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Unbelievable Recap: Garden-Variety Horrible

Unbelievable

Episode 4
Season 1 Episode 4
Editor’s Rating *****

Unbelievable

Episode 4
Season 1 Episode 4
Editor’s Rating *****
Photo: Netflix

Unbelievable has settled in now. Marie’s slow David-versus-Goliath skirmish with the justice system thuds on. Duvall and Rasmussen dive down more and more rabbit holes, hoping to pull out any kind of useful intel. And the victims pile up. Now, including Marie, there are four women with incredibly similar attack stories. This might be the moment where a series hits a lull, turns procedural. And in some ways, Unbelievable has done that — the detectives sit around conference tables, rifle through documents, pour over databases. But there’s some magic seasoning bubbling up in the broth of this show, infusing everything around it with a sense of freshness. Maybe it’s the novelty of a crew of hyperintelligent women given the freedom to be brainy and emotional and tough all at once. Or perhaps it’s the way Marie’s story manages to find new depths of misunderstanding and injustice for us to shake our heads at. Either way, I can’t stop watching (and not just because I’m writing these recaps).

On crime shows like this, the FBI usually comes stomping into the scene, demanding the case be handed over and upselling their fancy federally funded gadgets. But in this case, Agent Taggert (Scott Lawrence, who was born to play a federal agent with an imposing but silky voice) is happy to sit back and see what he can do to help Rasmussen and Duvall. And the FBI’s toys, well, yet again they aren’t worth much if the information entered isn’t fleshed out. So Taggert can only do so much. He offers the use of ViCap (Violent Criminal Apprehension Program), but says it might not be horrible since, as any viewer of Hannibal or Mindhunter might know, this rapist is only “garden-variety horrible,” i.e., he doesn’t eat anyone or store women’s heads in his freezer. And again, Duvall brings up the fact that for some reason rapes aren’t processed as dutifully as murders. (Sigh.)

Of course, the problem here is that at any moment this rapist might turn into a murderer. The time gaps between his victims are growing smaller and smaller. First he waited months, then weeks, now he could strike again at any time. He started with a knife, then said he had a gun, and with Amber he actually pointed one at her head. There are two ways this could go. “A guy who’s jonesing might not be as careful,” or he could just let loose and actually pull the trigger. Duvall, ever the optimist, offers a third option: They could catch him before he strikes again.

So it’s back to the databases and the scant info they have on this. Rasmussen still isn’t willing to let anyone outside their team in on the fact that they think the rapist might be a cop (her worry that the force will entirely box out “the two lady cops” sounds alarmingly accurate), but it’s the best angle they have. Mia, god bless her creative soul, has asked for a list of cops who applied for a military credit, using the wonderful excuse that they’re trying to put together a “Veterans Day honors” list. But a quick scan of former military who also have a record comes up with nada. (Though admittedly, it did bug me that they assumed he’d have a record: why couldn’t this be a former serviceman who hasn’t gotten caught?) Next up is officers with domestic abuse history, a pretty big tell when it comes to other deviant behaviors. Too bad there isn’t a chance in hell that anyone is going to wander into their conference room and plop such valuable, secret information in their laps.

A local college kid with a conscience is around, however, and his gut is propelling him to tell the police about a guy he knows from his campus. One of those flyers that Rasmussen derides as useless has encouraged Arturo to visit the Golden P.D. — he knows somebody who may be “of interest.” His conversation with Duvall is artfully constructed. Arturo doesn’t spill the beans immediately, and wiggles his way around explaining exactly why he thinks Scott Parrish, local douchebag, might have committed Amber’s rape. “This is kinda what he does,” Arturo explains. Scott, a real charmer, forces girls to have sex, takes drunk unconsenting women upstairs at frat parties, and in general has the moral code of an orc. But Arturo recoils when Duvall uses the word rape: His brain doesn’t connect what Scott does with such a loaded term, even though, well, that’s precisely what rape is.

It turns out that Scott was arrested a couple of years prior for sexual assault. The case didn’t lead to a conviction, but a quick glimpse through Facebook (a tool police use more frequently than most of us would imagine) turns up a photo of Scott with a girl tossed over his shoulder and a blurry dark spot on his left calf that bears an uncanny resemblance to the birthmark Amber reported seeing on her rapist’s leg. (The photo is also captioned — and I cringed for his sake while writing this — “Sup ladies?” College-age people, the dating scene does get better with age. I promise.) Amber can’t positively ID him, but this is the first real suspect with promise.

In person, Scott turns out to be even more of a mouth breather than we imagined he could be. Duvall’s interrogation strategy — to give him just enough rope to hang himself with — seems at first to be working. He can explain away his prior arrest, saying that he “got with the wrong girl.” And he has a universal sociological theory for why he, an otherwise upstanding young gentleman who just sometimes roofies girls, keeps getting accused of rape. “It happens all the time now,” he says. “Girls making all these claims, it’s a thing. There’s status to being a victim, which is bullshit because there are real victims out there and when you go around saying you have been victimized when you haven’t …” Oh yes, Scott is highly concerned for the real victims and not just the handful of women he’s penetrated without their consent. What a gem.

Scott is looking more and more like a possible suspect. He can’t quite come up with solid alibis and his personality isn’t exactly tipping the scales in his favor. Alas, when he finally pulls up his pant leg, instead of a birthmark there is a truly heinous pine tree tattoo. Scott’s a rapist, but he most likely isn’t Amber’s rapist. (Still hoping Merritt Wever nails him to the wall!)

But other leads are coming together. Mia’s gang of pool-playing, beer-swigging, all-female cops (How do I join this group? Please send me an application. My personal essay is prepared.) have a host of other reports to share with the Golden and Westminster police departments. Most intriguingly, one offers the story of a B&E and attempted assault. Investigators picked up a shoe print (new info), and the guy was wearing a mask that sounds quite similar to Amber and Doris and Sarah’s (and Marie’s) rapist. This woman wasn’t raped, the detective says admiringly, because she dove headfirst off her balcony, racking up a cracked pelvis and a broken leg in the process.

That woman is Lilly, and it turns out that the police have entirely neglected to follow up on her case for the past year. This woman hurled her own body out of a second-story window to escape an attacker, but she can’t get the cops to make much of an effort. Lilly’s mother, who is cat-sitting while her daughter is on a spiritual retreat, is rightfully infuriated. Police ineptitude, it turns out, is mostly due to indifference. If the arrest isn’t easy, the cops disappear, and while women like Lilly are left in pain and traumatized, their cases quietly slip over the horizon. But Duvall especially is able to impress upon Lilly’s mom that they are truly following up with good intentions. It helps that she doesn’t have a hint of the wise-cracking cop gene and handles the information that Lilly is a Druid with genuine grace. “The last thing I’d want to do is come between her and her worship,” she offers. “When the Spirit releases her, ask her to give us a call.”

For both detectives, this episode ends with an obliteration of boundaries. Rasmussen breaks down and asks her husband/partner (it’s not entirely clear if they’re married) to use his role as an investigator at the attorney general’s office to sneak her glimpses of Internal Affairs files on domestically abusive cops. When he (rightfully) declines, she blows a gasket — and yes that is a car pun. Duvall has become so fixated on this white Mazda that when she spots one on the highway she doesn’t just pull over the driver, she draws her weapon and orders his hands on the wheel. Instead of staring down a rapist, however, she just terrifies a grandfather.

As for Marie’s situation, well, if you aren’t hurling your remote in frustration at how the system jerks her around, I’m concerned you might be a sociopath. Somehow, the only criminal in all this — including Scott, who is a composite character of about a dozen guys I knew at college who are all ironically attorneys now — is Marie, who gets sucked up into even more bureaucratic bullshit when her local court mails her criminal citation to one address and a notice for her hearing to another. Now there’s a warrant out for her arrest, and Marie, whose life keeps backsliding to new Sisyphean lows, is freaking out.

Oddly enough, it’s two plain old bureaucrats who kick into action to help Marie: first, a kindly office worker who must see the tears about to splash down Marie’s face, and then Mr. Hughes, a typically bedraggled public defender who has Marie foisted on him. She’s been in and out of foster care, most likely been the subject of judge’s orders for well over a decade, but still, this nameless, faceless system sucks her in. How could Marie possibly know how to find an attorney? Or that pleading not guilty when she knows she has lied to the police (about not lying, ironically) isn’t just another crime stacked on top of the pile?

It’s a dizzying set of circumstances. Police have decided to press charges for a crime that Marie only committed when pressured to do so by police — and for a crime (filing a false report) that they hardly ever press charges over. For Marie, who learned from an early age that keeping her head down is the best option when people in power dominate her, keeping up the “gold star” behavior that Mr. Hughes encourages is rock-solid advice. She sees a way out of this godforsaken tunnel, and will stick to that path no matter what.

Which is why when she’s finally reassured that she’s going to get a plea deal, that the judge won’t put her in jail “for one mistake” (ha!), she keeps that tack, despite the news story that could exonerate her of this false report charge and lead police to reopen her case. Marie doesn’t even think she can trust herself, let alone the system that’s failed her for her entire life.

Unbelievable Recap: Garden-Variety Horrible