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A new Netflix show about the true story of a police investigation into a serial rapist has a positive portrayal of faith and is nuanced and sensitive, says Liz Carter
I don’t usually watch true crime shows; I prefer to escape into the world of fiction in my viewing time. But when the trailer for the new and critically-acclaimed show Unbelievable played on my Netflix feed I was drawn in despite myself, and began to watch with guarded anticipation – I wondered how this story of a serial rapist would play out, and whether it would sink into needless gratuitous imagery.
The programme both gripped and challenged me, and instead of a procedural account about catching a criminal, I discovered a nuanced and sensitive presentation of the horror rape victims face, and how they are taken care of – or not. It’s a careful, character-driven piece of television which never tips over into gratuitous violence, telling the story of the others involved rather than the criminal himself - most of all, the women who suffered the rapes. Susannah Grant, the co-creator of the programme, said to the Los Angeles Times: “I really didn’t want to watch a rape. I wanted the viewer to understand the experience of that sort of violation and assault.”
Marie (Kaitlyn Dever), a young woman who grew up in the care system and now lives in a halfway house for those just out of foster care but as yet unable to achieve independence, reports a masked intruder breaking into her apartment in the night and the harrowing experience he puts her through, captured in difficult-to-watch but subtle flashbacks.
Instead of the narrative moving on to the investigation and arrest, the show focuses in on how the investigation affects the victim. In Marie’s case, the viewer is left appalled and distressed at the shoddy and downright destructive way in which the (male) cops deal with her report: the lack of empathy, care and, ultimately, belief in her account.
Her poor treatment doesn’t end in the police station, where she is grilled several times and pulled up on inconsistent details, it continues with her medical examination, which is stark in its indignity and inhumanity. Despite compelling evidence, Marie’s account is doubted, and, in her desperate vulnerability, she retracts her statement, bullied into the belief that she is a time-waster, an attention-seeker who will never be believed. This leads to a life of even greater misery for an already vulnerable young adult. It is a bleak reminder of a world so often belligerent to a person viewed as weak or somehow less important.
In contrast, the second episode is taken up with a different report of a rape three years later, bearing certain similarities to Marie’s. The female detective Karen Duvall (played with great skill by Merritt Wever) seems to be from a different planet, displaying a profound sensitivity and gentle empathy for the victim, which leaves the victim in a very different place to Marie.
We are reminded of the value of human kindness and genuine sympathy, and how a hostile environment and careless words can contribute to the downfall of a person, as much as the thoughtfulness and tenderness of a professional in this kind of situation can be a step on the road to recovery.
Duvall teams up with Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette), another strong female lead, and the two are depicted as the best that police detectives should be: diligent, painstaking, and compassionate, yet without tipping them into a saccharine kind of perfection – their flaws are evident, while never overdone.
What Christians can learn
As Christians, we can learn much from taking note of the care or lack of care shown to victims, and think about whether we as Church display care based on how people present their story or on the intrinsic value of them as created by God.
Do we listen to voices in society about the deserving and the undeserving, the attention-seekers and the scroungers, or do we allow ourselves to be conduits of the unconditional and outrageous love of God, which never ends at the way someone looks or speaks or dresses, but pours into the depths of each person on earth?
One of the most encouraging aspects of Unbelievable is the portrayal of Karen Duvall, one of the lead detectives, as an active Christian. When this facet of her character was first introduced my heart sank, certain that her faith would be turned into farce or cringe-matter, as is so often the case. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that her faith was rendered as a positive, adding to her characterisation as a person of compassion and wisdom, and in addition that she was written free to throw out questions and difficulties with her faith, without renouncing or deriding it.
She’s shown in one scene worshipping with her family in church, and in another bearing an attack on her faith by her detective partner Grace with quiet poise, and in the end, expressing her own doubts as well rather than reacting with cries of persecution and hatred. Grace later apologises for her outburst, clearly prompted by Karen’s nuanced response. Karen shrugs off her apology, and responds that the world is bad enough with God in her life, and she can’t imagine how difficult it must be without. Grace responds with a droll reflection on alcohol being the answer, and Karen laughs. The interaction left me with a sense of both relief and hope; here, finally, we have a story which gives a depiction of a Christian who struggles but still finds great solace and motivation from her faith.
Unbelievable is an important programme. Based on a true story, it reminds us of where we have come as a culture, especially since the #MeToo movement, but also of how far we have to go. And it reminds us that instead of Christianity being an obsolete, damaging and oppressive system, it inspires a living faith which leads to compassion, discernment and empathy.
Much of the storytelling brings to mind the topsy-turvy, revolutionary kingdom of God, where the first are last and the last are first, and where people are honoured for who they are, not their place in society. Most of all, the show should inspire us to be more careful when listening to others in our lives, particularly those on the outside and those whom society discounts.
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