This new Netflix series, based on the true story of a serial rapist, is at times an unflinching and blistering watch. But the final episode is some of the best television of the year.
In episode seven the rapist is caught. Courtesy of some truly nailbiting investigation from detectives Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette) and Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever) over the past six episodes, the suspect is apprehended and evidence of his many sordid crimes found in his home. They got the bad guy. Case closed.
In any other series, in any of the police procedurals that litter network television, that would be the end of that. But Unbelievable does something that mainstream crime series rarely do – it takes the story one episode further. And that episode, the eighth of the series, is not only one of the most remarkable hours of crime television in recent memory, but it might be the best episode of television this year.
The finale of Unbelievable focuses on Marie Adler (Kaitlin Dever). Marie is one of the rapist’s first victims; she was attacked in 2008. The series opens with an unflinching portrayal of Marie’s assault and subsequent rape kit and interview by the police.
It is a difficult episode to watch, so uncaring are the police towards her, so difficult do they find it to believe her story. Ultimately, Marie is made to recant her rape allegations and is prosecuted by the state for filing a false report. Her relationships with her foster parents and friends suffer. She loses her job and her support network. She is found guilty and is fined $500.
This story, which takes place in 2008, runs concurrently in Unbelievable with the investigation by the two detectives in 2011. They are in Colorado; Marie is in Washington. The framing of the Netflix series is masterful, contrasting Marie’s treatment by two male detectives with the way the subsequent rape victims are treated by two female detectives.
By the time we get to episode eight, Marie’s rapist has been caught. This is where the story would end, if Unbelievable was CSI: New York or Criminal Minds. But Unbelievable is not your average police procedural, and thus episode eight begins with the original detective in Marie’s case learning from Rasmussen that the rape victim he labelled an attention-seeker liar was telling the truth the whole time.
The last episode of Unbelievable is a study in catharsis. In this episode, we get to see Marie learn that her rapist has been caught. We get to see her sue the city and receive $150,000 in compensation. We get to see her finally sit for her driver’s license and, for the first time in the series, smile a real smile when she passes. We get to see Marie pack her things into her car and start down the path of her new life.
What we don’t get to see is Marie make excuses for the detectives who treated her with such little confidence or belief back in 2008. Before she leaves Washington, Marie pays a visit to the Lynnwood police station where she confronts detectives Parker and Pruitt.
“You know what I never got?” Marie asks them. “Ever? From anybody? An apology. Even I know when you mess up you apologise. When you mess up so bad, when your one stupid mistake ruins a person’s life, you apologise more.”
Parker offers a sincere apology while Marie stands there, taking it in. It mirrors the scene in which Parker meets Rasmussen to talk about the case and wonders where his investigation went so wrong. “Maybe they should get rid of me,” he muses, comparing himself to other bad cops. Rasmussen says nothing – neither absolves him of his neglect nor assures him that he’s a good cop. Eventually, Parker shrugs and thanks her for her time.
The same thing happens when Parker apologises to Marie as she stands there in silence. In the Pulitzer prize-winning ProPublica article upon which Unbelievable is based, Marie says that she believed in the sincerity of his mea culpa. “He was rubbing his head and literally looked like he was ashamed about what they had had done,” the article reads.
But, crucially, Marie doesn’t say that she forgave him. And Marie doesn’t forgive the detective onscreen in Unbelievable, either. “Next time – do better,” she says.
The series ends with Marie on the way to her new life. She has packed all of her things into her new car and is driving far, far away from Washington state. She stops at a beach to dip her toes in the water and, while there, she calls Duvall. She wants to tell her that she’s doing well. She wants to tell her much it means to her that two detectives she had never even met had worked so hard to find justice for her. She wants to say thank you.
“The thing is I’ve spent my whole life trying really hard to believe that most people are basically good, even when the ones I knew weren’t,” Marie says. “I don’t know, I guess, it just gave me hope or something. Then this thing happened – the rape. And it became harder for me to believe that there was really any good in the world. And I think that was the hardest part of this whole thing, waking up feeling hopeless.”
She continues: “But then, out of nowhere, I hear about these two people in some completely other part of the country looking out for me and making things right and, I don’t know, more than anything else… More than him getting locked up, more than the money I got, it was hearing that about you guys that just changed things completely. And I wake up now and I can imagine good things happening.”
This is the way Unbelievable ends: not by dwelling on a rapist and his crimes but by giving one of his victims a future. The ProPublica article ends by telling us that Marie is a long-haul trucker and lives with her husband and their two children. She is happy.
We don’t get to see all that in the Netflix series. But we do get to see Marie in her car on the open road driving into the sunset. We do get to see Marie in a world in which, for the first time, she can imagine good things happening to her.
Crime series, by nature, rarely get to be this optimistic. They rarely get to end so satisfactorily or give hope for such a future. Which is why Unbelievable is such a special crime series, and so clearly written and directed by women. And it’s why its last episode might be the best television of the year.
Unbelievable streams on Netflix now.