When was the last time a prestige drama of Unbelievable’s caliber ended on a happy note? In this continuing (ugh, forever) era of the antihero, we’re practically guaranteed death and misery as the caps to any and all high-end TV. And yet here we are, with Unbelievable ending on not only a judicial victory but a personal one for nearly all parties involved and a joy-affirming phone call between a young rape victim and the detective who tirelessly pursued her rapist. Unbelievable did a lot of things well, but one place it uniquely succeeded was in treating earnestness earnestly and never losing its audience’s respect along the way.
Its helps, of course, that this series was based on a true story, and that some ounce of justice was served for the real Marie, Amber, Sarah, Doris, and Lilly. But what kept Unbelievable from disappearing into cheese were the honest, ungilded performances by the show’s bigger stars, like Kaitlyn Dever, Merritt Wever, and Toni Collette, along with its supporting actors, especially Danielle Macdonald (Amber), Annaleigh Ashford (Lilly), and Eric Lange (Detective Parker).
Parker isn’t a villain (who really needs another one with Christopher McCarthy hanging around?). Instead, he’s a representation of how we all — well, most of us — think of ourselves: competent, smart, resourceful, and committed to upholding the social contract. Which is why, when she calls to fill him in on the updates to Marie’s file, he doesn’t hesitate to tell Rasmussen why he closed the case. “The law’s the law,” he says with an “oh shucks” twang, and then “we had to charge her” with false reporting, a statement we know to be incorrect since Marie’s lawyer pointed out that the charge was “bizarre” and practically unheard of. Parker thinks he’s helping the trains run on time, when, in reality, he pulled the emergency brake and caused a pileup.
The moment when the photo comes through and slowly morphs from a puzzle of pixels to a clear shot of Marie’s ID on her abdomen, Parker looks as if he doesn’t know whether to vomit, cry, or just put his face down on his desk. He hasn’t just made a mistake; he has committed the gravest error a police officer can make: He turned the victim into the offender. To give credit where it’s due, he does seek to make amends by coming out to Colorado to sort through the paperwork. He’s immediately chastened, telling Rasmussen, “You hear about bad cops … I always think, Who the hell let them on the force?,” then points out that maybe he isn’t worthy of his position. In a brilliant, moving scene, he goes to Marie himself, offers up his atonement, and at least repays the fine she was charged by the city.
But Marie isn’t settling. Throughout seven episodes, she has quietly accepted vilification and condescension and neglect. In turn, she has become more husk than human, looking dazed as she gazes over the heads of the kids at the go-kart track. “I try to be positive,” she cried to Parker and Pruitt in the interrogation room when they brought up her abusive childhood. That spark is gone, but Parker’s visit and the measly $500 check light a fire underneath her.
“Who do you want to sue?,” Marie’s former defender asks. “Pretty much everybody,” she replies, “but I thought I’d start with the city.” And the crowd goes wild. The $150,000 she’s eventually offered and takes isn’t the massive sum her fancy-pants lawyer expects her to hold out for. It’s a good bit of money, of course, but it won’t let Marie live a life of leisure — it isn’t the piles of millions that Americans are known to sue for after they’ve spilled coffee. But Marie doesn’t want to make a statement or squeeze the government for every nickel she can wrangle. Her want is the most basic of all — acknowledgement of what its blind ignorance caused her, and the ability to get her feet back underneath her.
McCarthy’s other victims get their own forms of justice too. For Amber, that that’s just observing his sentencing hearing without anyone forcing her to testify or confront him. For Sarah, it’s the right to stay home, to avoid McCarthy, but not have her silence mistaken for a lack of care. For Doris, it’s the ability to ask him face-to-face why he chose her, what she did to attract his attention, even if he remains stone-faced and silent. (“It’s made my world very small” is simultaneously the saddest and most apt of all the women’s statements.) For Lilly, the most fiery of the group, it’s a public reckoning with how wildly that one night has altered the way she moves through the world. She’s scared all the time, she explains, and no friend or security camera can change that.
No testimony can change that either. Undoubtedly, the real women attacked by Marc O’Leary in Colorado and Washington in 2008 and 2011 haven’t simply ambled away from the experience lighthearted because it ended so decidedly on the side of justice. But 327 and a half years in prison isn’t a sentence; it’s a statement, a scare tactic, a piece of judicial badassery designed to drive home the point that there are judges who see rape as the violation of human life that it is, who see men like O’Leary as predators. McCarthy himself makes a rather stunning point when Taggert questions him: “I wasn’t going to stop,” he explains. Prevention is surely the best procedure. Taking women like Marie seriously and following up on any and all leads is second-best. But 327 years in jail isn’t a bad third place.
Women don’t walk around this country feeling safe. We hold our keys between our fingers on dark streets and wonder if we’ll have to use them to wield off attackers. We keep our drinks pressed tight to our bodies at parties and bars. We fake phone calls to keep strange men at bay. We take longer routes home to walk under streetlights. We text friends from bus stops and after we’ve locked our front doors. We turn on location-sharing lest a date turn ugly or violent. We reconsider running shorts when it’s blazing hot just to keep the catcallers silent. We do a goddamn ton of the work to keep men from touching us in the ways we don’t want to be touched. Frankly, it’s exhausting. And if you’ve been a victim of sexual assault or rape, the fear and the coping can take over your life. So it’s all the more refreshing to see a young woman have even some of that yoke lifted off her. None of us will walk any easier having seen Unbelievable, but we know what standard we’re searching for when it comes to police work. We know what level of care a victim of rape is due. We know what’s possible.
At the very end of this series, Marie has her picture taken on her own terms, this time at the DMV. She gets to say her piece to Parker. She gets that apology. But most movingly, she takes herself to the beach and reclaims it. During her rape, as she lay on her bed blindfolded, she replayed a happy scene in her mind: running in the surf with friends, laughing, free from any encumbrance for possibly one of the only moments of her young life. When she calls Duvall, she’s back on the beach, the weight lifted. And the two women, who have never met and never shared this screen, are revealed as kindred spirits. Both women want to see the good in the world. “I wake up now and I can imagine good things happening,” Marie says. And she lives happier ever after.