Everything about the first season of Making a Murderer was a surprise.
The fact that it dropped on Netflix a week before Christmas in 2015 and then became one of the most talked-about series of the season was a surprise. To those who were unfamiliar with the backstory behind the murder of Teresa Halbach, an Auto Trader photographer killed and dismembered on Halloween in 2005, every episode was a surprise. Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man who spent 18 years in jail on sexual assault and attempted murder charges of which he was innocent, finally gets those charges overturned and released from jail, only to wind up right back there two years later, accused of killing Halbach? And once again, he says he’s innocent, as does his alleged accomplice, his teenage nephew Brendan Dassey, who also landed in prison? It’s the kind of story so wild that it sounds made-up. Which is to say: It’s the perfect twisty, compelling narrative for a true-crime series.
Making a Murderer Part Two, by default, lacks that bombshell factor. When the first season came out three years ago, it automatically raised the profile of the Avery and Dassey cases, prompting national media coverage of every rise and fall in the attempts to appeal their verdicts, not to mention roughly 1 million subreddits on the same subject. It’s impossible to come into this ten-episode season, which starts streaming Friday, completely unaware of what’s happened since season one, or believing that this ongoing saga will be resolved in a mere second season of television.
Filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos essentially concede as much in the first episode by racing through news footage that captures the flood chatter generated by season one. The “Making a Murderer was a game changer” snippets are a bit self-serving, but they make it clear that this Netflix series altered the course of the Teresa Halbach murder cases, and in turn, has altered the way the filmmakers will tell this story going forward.
Making a Murderer Part Two, then, isn’t so much a narrative about a working-class Wisconsin family and how two of its members were potentially framed by law enforcement for committing murder. Instead, it is a less shocking, more plodding, in-depth procedural that depicts the legal steps required to attempt to overturn Dassey’s conviction by proving that his police confession was coerced, while relitigating Avery’s case altogether to prove he was wrongly jailed for the second time in his life.
Ricciardi and Demos do spend a fair amount of time with the Avery family, particularly Steven Avery’s mother, Dolores, and Dassey’s mother, Barbara Tadych, and his stepdad, Scott Tadych. Audio of Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey, recorded via phone calls from prison, also offer their perspectives on how things continue to unfold. But the real stars this time around are the attorneys working to reverse the tide on these men’s fates: Laura Nirider and Steven A. Drizin at Northwestern’s Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth are attempting to prove that Dassey’s confession was obtained unconstitutionally, and Kathleen Zellner, an Illinois lawyer with a track record of exonerating the wrongly accused, seeks to confirm that police planted evidence against Avery instead of investigating other suspects potentially responsible for Halbach’s death.
Zellner looms largest because she has more screen time than anyone else, but also because her presence is so weirdly compelling. With her high cheekbones, sleek black hair, and extraordinarily calm demeanor, she gives off a “Morticia Addams, attorney-at-law” vibe. But the slight twang in her voice and her aggressive yet polite approach to dissecting Avery’s case soften the impression that she’s a hard-charging, cold fish of a lawyer.
She is certainly confident, though. Even when things aren’t going Avery’s way, she consistently tells him and his family that he’ll get out of jail. She’s also not shy about criticizing Avery’s original defense team, Jerry Buting and Dean Strang, for their ineffectiveness, while she meticulously revisits the places and moments associated with Halbach’s murder. She consults firearms and forensics experts about why the bullet that supposedly traveled through the victim’s skull contained no bone fragments; she re-creates the splatters of Avery’s blood found in Halbach’s RAV4 to determine whether they seem legitimate or as if they were placed deliberately in key spots; she even recruits some of her clerks and assistants to reenact a conversation between Halbach and Avery, and how it was observed by Avery’s nephew Bobby Dassey, Brendan’s brother. While Making a Murderer is handled with far more class and care than CBS’s The Case of: JonBenét Ramsey, some of that reenacting reminded me of that two-part 2016 series, which was tasteless in its rehashing of the events that led up to the infamous murder of that 6-year-old beauty-pageant contestant. Anyone who knew Halbach will likely react to these portions of Making a Murderer with a similar level of revulsion, even if there is something fascinating about watching Zellner do her meticulous detective work.
Ricciardi and Demos, aware that their first Making a Murderer season was criticized for being too one-sided, do make an effort to emphasize that Halbach is the first and primary victim here, but they can only tell her story to an extent. Members of her family still refuse to participate in the docuseries. (The end of each episode highlights an extensive list of all those who were asked to speak on camera and decided against it, including several with the last name Halbach.) One college friend of Halbach’s does agree to be interviewed, as do some participants in a charity race for the Halbach family. “There’s a whole world that’s looking at the wrong side of the story,” says Emily Gutowski, one of those runners.
But if you believe Dassey and/or Avery is innocent — and it is challenging to think that at least one of them wasn’t railroaded by the system — then you have to acknowledge that there are, sadly, multiple people whose lives were shattered by this ordeal. It’s easier and more straightforward to reach that conclusion regarding Dassey, a young, impressionable kid with a low IQ who genuinely seems to have been manipulated by overzealous cops. Some of the most emotionally affecting elements of Making a Murderer Part Two come from watching Nirider and Drizin argue for Dassey and even score some victories on his behalf, only to hit more brick walls due to the state’s insistence on appealing. It’s especially sad to hear Dassey, so sure he’s about to come home, tell his mother that he’s already changed into his own sweats.
Ricciardi and Demos apply the same stylistic touches to Making a Murderer Part Two as they did to the first, lingering on close-ups of bird feeders or holding on overhead views of the expanse of land in Manitowoc County that give the series an artsy air. Having seen American Vandal, the true-crime parody that riffed on Making a Murderer, some of the filmmakers’ choices registered as far more comical to me than they did during the first go-round.
The biggest mistake the two make is not being more judicious in their edits. Many scenes drag on for too long, or serve little narrative purpose and could have been cut entirely. We don’t need to see every semi-relevant individual arrive at a Chicago courthouse when Dassey’s team is about to argue before the Seventh Circuit Court, nor do we need to ride along with Avery’s mom and niece to a drive-through. In keeping with a tradition established in season one, there are also a plethora of conversations between the inmates and their families that sound like they were borrowed from a Coen brothers script — “Yeah?” “Yeah” — which, with a few exceptions, add little to our understanding of events or who these people really are.
The real drama comes in the final episode, when tensions between Steven and Barbara boil over after Zellner, determined to follow any potential lead, raises the possibility that perhaps Bobby Dassey or Scott Tadych, Barbara’s husband, may have played a role in Halbach’s murder. It’s surprising, frankly, that these kinds of rifts haven’t surfaced before since it’s possible one man from the same family could get out of jail while the other one doesn’t. But Making a Murderer Part Two never digs more deeply to reveal any potential resentments or frustrations simmering beneath the surface. Most of the time, it features Steven and his relatives repeating some version of “The truth will have to come out eventually.”
The most damning comments about the police investigation are saved for the final episode, when the filmmakers speak to Debra Kakatsch, who was acting as the county coroner at the time of Halbach’s homicide. What she says speaks very clearly to some kind of cover-up and corruption on the part of police in the case. Whether that, or anything else, will eventually change things for Dassey or Avery remains to be seen. Despite all of the obstacles in their way, the accused killers and their committed attorneys believe that the arc of history bends toward justice. But if Making a Murderer Part Two teaches us anything, it’s that finding justice can take a long damn time.