What will get you is the repetition. Over and over again — eight times, in fact, if you count her verbal and written responses — teenage Marie (Kaitlyn Dever of Booksmart) has to retell the story of her rape, the complete and total violation of her home and body. She repeats the story so many times that it brands itself on your brain as this first episode unfolds, as you see how plainly she describes the events versus how graphically they unspool in her mind. “We need you to tell us what happened” becomes the sick, arrhythmic beating heart of this entirely necessary and mesmerizing new show.
So here’s what Marie says happened. She was talking to her former boyfriend, now friend, Conner on the phone late at night. Around 4 a.m., she went to sleep but must have forgotten to lock the sliding door to her first-floor apartment at the Oakdale, Washington, complex she lives in with other at-risk youths. Suddenly, she was awakened by a man standing over her bed brandishing a knife and threatening to kill her if she screamed. He took a blindfold from his backpack, unlaced a pair of her own shoes, and then tied her wrists with the laces. He also took out a condom, rolled it on, and raped her — vaginally, not anally, though she can only say “not his fingers” the first time she’s asked. Then he put something on her stomach (she doesn’t know what), took a picture using a flash, and exited the same way he came in. She untied herself and then called Judith (Elizabeth Marvel), her former foster mom, or maybe she called Judith first, she doesn’t precisely recall. Who would?
What we see in the flashbacks that accompany her voice are all the tiny but indelible bits that Marie never explains. How she pants, helpless and face-down on her bed. The way her rapist pinches her hips as he moves on top of her. The numb desperation on her face as she arches her back and clumsily cuts the laces her from own wrists with scissors from the kitchen drawer. Later, when the detectives grill Marie over whether she’s telling the entire story, these moments crept back into my mind. Of course she isn’t sharing absolutely everything — less than an hour after that kind of attack, who could even determine what “everything” really is? Policework demands all the details up front, a geyser of tactile horror — but sensitivity requires discretion, trust, the slow unspooling of a narrative that may be knotted into a hangman’s noose inside a victim’s mind.
This entire first episode of Unbelievable — which takes place over a mere couple of days — is an exercise in sending steam out your ears like an infuriated cartoon character. When we meet Marie, huddled under a down comforter with only a former foster mother there to offer support, she’s immediately interrogated by not one, not two, but three men. They’re all kindly and gentle, but it’s patently obvious to us (though not them) that barging in the door and immediately needling a rape victim for precise details as they stand over her might not be the most victim-centric approach. “Here they come, here comes help,” Judith assures Marie as that first officer comes through the door. But by the end of the episode, it’s clear that the police haven’t offered a single bit of help to Marie.
For that matter, neither does the staff of the hospital she’s brought to for a rape kit and examination. The nurse conducting the exam offers what she must view as adequate explanations of the multitude of procedures and swabs she’s poking into Marie’s already traumatized body (four of her vagina, four of her rectum, four of “the area in-between”, and my stomach was in my mouth). But no specialized advocate joins her side. No reassuring hand squeezes her shoulder. Nobody flat out asks what exactly the thing is that she needs. Imagine a stranger covering your vagina in dye and then flashing a giant light on it to determine what areas are “damaged tissue,” while your knees are floating up in the air and you’re imagining that the last time someone touched you there it was to brutally rape you. Just imagine that.
And the process is interminable — photo after photo, followed by needles, jabs, and more questions. I kept imagining, for some reason, Amanda Knox as she sat in the police station after her arrest for her roommate Meredith Kercher’s murder. She cartwheeled, the tabloids reported. She even — gasp — stretched. In serious situations, young women, it seems, are meant to grow hysterical or maintain perfect seriousness. Actually, it seems that no matter what young women do in such situations, they’re deemed, as Judith later puts it to the detective, “off.”
It’s all distressingly clinical and dry — nearly 30 minutes of procedure and questioning. And yet it’s also some of the most moving television I’ve seen in years. Finally, a sexual-assault procedural that doesn’t treat the victims as if catching the perpetrator is the definitive end to any emotional struggles they might have, that whisks police out of their role as saviors, that drills down on the blank space left behind when first responders — who, in this instance, tell Maria ad nauseam that it’s their job to “keep people safe” but offer zero sense of safety in their actions — are crime-solving automatons.
Unbelievable doesn’t stop there in its indictments of how bystanders handle the rape of a friend or loved one. After Marie leaves the hospital and spends the night with her friend and fellow Oakdale dweller Amelia, two of her former foster mothers step in to offer various sympathies and support. Judith, whom Marie most recently lived with, manages to subtly chastise Marie in her first breath, telling her she’d have made her some tea, but there isn’t any, as if Marie has already begun failing independent adulthood by not stocking PG Tips. Colleen is a warmer presence, breaking down in tears as she tells her husband about the rape, pulling Marie into her chest. But she is determined that Marie’s trauma look and sound like what she expects. Marie’s demand for the exact same sheets she already owned — “green with little daisies” — is most likely an attempt to restructure her life exactly as it looked before the attack, to move past it in a rush. (“If I were you, I would never want to see those sheets again,” Colleen yells, unable to see that, well, she isn’t Marie.) That’s why later, in the new apartment the complex moves her into, when she pins up her oceanic poster and rehangs the photos of her friends, they also go in the same exact spots they once hung. Marie doesn’t want to live in the reality of her rape.
Which is what drives Judith, in a logic-twisting bit of verbal gymnastics, to invite over Detective Parker (Eric Lange, whom you’ve seen in a million shows like Lost, Narcos, The Bridge, and The Man in the High Castle, but you have probably never been able to name before this) and offer him what she calls “context” about Marie’s upbringing and recent attention-seeking behavior. Her father, we learn, was never in the picture, while her mother’s boyfriends were too often in the picture. The specifics are slim, but in general, this was not the story of a happy childhood. Yet Judith — also, we learn, a victim of sexual assault — slowly unfolds her internal debates onto the table. First, with the stories of Marie dancing on a table and (rather funnily, actually) blowing out the candles at a small child’s birthday. Then she begins to interrogate Marie’s reactions to the rape (“The whole thing felt off”), until finally she picks apart the details, wondering if a shoelace would even hold her, and offers an alternative scenario: Perhaps Marie sent someone naked photos of her and is using this tale as cover lest the photos make their way into the world. It’s cruelty in the guise of kindness, but there’s plenty of blame to go around.
Inherent in Unbelievable’s premise is that, well, Marie’s story is unbelievable. Though not for any of the reasons we so commonly associate with disbelieved women. Instead, it’s the simple fact that Marie is already a victim that makes detectives so eager to dismiss her story. She’s poor and young and doesn’t have a stream of lawyers sitting next to her in the interrogation room. Marie has such a long history of abuse (the only specific that we learn is that her parents fed her dog food, a crime of neglect so utterly contemptuous of human life that I shuddered) that for two male detectives, it’s far easier to believe that she would see more stories of abuse as an attention-seeking tactic.
Those final scenes, of the detectives slowly wearing Marie down into a false admission of a made-up rape, are brilliant in the multitude of ways they eff it up to bits. First the detectives come at Marie with her family-services file, brandishing sympathy as a sword. “We don’t think you’re a bad person,” they tell her, implying (while she shakes and squirms with unrelenting discomfort) that she has, however, done a bad thing. “You haven’t been cared for or protected,” they say without a hint of awareness. Eventually, Marie lands in the place they’ve been guiding her to and “admits” that she made the whole story up.
Then, when she stutters through a variety of potential ideas — that she dreamed the rape and it felt real, that she was hypnotized — that sympathy converts into guilt and shaming. “This is a waste of our time,” the detectives say to berate her. “What do you think should happen to someone who would lie about something like this?” Until, finally, after taking back her initial statement and then “admitting,” again, that she made up the tale, Marie has been reduced in just a few days’ time from a young woman whom the police have come to “help” to a girl clinging to the side of a bridge, perhaps seconds from jumping.
The two detectives — old white balding men — are surely at home shaking their heads at the damaged young lady who wasted their days with her false reports and patting themselves on the back for responding with such compassion. Meanwhile, the young woman they’re meant to be protecting is dangling, physically and emotionally.