Film & Television

New TV Series ‘Unbelievable’: Powerful True Story of Rape and Redemption


In 2011, thanks to the tireless efforts of Colorado police detectives Stacy Galbraith and Edna Hendershot, Marc O’Leary pleaded guilty to five counts of rape. He is currently serving a combined sentence of 396 years. In 2016, the Marshall Project’s Ken Armstrong and ProPublica’s T. Christian Miller won the Pulitzer Prize for their article (released online) entitled “An Unbelievable Story of Rape.”

If you haven’t read it, you should.

But not until after you’ve seen Unbelievable, the gripping eight-episode adaptation on Netflix.

The word “Unbelievable” in both titles refers not only to the magnitude of O’Leary’s crimes (there are estimates that the rapes he committed numbered far greater than the five with which he was formally charged), but more specifically to the story of one of his first victims. “Marie” (in their reporting, Armstrong and Miller used the woman’s middle name) was just 18, transitioning out of foster care, and trying to put years of neglect and abuse behind her. In 2008, she reported being raped, but eventually recanted and was subsequently charged with filing a false report. As a young female with a history of “acting out” and living on the fringe of society, she was — in the eyes of the male detectives who questioned her — simply unbelievable.

The entire first episode of Unbelievable is devoted to Marie’s story. We meet her the morning after her attack. She is questioned by a polite but not particularly compassionate police officer, and comforted by two of her former foster mothers and the counseling staff of the “Rise Up” program that provides her housing. As she recounts what has happened to her, we see brief flashbacks, glimpses of the assault from her perspective. Raped multiple times over a period of several hours, bound and gagged, she dissociates, focusing on a photograph across from her bed. It was an image of herself at the beach, smiling as she headed into the surf.

One thing that sets Unbelievable apart from other movies and television series about rape is its treatment of the attacks. Even as we hear explicit details from the victims themselves, the sexual assaults are never sensationalized. The focus is always on the victim, her experience, her reaction, and the lasting and heartbreaking ramifications.

In Marie’s case, the attack derails her already fragile life. Sadly (and almost unbelievably), the rape itself soon becomes the least of her troubles. A “well-meaning” former foster parent shares Marie’s problematic past with the detectives; they begin to notice discrepancies in her accounts; they threaten her, coerce and bully her into “admitting” that she’s made it all up. Her friends turn against her, and she eventually loses her job and her apartment. She even contemplates suicide.

The role of Marie would present a challenge for the most seasoned of actresses. In this case, 23-year old Kaitlyn Dever, who stood out in FX’s Justified and last summer’s feminist teen comedy Booksmart, delivers an astonishing performance. Her Marie is so deeply damaged — and so utterly unsupported — that you wonder how she continues to function at all. As the detectives cruelly cross-examine her, she quietly asks, “Am I in trouble?” and your heart breaks.

By episode two, Unbelievable divides its time between Marie’s continuing saga and the work of two detectives in Colorado three years later. Karen Duvall, played with a combination of intensity and sensitivity by Emmy-winner Merritt Weaver, has been called to the site of another rape. The victim this time is college student Amber (talented Australian Danielle Macdonald). Duvall questions her and the contrast between their encounter and Marie’s is stark. In fact, Duvall’s approach — respectful, informative, unhurried, supportive — should have been videotaped and sent to the detectives who so horrifically mishandled Marie’s case. Amber somehow kept her head during her assault, encouraging the rapist to talk, hoping that something she heard would be of use to the police. As in Marie’s case, the rapist left virtually no evidence; he wore gloves, used a condom, and insisted that Amber shower for twenty minutes to avoid leaving behind any DNA.

Duvall’s husband is also a police officer, but serves in a different county. When he hears about the case, it reminds him of a similar one being investigated by his colleague, Detective Grace Rasmussen, portrayed with sarcasm and boundless energy by Emmy-winner Toni Collette. Duvall reaches out to Rasmussen and they begin to work together, although their styles are dramatically different (for a short while, I was concerned that Unbelievable would stray into the odd couple/buddy cop genre, but both characters are so dimensional and both actresses so sublime that the series easily overcame my concerns).


The remaining episodes provide the kind of entertainment people enjoy in procedurals like Law & Order, NCIS, CSI, and their (seemingly countless) spinoffs. The police work is fascinating, certainly, and it effectively depicts the long hours and dead ends inherent in activities like scouring surveillance footage and searching databases for people who might fit a profile that is still half-fact, half-fiction. But the human aspect of a criminal and his victims is never forgotten. We meet more victims, diverse in age, race, and appearance. “So, the rapist doesn’t have a particular type,” a man on the team observes. “Sure he does,” Rasmussen corrects him, “Women who live alone.”

There are a handful of competent and compassionate men in Unbelievable. The team’s intern pulls an all-nighter and provides a crucial piece of information; both Duvall and Rasmussen are married to genuinely good guys. Even the detectives who dismiss Marie’s story so heartlessly are more jaded and prejudiced by centuries of gender bias than downright evil. But women here are very much the superheroes, from the determined detectives to Marie, whose fight to rebuild a life worth living is an act of faith and courage.

You needn’t look far to find Unbelievables feminist roots. The show’s creator is Susannah Grant, who wrote and was Oscar-nominated for 2000’s Erin Brockovich. Three of the series’s episodes are directed by Lisa Cholodenko, who directed and wrote (and was also Oscar-nominated for) 2010’s The Kids Are Alright.

The script (Grant shares writing credits with Michael Chabon, Ayelet Waldman, Becky Mode, and Jennifer Schuur) sometimes becomes a bit preachy as Duvall and Rasmussen pronounce true crime statistics that are meant to shock and awe. For example, a self-reported 40% of police officers abuse their wives. (Let that sink in a minute.) Weaver and Collette, however, make the most of every scene, together and separately. Both women should be seriously considered when it’s time for next year’s Emmy Award nominations. Then again, they’ll have stiff competition from their younger costar Dever.

Much like another recent Netfix series, Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us, Unbelievable is often difficult to watch. But it’s rewarding as well. Despite the brutal rapes at its center, and the deplorable way that Marie was treated (“You were violated twice,” her court-mandated counselor explains when Marie finally trusts her enough to tell her story), the series is a celebration of hope and hard work. There are vicious animals out there, and there is a system that often fails the people it is supposed to protect. But there are also people who dedicate their lives to making things right.

Watch Unbelievable and you will gain respect for people like Duvall and Rasmussen (and their real-life counterparts Galbraith and Hendershot). And not only will you believe Marie, you’ll find her impossible to forget.


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