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Unbelievable Is the Most Feminist Crime Show I’ve Ever Seen

The dynamic duo: Merritt Wever and Toni Collette in Unbelievable. Photo: Beth Dubber/Netflix

Spoilers ahead for Netflix’s Unbelievable.

Unbelievable opens with a scene that we’ve all witnessed, sadly, on many crime shows: a young rape victim — in this case, Marie Adler (Kaitlyn Dever), a recent graduate of the foster-care system — being asked by police to recount what happened to her.

The first officer to arrive robotically says, “I’m here to help you,” then asks Marie a series of questions, which she answers in a daze. Two more detectives come in and ask her more questions. Afterward, she’s taken to a hospital where she isn’t told exactly what her examination will entail; one doctor jams a speculum into her vagina with no forewarning. Then Marie has to go to the police station and retell the story of her rape yet again. When she’s done, the detective asks her to write what she just told him in a statement so they have it “in her words.” It is, indeed, unbelievable how insensitive and demanding everyone is given what Marie has just been through.

In episode two, Unbelievable turns its lens on Golden, Colorado, three years later, where a woman named Amber (Danielle Macdonald) has been raped under circumstances that are very similar to what Marie described. But at every turn, Amber is treated in a completely different way. “If it’s all right with you, I’d like to ask you some questions,” Detective Karen Duvall, portrayed by Merritt Wever with the perfect balance of compassion and professionalism, says to Amber. “Would you be comfortable talking in my car?” Every move Duvall makes is preceded by a request for consent, a subtle way of reminding Amber that the man who raped her didn’t rob her of control, even though she may feel that way at the moment.

Duvall accompanies Amber to the hospital for her exam. She tells her that she knows the nurses who will examine her and that they are “excellent,” and says the same thing about the counselor who will sit by Amber’s side throughout the entire experience. When the exam is over, she drives Amber to a friend’s house. Though she does follow-up later, she doesn’t do it right then, nor does she ask Amber to write down what she’s already said. This is what it’s like, Unbelievable tells us, when a woman is in charge. This is also what it’s like when a woman is respected, heard, and made to feel safe about telling the truth.

Contrasting moments like that distinguish Unbelievable as the most feminist crime show in recent memory, but one that is not feminist in the typical, “look at women being badasses” way that Hollywood often does feminism. As created by Susannah Grant, this series, which is ostensibly about the attempt to track down a serial rapist after his initial victim is deemed unreliable, is really about how women move through the world, not only as victims or detectives but as employees and bosses, mothers and partners, colleagues and friends. It’s a show about what happens when women use their voices, and how challenging it can be to figure out how to speak up and when.

The fact that Unbelievable is all of these things while still working within the traditional structure of the detective genre makes it quite remarkable. Crime shows, including really terrific ones, tend to rely on well-worn misogynistic storytelling devices: the beautiful dead or assaulted girl, the loyal detective’s wife, gratuitous imagery of violence against women. Even shows that cast women as the investigators, like CSI or FX’s The Bridge, often give those characters hard, unwieldy edge. Or, like Law & Order: SVU and Olivia Benson, the character’s backstory explains why she is so interested in solving these crimes. Yes, it’s empowering to see women working cases with the same ambition and aggression that men bring to them. But it can sometimes feel like we’re just watching male energy or narrative devices filtered through a female character. Unbelievable takes a more nuanced approach.

Because it’s based on actual events, Unbelievable sits right in the middle of the true and scripted crime spectrum. What happens in the show feels real because much of it actually happened. But the way Grant and her fellow writers and filmmakers frame the story, within the perspectives of a female victim and two female detectives who can relate to the women who have been attacked, gives the story an even more personal and empathetic edge.

The victims you see on Unbelievable are not the standard victims you see on most crime shows, especially on network television, where the women targeted by criminals frequently look like attractive, up-and-coming Hollywood actresses because, well, that’s what they are. The rapist targets different kinds of women: young, old, white, black, thin, fat, blonde, brunette. Some of this is steeped in truth. The reporting that inspired the series, done by T. Christian Miller of ProPublica and Ken Armstrong of the Marshall Project, tells us that Marc O’Leary, the man eventually charged with the rapes, attacked women whose ages were all over the map: 18, 26, 46, 65. But Miller and Armstrong’s story, which protects the identities of the victims, didn’t say anything about their appearances. By showing us such a spectrum, Unbelievable quietly reinforces the idea that no woman is “asking for it” because anyone can become a rape victim.

The series does not gloss over the violence of the attacks, but it doesn’t dwell on it either. Instead of reenacting the rapes in full or leering at grisly crime photos, Unbelievable shows us flashes of what happened to Marie, Amber, and the other women, a reflection of the way those suffering from PTSD recall snapshots of traumatic memories. The series also relies heavily on the victims’ words as they recall how their senses of security were suddenly snatched from them. If you’ve been assaulted, certainly all of this can be triggering or upsetting. But Unbelievable doesn’t traffic in shock value. It shows restraint. It’s much more interested in the shock that sets in when victims of rape, particularly the discounted and marginalized Marie, are not believed.

Unbelievable highlights the resourcefulness and attention to detail required to catch a serial criminal, but does so with a female bent. When one of Duvall’s officers finds part of a muddy footprint outside of Amber’s apartment, Karen tells him to “hit it with hair spray to lock it in place” before capturing the imprint. Another male officer registers an expression that says, Huh, I hadn’t thought of doing that before, which makes sense since many men — not all, but many — don’t have much experience with hair spray. Women often play the role of social organizers, which is why it seems so natural for Mia (Liza Lapira), a member of Duvall’s team, to say she’s putting together a list of cops for a Veterans Day ceremony when she’s actually compiling a list of all the Colorado officers who may, like the potential suspect, have a military background.

Without making a fuss about it, Unbelievable shows us how feminism is practiced on a daily basis by men and women who share responsibilities and pursue their careers on completely equal footing. Duvall is married and has two daughters, so she’s constantly multitasking: putting away groceries while making calls about potentially related cases, or staying up late to pore over security footage with a dozing child on one side of her and a glass of red wine on the other. It’s an “I don’t know how she does it” portrait that explains exactly how she does it: by not sleeping much and — this is important — having a husband who works in the same field and also takes care of the kids when she’s pulled away from home, which is often. The same can be said of Lieutenant Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette), who eventually teams up with Duvall to track down the rapist. She doesn’t have kids, but she does have a partner who puts supper on the table when she rolls in the door after a long day. Other shows that have centered around strong female detectives weave their romantic entanglements directly into the narrative — think of the way that The Killing ended with Holden and Linder getting together, or the relationship between Robin and Johnno in the first season of Top of the Lake. But in Unbelievable, the men in the investigators’ lives are vital without overwhelming the story.

That said, the way Duvall and Rasmussen carry themselves when they’re within the walls of police headquarters is what makes the strongest impression. Each of these women is capable as all hell and comfortable acting as a boss, but they carry their confidence differently. Karen Duvall is a stickler, someone who has incredibly high standards for herself and doesn’t adjust the bar downward for anyone else. She has no patience for anything resembling laziness. When an officer asks for a bathroom break while working Amber’s crime scene, he gets a flat no. When two other cops can’t explain why they don’t have lab results back yet, she tears them a new one for not doing more to follow-up. Duvall is professional and cordial, but not necessarily a friend. The men who take orders from her sometimes give each other knowing “God, she’s a ballbuster” looks. But they all want her approval. When she later praises one of the officers who initially messed up the lab results, he looks as proud as a boy who just earned his first gold star from his kindergarten teacher.

Rasmussen is looser and more relaxed — she’s someone who doles out high fives in the office — but she takes her job just as seriously as Duvall does and is just as relentless. As a veteran cop with a bit more experience, she’s also learned how to carry her burdens in a way that doesn’t weigh her down as much. When an intern suggests that they should run a search on recent women’s-underwear thefts to see if it leads them to a suspect, Rasmussen and her colleagues razz on him for a couple of minutes. But Rasmussen is also the first one to say, “You know what? Give it a shot. There are no bad ideas.” She’s blunt and no-nonsense, but she’s also warm and encouraging. Both of these women are good at what they do, and they know it, and it’s refreshing to see that on a television show. It’s even more refreshing to see that there’s more than one way for a woman to be an effective authority figure.

In fact, Duvall eventually confesses that she learned how to handle herself on the job from Rasmussen herself. When Duvall was new to police work, she observed Rasmussen when she successfully carried out an undercover operation and it set a model for her to follow. “I just thought, Okay, I don’t have to defer or second-guess. I can just show up and get the job done,” she tells her partner. That conversation speaks to how much women do for each other simply by setting an example of professionalism and self-assurance. Together, the two of them just show up and get the job done over and over again.

Yet, as assured and phenomenal at their jobs as they are, not everything comes easily to them. They know that one false move — like suggesting the rapist might be a cop — could derail the trust that’s been placed in them. As much respect as they’ve rightfully earned, the police world is still mostly run by men, so as Rasmussen says at one point, it’s vital to know when it’s in their best interest to keep their mouths shut. For the record, that’s not so dissimilar from the lesson Marie learns and why she concludes that it’s better to say she wasn’t raped. Unbelievable never loses sight of the fact that the system makes women feel like they’re constantly operating underneath a low ceiling. It’s the rare crime show that demonstrates how a similar ceiling exists for victims of crimes as well as those attempting to solve them.

That reality is illustrated in the most heartbreaking fashion by Marie, who is treated terribly by men and women in all aspects of her life: her bosses, her former foster parents, her counselors, her peers, the cops. This young woman, who has been flung from temporary home to temporary home and repeatedly abused, has every reason to think the system is set up to work against her. It always has. But even in the lowest moments of Marie’s story, Unbelievable reminds us that change can happen when women look out for each other. When Marie realizes she missed a court date for her false-reporting charge because the information was sent to the wrong address, a female clerk immediately comes to her aid, calmly tells her it’s not her fault, and pressures a public defender into taking Marie’s case. When Marie is forced to go to therapy as part of her sentence, it’s that therapist who finally gets Marie to acknowledge that she had to say she lied about the rape because she felt she had no other choice.

“No matter how much someone says they care about you, they don’t,” Marie says in a scene that’s beautifully acted by Dever and Brooke Smith, who plays the therapist in a genius piece of casting. Smith has played many roles over the years, but whenever many viewers see her, the first role they think of is the woman kidnapped and abused by Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs. I know I do. Once Smith appears onscreen, you subconsciously think, This woman knows abusers and abuse. This woman will be able to do something for Marie.

Karen Duvall and Grace Rasmussen do something huge for Marie, too. In an elegant piece of crosscutting, Marie has that pivotal conversation with her therapist while Duvall and Rasmussen, sorting through evidence, finally find the proof that Marie was raped just as she had told police from the beginning. Marie doesn’t even know it yet, but her life is about to change for the better. And it’s because those two women genuinely meant it when they said, “We’re here to help you.”

Unbelievable Is the Most Feminist Crime Show I’ve Ever Seen