Please watch ‘Unbelievable’ you’re welcome

Please watch ‘Unbelievable’ you’re welcome September 18, 2019

(Content note: This post discusses a report and a television series based on it involving rape. It also includes “spoilers” for the series, but really it’s not that kind of story and viewing it as a whodunit isn’t the best way to approach it anyhow.)

Here is something I wrote, back in 2016, about an article that I found to be gripping reading about an important subject:

Ken Armstrong and T. Christian Miller won a Pulitzer Prize for “An Unbelievable Story of Rape” for the Marshall Project. This was well-deserved. It’s one of the most compelling and thorough pieces of journalism I’ve read in recent memory. It’s horrifying and infuriating and important. Read it now.

I might have said more, but reading that story had knocked the wind out of me a bit. It was such a rollercoaster of emotions, cutting between the horror of a young victim repeatedly failed by everyone around her and the parallel later story of diligent police detectives far away, mostly women, whose care and attention would, eventually, years later, vindicate her.

I still heartily and urgently encourage you to read that original report. It is powerful, scrupulously reported and beautifully written. And now it has also been adapted into an eight-part miniseries on Netflix.

That might have been disastrous — the kind of exploitative “torn from the headlines” true-crime TV movie that milks real people’s trauma for ratings. But instead it is a triumph, a remarkable piece of storytelling that closely follows the original reporting and honors the stories and the dignity of the real people whose lives it portrays.

It’s also, especially at first, devastating and almost unbearable. Reading the original article was a gut punch, but watching the first episode of this series knocked me flat.

The emotional impact was greater, in part, because of the artistry of Susannah Grant and the other writers and directors she brought together. And also because of the extraordinary work of the cast here, particularly Kaitlyn Dever, who is astonishing in the role of that young victim.

I could go on and on about just how amazing Dever is in this role, and about the luminous work done by Merritt Wever, Toni Collette and the rest of the cast. They’re all going to be winning — and deserving — lots of awards for this. The entire ensemble is nearly flawless. All of that talent working together in the more sensory medium of television surely goes a long way in explaining why watching the show was, for me, more staggering than reading Armstrong and Miller’s compelling prose.

But it doesn’t entirely explain it, and it doesn’t entirely excuse it. The uncomfortable truth here is that Grant and Dever and the rest of this team helped to expose my own failures of empathy and imagination. I already knew this story. The whole thing was right there in the original article. The act of reading that article required me, as a reader, to grasp the full implications of that story, to imagine what this all meant for “Marie Adler.” And I imagined that I had imagined that.

To a limited extent, I had, which was why even just reading this story had such an impact. But watching the first episode of this series meant having Grant and Dever force me to see more of what this meant for Marie. And they wouldn’t allow me to look away, wouldn’t allow me to stop looking or to avoid seeing what they were showing me.

All of that, I’m afraid, might discourage you from watching Unbelievable, and that is the opposite of what I’m trying to do here. The first episode drops us into Marie’s story and sits us down in her pain and that is, appropriately, painful to watch. But soon after that Wever and Collette arrive as characters based on the real women who really solved this case. We see them get to work, treating victims with the kind of compassion and care that Marie was denied. We see those victims treated with a justice that is, consequently, also ultimately better able to bring their attacker to justice.

Watch one and a half episodes of this series and you will be hooked. You’ll devour the rest of the story because you will want and need to see the opposite of everything you’ve seen up to that point. You’ll desperately want and need the emotional relief of seeing Marie, at last, find a measure of relief. You’ll be driven to reach the catharsis of her vindication.

But there’s something like that catharsis which comes much earlier in this story. It’s such a quiet thing, so quietly delivered by Merritt Wever (and Danielle Macdonald) that the triumph of it takes a moment to register. What happens is this: A woman is treated with care, respect, and empathy. She has been horrifically harmed, but she has also been believed. She hasn’t yet gotten justice, but we can see that she will be allowed justice, and that she will be treated justly. It’s a quiet scene, gentle and subtle, but it produces such a contrast that the relief of it feels something like exultation.

So, again, go read the whole thing. And then watch Unbelievable.

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