Making a Murderer: An American Horror Story
Netflix’s first true-crime series is a harrowing tale of one man’s entanglement with the U.S. criminal-justice system.
“When I left prison, the anger left ... I was probably the happiest man on earth.” These words feel like they belong at the end of a story—as a bookend line that signals to the audience that happy endings still exist. But Making a Murderer, Netflix’s first true-crime series, isn’t that kind of show. The first of its 10 episodes introduces Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man released from prison 18 years after DNA evidence proved he didn’t commit a brutal attack. And it’s soon clear that Avery’s unbelievable story—one apparently involving gross misconduct by law enforcement—isn’t just going to end with him relishing in his newfound freedom, or fighting to make sure it never happens to anyone else again.
Because it does happen again—to Steven Avery. That’s what the writers and directors Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos set out to prove with Making a Murderer, which was released in its entirety Friday. Two years after being released from prison, Avery was bringing a $36 million lawsuit against Manitowoc County, and the former district attorney and sheriff who helped put him away, when he became the prime suspect in a gruesome new murder investigation. The series, which explores the possibility that Avery was framed, mimics HBO’s The Jinx and the first season of the podcast Serial with its gripping, real-life case that so often feels like fiction. But Making a Murderer, which took 10 years to make, could very well eclipse those works, for the sheer density of reportage and the scale of the horrifying story it tells—one of rural class politics, bureaucratic opacity, and a seemingly coordinated institutional effort to destroy an innocent man.
Avery, in prison since 2005 for the murder of the 25-year-old photographer Teresa Halbach, attracted the directors’ attention when they realized how unprecedented his case was. Why would a man who was exonerated by DNA evidence—essentially an Innocence Project poster boy—get out only to then commit a heinous rape and murder? Making a Murderer digs into Avery’s past, his family, and mountains of evidence, asking, did the injustice he suffered make him into a murderer? Or did the officials threatened by Avery’s suit take it upon themselves to make him into one in the eyes of the law? Making a Murderer decides early on to hedge its bets on the latter being true and makes its case convincingly. (Disclosure: I interviewed Ricciardi and Demos for a podcast about the series sponsored by Netflix.)
The series isn’t solely focused on proving Avery’s innocence, though. It takes its time painting a broader portrait of the people waiting for him on the outside: his fiancee, his children, and especially his mother and father. For even the skeptical viewer, it’s hard not to feel a stab of empathy when Avery’s elderly mother pulls out boxes of legal documents she sent to shows including 20/20 in the hope they’d cover her son’s story. (And then, two episodes later, not to feel angry when a Dateline producer raves about covering Avery’s latest arrest, saying, “Right now, murder is hot.”) Since Demos and Ricciardi lived in the Averys’ town for two years, there’s a palpable intimacy between their subjects and the camera.
The series differs in a few main ways from its most popular contemporaries. It lacks the stylishness of The Jinx: For example, the credit sequence doesn’t feature reenactments of gunshots or bodies being disposed, nor is the series divided into titled “chapters.” And it doesn’t insert its creators into the story: Demos and Ricciardi remain out of sight and earshot, whereas The Jinx’s Andrew Jarecki and Serial’s Sarah Koenig felt somewhat central to their respective narratives. Making a Murderer, meanwhile, feels more journalistic. It unfolds strictly through surveillance footage, phone recordings, legal documents, news reports, press conferences, crime-scene photos, one-on-one interviews, and the occasional aerial shot of a snow-blanketed salvage yard. (The series was funded on a shoestring budget, with grants cobbled together over the years.)
What it lacks in terms of sensationalism and gloss, it makes up for by possessing that very quality every Netflix show aspires to have: bingeability. The series begins slowly, but after grasping enough names and faces, you start feeling a sense of total immersion (one best exemplified, perhaps, by first-season Serial fans’ obsessive chatter about cellphone towers or Leakin Park). But the documentary’s relatively no-frills approach, and its resistance to offering easy answers, makes speeding through each episode feel less troubling on an ethical level. You never quite feel that you’re too eagerly consuming someone else’s tragedy; each revelation or twist brings enough frustration or disbelief to balance any feeling of exhilaration. Making a Murderer has the potential to be as popular and thought-provoking as its forebears—and to have real-life repercussions.