is cold, for example. The rapist advised another victim to lock her doors at night so that she would be more protected from people like him. And in the final episode, during a voluntary interview with a detective in prison, he gives advice on how to catch ‘guys like him’, and acknowledges that he ‘can’t be out there’ because he would never have been able to stop. Although the series does not attempt to investigate the mind of this criminal too much – it is far more interested in its victims – it does manage to construct an undeniably intriguing, if repulsive, individual. Even if we do not get the chance to explore him beyond his shell, it is clear that he is more than a one-dimensional caricature.

The penultimate episode sees the serial rapist finally tracked down and arrested. Though the series plays on the viewer’s frustration for several episodes by denying Marie any kind of respite, we are finally rewarded with a grim satisfaction. Once McCarthy is in custody, we watch as he is subjected to humiliating scrutiny during a DNA collection; hairs are plucked from various places on McCarthy’s naked body – which is fully displayed unlike his victims bodies during flashbacks to their rapes – and we watch as he winces in pain when his pubic hair is plucked. A comparison is evoked between this pathetic reaction to minor pain in this region and the horrific violence he impressed on so many women. It is a bleakly gratifying moment.

The series could reasonably have ended on this penultimate episode. It does not need to spell out for us exactly what comes of the rapist’s arrest or the discovery of Marie’s photos in his hard drive. It’s pretty clear that everyone will get what they deserve. But this series does itself justice to see us through to the very end of the story, to give us long-anticipated satisfaction after such a toilsome watch.

Indeed, Unbelievable’s final episode gives us so much more than satisfaction – we are given hope for its victims. As difficult as this series is to watch from start to finish, one of the very last scenes inspires an essential, restorative hope in the viewer. In a phone call between Detective Duvall and Marie, Marie gives her thanks with the utmost sincerity and dignity to the unknown, faraway detectives who helped her. She eloquently conveys what the dedication of this team of strangers has given her. And that gift is nothing less than the will to live. 

Jodie Sheehan