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Making a Murderer Is More Than a Compelling Whodunit, It’s an Incisive Portrait of American Social Class

The Avery estate. Photo: Netflix

A few years ago I started rewatching Roseanne, a fixture of my childhood that I hadn’t seen in a couple decades. Almost immediately, I had a madeleine moment: Centered on the table in the opening credits is a cheap plastic coffee mug with a drawing of a Canada goose in flight. We had one of those mugs when I was growing up; I loved that mug in only the way kids can be attached to throwaway consumer goods. Someone had found a piece of my world and put it on the screen. The show’s often-perceptive portrait of class would mean even more to me after that offhand shot.

I had a few moments like that watching Making a Murderer: Dolores Avery’s ever-present, thin floral-print blouses, corduroy rockers in wood-veneer-paneled rooms, the distinctive way particleboard siding deteriorates from the bottom up. The documentary has received considerable, deserved praise for sustaining an addictive whodunit structure over ten hours, no small feat. It’s received praise for presenting a portrait of a criminal-justice system that is both damning and nuanced. Yet even as the extraordinary cases of Steven Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey slowly unspooled, I found myself just as captivated by what Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos had captured in the peripheral vision of the camera: a detailed portrait of class intersections extending well beyond the courtroom. And in doing so, Making a Murderer reflects one of the deepest appeals of the crime noir.

“Since there is no longer any privileged experience in which the whole of the social structure can be grasped,” Fredric Jameson wrote about Raymond Chandler’s noir masterpiece The Big Sleep, “a figure must be invented … whose routine and life pattern serve somehow to tie its separate and isolated parts together.” The Virgil that Chandler created to guide readers through those circles was Phillip Marlowe, a private eye. (For reasons that should be familiar to Making a Murderer viewers, not a cop.) Marlowe’s privileged yet isolated status gives him entry up and down the class ladder as the crimes he investigates tie the classes to one another. In Making a Murderer, it’s the filmmakers who jump back and forth from the farm-family bedrock of the Halbach family, to the clubby rural bureaucrats in law enforcement, to the sophisticated lawyers from the surrounding cities, to the respected petite-bourgeois Beerntsens; their intimate access to the Avery family can make scenes inside their claustrophobic trailer feel like home movies, yet Ricciardi and Demos never enter the narrative in any way.

Nowhere is this class conflict more raw than in the final episode, when a private investigator — Michael O’Kelly, working for Brendan Dassey’s soon-to-be-fired lawyer, but collaborating with the prosecution — describes the Avery family in an email sent to Dassey’s own lawyer: “This is truly where the devil resides in comfort. I can find no good in any member. These people are pure evil. A friend of mine suggested: ‘this is a one-branch family tree. Cut this tree down. We need to end the gene pool here.’”

It’s a moment of astonishing cruelty, coming in Dassey’s presence, and following episode after episode emphasizing the teen’s borderline intellectual disability, often in hearings in front of Dassey. But the damning email is the culmination of a theme that begins developing in the first episode: the contempt Manitowoc County’s burgher class has for the marginal Averys, and how that bleeds into the legal system, coming to define the scope of Steven Avery’s life. “They didn’t dress like everybody else; they didn’t have education like other people,” his lawyer in the 1985 rape case, Reesa Evans, tells the filmmakers. “I don’t think it ever crossed their mind that they should try to fit into the community.”

Evans’s sympathetic observation is echoed by the film’s visual portrait of the Averys, the product of the filmmakers’ years spent with the family. When Avery’s verdict in the murder trial is announced, Teresa Halbach’s wholesome family arrives in khakis; her brother, poised throughout unimaginable tragedy and the surreal panopticon of its media coverage, is wearing a tie. The Averys, on the most important day of their lives, show up at the courthouse in weary sweats. The Halbachs’ house is prim and well-kept; the Avery’s houses are scarred and bone-weary.

But Making a Murderer is more than just the conflict between poverty and wealth, isolation and power. The prominence of Avery’s case, and the windfall he received for his 18 years of false imprisonment, bring elite lawyers into the case’s orbit, like internet cult hero Dean Strang, who looks like Jack McCoy and idolizes Clarence Darrow. Strang’s carefully crafted lines of inquiry make a stark contrast to Ken Kratz’s R-rated press conference and hamfisted appeal to “reasonable doubt is for the innocent,” which sounds like a rejected Lionel Hutz one-liner. The series has been praised for showing what happens to poor defendants; it also shows what money will get you. Take Walter Kelly, one of Avery’s lawyers in his lawsuit against Manitowoc County, who provides one of the series’ moments of schadenfreude in the deposition of Judy Dvorak. She’s the reserve deputy who first suggested the name of Steven Avery in the 1985 rape case and shared the locals’ antipathy toward him.

“And then the statement says, ‘Dvorak described Avery as such a dirty man that every time he would come to the jail the sheriff’s deputies would have to make Avery take a shower,’” Kelly asks Dvorak. “Did you tell that to Ms. Strauss?”

“Possibly,” Dvorak responds, “but not in those words.”

“In what words? Do you remember the words you used?”

“I do not remember specifically, but reading this, these are not my words.”

“But if you don’t remember, how can you tell us that?”

“I would say that I do not speak, talk, converse in this kind of verbiage.”

It’s a minor moment of bureaucratic ass-covering gibberish that pales in comparison to other revelations in the postmortem on Avery’s rape conviction. But the comeuppance is admittedly satisfying: Watching a department that railroaded an easy target be overpowered by talented lawyers, while tying it back to the contempt that led to Avery being targeted in the first place.

An Atticus Finch moment might be even more satisfying than watching out-of-town lawyers rolling over rural law enforcement. But that’s not how the world of Making a Murderer works; it expands in concentric circles, from the Avery’s social and physical isolation to elite law offices in Madison and Milwaukee, cutting a compellingly broad swath across American social class not often seen on television or in the movies. In crossing those lines, the film picks up much of the detritus of everyday life, which is, in its own way, as compelling as the unusual narrative at its heart. As noir fans have long known, sometimes a dark crime is an opportunity to shine a light into our corners.

* An earlier version of this piece misspelled Beerntsen.

Murderer Is More Than a Compelling Whodunit