Until I was in second grade, my dad was a detective with the Philadelphia Police Department. His job, he once explained to me, was mostly calling people on the phone or knocking on doors hoping that someone inside could give a statement. It’s really pretty boring, he’d often say, as if we were going to believe that. This was also the early ’90s, the heyday of Law & Order, and even though my dad is a good deal younger than Jerry Obrach (may he rest in peace), and has the quintessential cop mustache, I imagined his days a lot like Lennie Briscoe’s — cracking wise at scummy convicts, handily hustling up eye witnesses who’d been hanging laundry at the exact moment the body was dumped in an alley, occasionally chasing a suspect down seven flights of steps
Television has distorted police work more than perhaps any other profession (except medicine — if any ER had as many traumas as they see on Grey’s Anatomy, the entire staff would be under close psychiatric supervision for PTSD). We imagine latent prints on every pane of glass, single carpet fibers that produce copious DNA, table-pounding confrontations that miraculously produce confessions. But most of it, like my dad said, is really phone calls and parsing paperwork. A slog.
Somehow, Unbelievable turns that slog into engrossing television, where you eagerly watch as Detectives Rasmussen and Duvall scan hours of surveillance footage and work through legal pad sheets coated in phone numbers. Earnestness and devotion are two qualities that are pretty damn difficult to make interesting — nobody’s titillated by fervent data entry. But it’s the novelty here that turns Rasmussen and Duvall into industrious worker bees whose hive we want to peek inside. The detectives may have become the focus of Unbelievable, but their focus is on the victims — something so unheard of it makes me a little weepy.
From the outset, Rasmussen establishes herself as the Wild Bill of this duo, scrabbling around in her old El Camino and practically kicking up dust with every step of her boots. She sends off the rock-moving, healthy-water-system-spouting dude with an admirably fierce speech meant to shame his irritation. “Think about the commitment you’d expect,” from the officers investigating your own sisters’ rape, she lobs at him. Which is fair, because holy hell is this woman committed.
Duvall is the more measured — and naive — partner, and as we learn in this episode, she has some undisclosed past with Rasmussen, although she thinks that Grace won’t possibly remember it. As the two set out to slowly share information on their cases the dynamic is less “good cop/bad cop” and more legend and newb.
Rasmussen’s case, of course, aligns perfectly with Amber’s rape. An older woman named Sarah who had recently moved to the area (like Amber and Marie) left her window open a crack while she went to sleep. She woke to an intruder in her room, who she describes as “tall, and young, and strong.” He raped her, on and off, for three hours, akin to the four hours that Amber was raped, and also took the sheets and left a remarkably clean scene.
In good procedural fashion, as Rasmussen interviews Sarah (and Duvall, whoops-a-daisy!, slips in a question), we learn a few more nuggets about the perp. He stole $200 from her dining room drawer, along with that 2011 staple, a pink CyberShot digital camera. That just so happens to be the same kind of camera that Amber’s rapist used to take mid-assault photos of her. Now they just need to weed through the couple hundred thousand or so cameras of that make that might be floating around the entire West.
The victims are, intriguingly, not superficially similar. After two seasons of Mindhunter you might have been searching for this rapist’s modus operandi and failing to find it. Amber and Marie are both white and young. Sarah is older and black. Marie has very little money and lives in a virtual dorm room, whereas both Sarah and Amber seem at least comfortable. Amber has a boyfriend, the other two women don’t. What they all have in common, however, is that they’re vulnerable — they live alone and don’t slide chainlocks every night before bed. They all live in apartment complexes where a stranger lurking might not gin up as much interest as a weirdo leaning out a car window in front of a single-family home might.
And so Duvall and Rasmussen get down to the nitty gritty of police work — that “boring” crap that my dad warned me about. But here, with Unbelievable’s unprecedented focus on what good police work (and not just case-closing police work) looks like, all that earnestness comes across as passion. First, after an all-nighter watching cars roll past Amber’s apartment building via surveillance footage, Duvall spots something unusual, that same white Mazda pick-up cruising past 11 times. It’s practically refreshing when the zoom function at the crime lab can’t instantaneously decipher the license plate: this isn’t — thank you Netflix execs — CSI. Meanwhile, craggy Rosemarie, with whom I desperately want to start a weekly poker game, has gone through the entire Colorado prison database of scars, marks, and tats (penis tats! Ass tattoos …. Of asses! Someone give me access to this database!) but has come up with nada on the suspect’s left calf birthmark. All of those smart systems that the public thinks waggle up clues and narrow down suspect pools aren’t worth shit if the humans designing them and entering the data aren’t committed.
And there’s a sense of urgency here. Sure, Amber’s mathematician boyfriend is a little bit of a condescending prick when he cites the statistic that Duvall only has about five more days to catch this guy before her chances dissipate. But a man who will rape two women over the course of several hours probably isn’t going to just stop as if it’s a hobby like collecting model trains or building Civil War dioramas. All of which drives Rasmussen’s admittedly hilarious snap at poor, slightly inept Morris, who can’t just call the damn lab to check up on Amber’s information. And really, it’s positively joyful to watch Merritt Wever rail into him with such overblown sarcasm: “Ohhh he’s sure of it. Mia, relax, Morris is sure of it!” Meanwhile, her point is clear. It’s time to hustle the fuck up, because there’s a serial rapist on the loose and “This is not something [women] get over. This is something they carry with them like a bullet in the spine.”
Back in Washington (and in 2008) Marie is carrying that bullet all alone, not only shouldering the trauma of the rape, but now the absolute shitshow horror of the fact that someone close to her has released her name to the press and there are now photos of her popping up on the internet that label her as one of those women who would make up a heinous story for a little pity party of her own.
What the hell should she do? Judith, whose cluelessness is growing wearing, seems to think that if Marie never sees her phone the problem will go poof. Apparently she thinks a good dose of reality is what Marie needs (as if the poor girl hasn’t had enough) and so when the “lying slut” texts start rolling in, she thoughtlessly reminds Marie, “Honey you don’t have any friends right now.” Marie can’t jump out of that car fast enough.
The poor thing doesn’t know not to Google herself (though really, could you help it if you were her?). For a while, her rendezvous with Connor offers a little respite, and an explanation of why she caved to the detectives’ suggestion that she made up the rape allegation: she realized, she says, that “when they’re bigger than you, you can’t win.” Fighting with adults or insisting on what she believes has never worked for her before. Marie is small, and powerless, and poor, and alone. What the hell would have made her think she could simply will two detectives to believe her patched-together tale?
It’s a punch to the gut when, after that quick snippet of happiness with Connor, she arrives back to Oakdale to find a criminal citation in her mailbox. Life was already imploding — now someone has placed a stick of dynamite directly underneath her last point of stability, her apartment, and lit the fuse. She can’t possibly know that, a few states away and three years in the future, two detectives are (most likely) on the trail of the man who started this nightmare.
The news in Colorado is less than ideal. There are only two profiles this suspect could fit into; he’s either a smart criminal “of which we know there are very few” or …. a cop. Who else would know to attack in each district just once, that the police stations don’t pass along complete reports, that all those damn computers are essentially fancy paper weights for all the damn good they do? No matter if the rapist is a cop or not, two uppity female cops digging into Internal Affairs records is going to have some, ahem, shitty personal effects. So how should they proceed? Verrrry verrrry carefully.
And again, with paperwork. Rasmussen pulls every single file on rapes in the state of Colorado for the past five years. The two work the phones like crazy, tracing down every lead detective, looking for signs that this guy has struck somewhere else and they can mine that case for even more intel. Which is how they learn about Doris Laird, 72 years old, frat house mother (god bless her soul). What started as two vicious rapes will now pull in the FBI and the wrath of these two dogged women. This guy won’t know what hit him.