Netflix’s Unbelievable Is a Different Sort of Drama About Sexual Assault

The new series aims to make viewers uncomfortable—but its creators say that’s the key to adapting a real-life rape case for the screen.

Beth Dubber / Netflix / Klara Auerbach / The Atlantic

In the summer of 2008, a teenager woke up to find a man in her Lynnwood, Washington, apartment, standing over her with a knife. He tied her up, raped her, and took photos of her before leaving. She reported the rape, spoke with detectives, underwent a clinical sexual-assault examination, and cried as she warned her fellow participants in Project Ladder—a program helping young adults transition from foster care that had provided her housing—to lock their doors at night.

And then, a few days later, she recanted her report and said that she had made up the incident.

Referred to only by her middle name, Marie became the subject of the investigative journalists T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong’s 2016 Pulitzer Prize–winning report for ProPublica and the Marshall Project, called “An Unbelievable Story of Rape.” In their piece, Miller and Armstrong connected Marie’s case with that of a pair of Colorado detectives who pursued a serial rapist in 2011, and since then, the tale has been retold twice: as an episode of the podcast This American Life, and as a book, originally titled A False Report (recently republished as Unbelievable), in which Miller and Armstrong expanded on the story.

Now Netflix has released a TV adaptation, called Unbelievable—and, as in the initial article, Marie serves as the limited series’ anchor into a larger exploration of rape culture. But Marie’s case could have easily been mistranslated in the dramatization process: As critics have noted over the years, television has typically trafficked in using rape as a plot device—the crime provides provocative “shorthand” for drama and offers a shallow backstory for underwritten characters. Rape scenes are often seen through male characters’ eyes, as in Game of Thrones, or are overshadowed by the series’ interest in examining the possible redemption of the rapist instead, as in the latest season of Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why.

Rarely have dramas interrogated the aftereffects of sexual trauma; even more rarely have they tackled the topic without eventually sidelining it. But Unbelievable concentrates its spotlight entirely on the subject, and its eight episodes can be tough to watch: Marie, played by Kaitlyn Dever (Booksmart), is inscrutable, even maddening, as she struggles to keep the details of her rape straight. The episodes, which toggle between two timelines and multiple cases, are loaded with exposition, law-enforcement terminology, and uncomfortable flashbacks. The most pulse-pounding sequence in the early episodes isn’t the one in which a detective draws her gun to corner a suspect; it’s the one in which she and another Colorado detective call every police department in the state after hours, trying to track down similar cases while at an empty office, at dinner with their families, or out walking the dog, off the clock but desperate to find their next lead.

“I haven’t read a lot of scripts that talk about [rape] the way we do,” Dever told me, shaking her head, when we spoke in late August. “Not often.”

Even Miller and Armstrong, long before Unbelievable was made, saw the difficulty in potentially adapting a story of rape for the screen, attributing the challenge to the delicate nature of such cases. “Many detectives avoided sex crimes if they could,” they wrote in A False Report. “They weren’t as high profile as homicides; nobody came looking to do a movie about a rape case. Where homicides were black and white, rape was filled with grays. And rape victims were alive and hurting. Their pain was always in your face—and you could never, ever look away.”

“On so many levels, it was just a really compelling story about the human condition,” the director Lisa Cholodenko (right, opposite the showrunner Susannah Grant) said of the series. (Beth Dubber / Netflix)

For the writer and showrunner Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich), though, that’s exactly why Unbelievable had to be made: The series could take certain truths about rape cases—that there is no “perfect” victim, no “perfect” case, no “perfect” investigation—and present them so that viewers couldn’t look away. “There was one thing I thought was really important to show,” she told me. “[And that] was, people don’t just have one reaction to a trauma.”

Grant and her fellow producers, including the anchor Katie Couric and Marie herself (credited only as “Marie”), sought a filmmaker who understood how to capture “emotional complexity.” They found her in the director Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are Alright), who set the series’ candid tone by overseeing its first three episodes. “I found it to be a compelling yarn, and not much in a true-crime kind of way, but more as a human story about people’s fallibility and projections and missed perceptions,” Cholodenko explained to me over the phone. “On so many levels, it was just a really compelling story about the human condition.”

As we sat inside her Culver City office in mid-August, Grant tried to find a picture of the writers’ room she’d assembled months earlier. She remembered the space being covered in notes reconstructing the timelines of the cases to be depicted in Unbelievable, with large scrolls of paper taped to the walls—and “takeout containers in the middle of the room,” she added, laughing. The team had to organize all the information into eight installments to keep the series as faithful as possible to the source material, even as they changed details of the personal lives of the detectives and victims involved.

This research—or re-research—into Miller and Armstrong’s story was the first step in creating a pivotal scene in the premiere: the one in which the detectives lead Marie to recant her statement. It’s a sequence that demonstrates the series’ blunt, restrained tone.

The 11-page, 10-minute piece begins with the detectives assigned to Marie’s case summoning her for questioning. They’d learned of her troubled past from one of her foster parents, who’d suggested, without explicitly stating it, that because Marie had been acting out lately, perhaps she’d lied about her assault.

The conversation planted doubt in the detectives’ minds. So during their meeting with Marie inside a dreary interrogation room, they question her jumbled memory. Didn’t she say she had dialed the phone with her toes, not her hands? Was she still tied up when she called for help or not?

In a page from the script of Unbelievable’s first episode, Marie (Kaitlyn Dever) struggles to explain the inconsistent details from her many recollections of her rape. (Netflix)

Grant and the writers Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman observe the inherent tension in the detectives’ building doubt and Marie’s waning confidence. The men speak over Marie, take advantage of her confusion, and pressure her with loaded questions. They comfort her—“We don’t think you’re a bad person,” one says—then condescend to her. In reality, the confrontation lasted much longer than 10 minutes, but the scene retains dialogue from Miller and Armstrong’s story: Marie eventually concedes that she’s only “pretty positive” that the rape happened, and, okay, maybe it didn’t happen at all.

All of it is “re-traumatizing,” Cholodenko said. “This scene flips from [Marie] thinking they’re on her side ... to Oh my God, I’m being harassed.” Marie is forced to tell her story again, and a quick flashback shows pieces of the assault from her point of view. The original article also described the intruder’s thoughts, based on Miller and Armstrong’s interviews, but Grant wanted to depict only the victim’s perspective. “From the beginning, I said, ‘The [camerawork] on these assaults cannot be objective,’” she explained of the way the flashback rape scenes were shot. “It was in the DNA of the show.”

In a peer review of the interrogation conducted years later and cited by Miller and Armstrong in A False Report, the county sheriff described the interrogation as “bullying and coercive.” (“It wasn’t her job to convince me,” one of the detectives, who later apologized to Marie, told Miller and Armstrong. “In hindsight, it was my job to get to the bottom of it—and I didn’t.” The review led the Lynnwood Police Department to improve its training and protocol for rape victims and trauma.) Yet the series never characterizes the detectives as villains. They may have been determined to validate their own biases, but they were also officers with regrettably little training in sex crimes. “I didn’t think there was any point in telling a story in which a young woman is victimized by someone who is just a snarly, evil guy who doesn’t give a shit about women,” Grant said. “Far more interesting to me is a guy who’s a good husband, probably a good dad, probably good to his friends, who, working within the system handed to him as it’s constructed, ends up making incredibly bad choices.”

Toward the end of the confrontation scene, Dever’s Marie abruptly ends the conversation by “flipping a switch,” a move the real-life Marie employed to compartmentalize her emotions. (Netflix)

The scene culminates in Dever’s Marie “flipping a switch”—a move, as the real-life Marie described it to Miller and Armstrong, in which she compartmentalizes her emotions when stressed. On-screen, Cholodenko illustrates Marie’s mind-set by deploying a ringing-in-the-ears sound effect as the camera zooms in on Marie, who abruptly stops crying. “I felt like, how do you show that cinematically when it’s something so internal?” Cholodenko admitted. “My objective was to show that she goes from this place of presence and unity with herself to a place where she has to wrestle internally and disassociate.”

“It was an extremely emotional day,” Dever recalled. “I remember repressing a lot of emotions of fear and anxiety, and I did feel like a little kid. I felt like I was in trouble, even though I knew, as Kaitlyn, Marie didn’t do anything wrong, ever. You start to get confused.”

The scene ends with Marie calmly looking up at the detectives and agreeing to recant, as if she hadn’t just been shaking before them, confused by their words and her memories, uncertain about whether she’d been forced to convince herself that she’d lied. “It broke me,” the real-life Marie told Miller and Armstrong in A False Report. “I lost everything.”

Toward the end of our conversation, Grant peered at an image her assistant had found of the writers’ room. But the shot—of a wall blanketed in neatly arranged, colorful Post-it Notes—wasn’t the one she’d wanted to show me, of the complicated timelines and details of Marie’s case. Grant shook her head. “It was way messier than that,” she said.

Unbelievable didn’t have to be about Marie, the trauma of rape, and the precariousness of sex-crime investigations. It could have taken the Mindhunter route, focusing entirely on the investigators. It could have been a Spotlight-esque study of Miller and Armstrong, and the work that goes into reporting on the culture of disbelief. It could have explored any of the other fascinating subjects outlined in A False Report, such as Martha “Marty” Goddard, a survivor and victim advocate who played an instrumental role in enforcing sexual-assault laws and rape-kit protocol in the United States—with the help of the Playboy Foundation, intriguingly.

It could even have spent episodes on the serial rapist himself, who—spoiler alert, for viewers who haven’t read the story—was eventually caught and sentenced to 327 and a half years in prison. Miller and Armstrong devoted chapters to his background: He served in the military, began hunting victims while stationed in South Korea, and considered his need to assault women a “beast” to be fed. “One thing that I think is massively distressing in our culture is how we treat military veterans and their lack of reintegration into society,” Grant said. “That would have been a really interesting thing to dig into a little bit, but that’s a different show.”

Indeed, Unbelievable may not be an edge-of-your-seat crime thriller, but the clear-eyed, unvarnished treatment is the point. To tell a story about a real-life rape, to do it truthfully, is to show just how the drama isn’t built for TV—even if such an ethos potentially turns off viewers. Grant sighed when I asked about the importance of even attempting a TV series when an article, a book, and a podcast episode already exist. What is she really hoping for here?

If anything, she said, she wants to amplify the story—Netflix, as a global platform, has a wider reach than any of the previous iterations—and challenge viewers to see themselves in the players involved. “In an ideal world, [they would] say, ‘Wow, what assumptions am I making that I had no idea I was carrying?’” she explained. “That seemed interesting to me, to take someone on that journey.”

In fact, “I hope you’re there with the cops in their doubt [during the interrogation scene],” she continued. After all, if she’d made the confrontation black and white—with the detectives as the vile bad guys—there’d be no room for self-reflection. “[To make viewers] say, ‘Oh, that guy’s an asshole, I wouldn’t do that, I don’t need to look at myself, I don’t need to look at the ways I contribute to this cultural travesty’—that’s the easiest thing in the world! But to make people really uncomfortable?” She paused and shook her head. “I consider that discomfort a big success.”