The Netflix series is a remarkable study of how sexual-assault investigations should be conducted, and how they shouldn’t.
This article contains spoilers through all eight episodes of Unbelievable.
In the first episode of Unbelievable, Marie (Kaitlyn Dever) is in her apartment, huddled in a comforter, clearly in shock, obviously traumatized. Her former foster mother, Judith (Elizabeth Marvel), hands her a cup of water and tries to get her to drink it. She hears footsteps in the hallway outside. “Here they come,” Judith says. “Here comes help.”
Unbelievable, which debuted on Netflix last week and is based on a true story reported in 2015 by ProPublica and the Marshall Project, folds two narratives into its eight episodes. One, which manages to feel bleakly familiar and dumbfoundingly enraging at the same time, is about what happens when the people investigating a rape do almost everything wrong. Not the procedural elements, although they mess those up too. The human elements: the part where a detective questions an 18-year-old woman who’s just survived the worst experience of her life, a woman he’s supposed to help, and fails her. He revictimizes her, making her go over the story of her attack again and again. A nurse pokes and prods at her without asking whether she needs a break. The foster mother raises suspicions that she’s lying. No one pays attention to the woman’s emotional state, or how it might be limiting her ability to efficiently convey what happened to her.