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Unbelievable Recap: Those Burdens

Unbelievable

Episode 7
Season 1 Episode 7
Editor’s Rating *****

Unbelievable

Episode 7
Season 1 Episode 7
Editor’s Rating *****
Photo: Beth Dubber/Netflix

“What the fuck?” is a pretty good opening line when it’s coming out of the mouth of Duvall, a devout Christian highly likely to use The Good Place’s “fork” in lieu of curses. But that’s where we are, in a total what the eff moment, as the detectives realize that they have two nearly identical suspects who just so happen to be brothers. If Unbelievable had sprung out of someone’s imagination fully formed I’d be prone to dismiss this as an absurd attempt at a last-minute plot twist. But this happened. As the (astounding) Marshall Project story that Unbelievable is based on explains, when detectives went to the door of the suspect’s home to install a surveillance camera, another man came to the door. The brothers Marc and Michael O’Leary closely resembled one another, and detectives now had no idea which brother might have committed the rapes, or if they were possibly in on the attacks together.

Duvall and Rasmussen find themselves in that exact quandary. The brothers, called Chris and Curtis McCarthy in the show, have the same physical ID, the same address, and even more confusingly, they share markers on their DNA that will make it impossible for the limited sample the detectives have to rule out either one. That mug with Curtis’s saliva all over it can’t help police determine which brother was at these crime scenes.

Luckily, the detectives’ good old-fashioned police work comes in handy again. They comb the intel they have and begin to tail both brothers. (Admittedly, after years of devout The Americans viewing, I was a little alarmed at how casually detectives sat right outside the McCarthy home and acted as if they wouldn’t be seen.) Both brothers served in the Marines — Curtis in Okinawa, Christopher in South Korea — so they each might have the language skills that the rapist explained to Amber so eagerly. But the LPR (license plate reader) that we heard so much about earlier in the season turns up some important results. It spotted Curtis on trips out of town with his girlfriend, meaning he has an alibi for the nights Doris, Lilly, and Sarah were raped. (The girlfriend even posted their whereabouts on Facebook, and you know that shit will hold up in a court of law.) His record is also spotless.

Christopher, however, has left behind a trail of bread crumbs so vast and crunchy that you could roll some chicken in them and have a delicious parm. The day after Sarah’s rape he visited the DMV, a place that would “kill his buzz” Duvall says, as if that wouldn’t apply to all of us. But what the hell did he need a new license for? A Ruger 357, a small revolver just like the one that Amber describes having pointed at her head.

Just as the pieces are falling into place you’d expect Duvall and Rasmussen to be cheering. But both women have years of experience with cases imploding in front of them. One thing Unbelievable does so well is fill in all the gaps that usually exist in police procedurals. They normally skip the moments of daily grind, meticulous affairs like listing every single item that you want to make sure is in the affidavit. They skip from tension point to tension point to keep the viewer breathless. Unbelievable dips and turns, hits points of monotony, lets different characters work through their emotions without turning them into cardboard cutouts. It also somehow makes way for tender moments that don’t feel forced. When Duvall offers the story that explains why she can’t go home while they’re still dotting their i’s and crossing their t’s — of that battered wife whose husband comes back after his arrest to “finish what he started” and leaves her brain-damaged — Merritt Wever delivers it so quietly, so much as if it’s a memory buried under fog that occasionally becomes crystal clear, that it defines the whole show. The scene ends with a quiver of her chin, a flick of her hair, and then her face straightening itself out, and with that this series belongs to her.

Rasmussen sees it that way, too — she undoubtedly lets Duvall handle McCarthy’s arrest on her own for the glory that will accompany it.

What’s remarkable about the actual arrest is how quietly and easily McCarthy comes in. No running, no evasion, no gun drawn — he must know that he’s been made and that there’s no point in prolonging things. As his brother puts it, Chris has always been “weird, but a lot of people are weird.” (Then again, it’s rather telling when your sibling’s first instinct is to ask the police if you’ve been building a bomb.) A peek into his room, with its extreme orderliness, is a glimpse into that kind of “weird” mind. In a stack he has Spinoza’s Ethics; Sexy Origins and Intimate Things, Charles Panati’s reference book about sexuality; The Ethical Slut, a guide to polyamory; The Only Astrology Book You’ll Ever Need, which is self-explanatory; and a Bible. He has also catalogued his pursuits: At least a dozen flash drives litter his desktop, along with CD-ROMS magic-markered with names across them, like “Sarah.”

In a reversal of fortune, McCarthy goes from stalking and documenting the lives of the women he attacks to being documented and catalogued himself. His military precision — those plastic bags with one pair of folded panties apiece — is matched by the team of detectives picking through all his belongings — the pink Cyber-Shot, the black Adidas sneakers, the backpack — and tagging and bagging them. (It’s also worth looking at the real police photos taken from O’Leary’s house to note how exactly the show’s creators copied the objects he owned and used.) And now he has to go through the indignity of complete body scan, to be swabbed and poked just like his victims, to have his pubic hairs ripped out one by one, to be tied up and then left naked, just like we saw Marie. It’s a kind of justice, even if it isn’t complete justice.

Which is why I’m delighted — truly delighted — that they showed McCarthy naked, showed that sad, lonely, swinging penis. In television it’s so often the victim’s body that’s exposed, her clothes torn, her underwear ripped off. In Unbelievable this wasn’t the case. Yes, we got small flashes of their bodies, but for the most part, they weren’t made to perform their trauma. Instead, it’s the rapist’s indignity on display, his body turned into an object to ogle. And damn that feels good.

Especially since we see how grotesquely he documented his victim’s bodies, and we wonder just what he did with those photos later. Rasmussen and Duvall are perhaps inured to such sights: They hardly bat an eye while they flip through the photos onscreen. But in that last batch their bodies suddenly jolt forward. This body, which looks, like Duvall says, as if it belongs to a 12-year-old, is one they haven’t seen. It’s Marie, of course, with her ID right there to prove it. Three years after her rape, police are finally seeing it for what it is.

We still don’t know what will happen to her in that interim, if she’ll regain some footing, get a new job, shed some of the lingering trauma — if such a thing is even possible. Because what we think might be a redemption scene with her court-appointed therapist Dara (played by Brooke Smith) shakes out into something else entirely. Marie tries to run out the clock à la Will in Good Will Hunting, but eventually can’t help but ask Dara if she “isn’t even curious” about Marie’s supposed lies. After she unburdens herself, the traditional TV thing to do would be to send Marie on her way, happier and healthier and committed to carrying “those burdens” that Dara refers to “a little more lightly.” Instead, we get the far more honest truth. If this injustice were to visit Marie again, she “would lie earlier and better.” And why not? That would have saved her an infinite amount of heartache.

Unbelievable Recap: Those Burdens