Unbelievable Is Must-Watch TV That Actually Respects Rape Victims

The Netflix show is addictive viewing – but rape is never a gratuitous plot device in this true-story drama.

Marie Adler (Merritt Wever)

by Marisa Bate |
Updated on

“I still dream about my first rape case,” Detective Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette) says to Detective Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever) in Netflix’s latest true crime series, Unbelievable. “Me too,” Duvall responds, in what is perhaps a nod to a movement that has permitted Netflix to commission a feminist eight-part mini series about unsolved rape cases.

Seated side-by-side in a parked car, softly into the night the detectives speak the victims’ names and ages, a brief memorial to a moment that changed both the victims’ lives, and their own. That small, quiet exchange crystallizes the giant gulf of what sets these two women apart from the rest of the police: they believe rape victims.

Unbelievable is based on a piece of Pulitzer-winnning journalism called An Unbelievable Story of Rape from US organisations The Marshall Project and ProReublica. The mini series centres around Marie Adler (Kaitlyn Dever), an 18-year-old who was raped at knifepoint in Washington in 2008 when a stranger broke into her apartment and tied her to the bed. In the aftermath of her rape, the police and her foster mother begin to pick holes in Alder’s story, suggesting to her that because she felt “isolated and lonely”, she would come up with something “that would get her the attention she needs”. Overwhelmed, betrayed, traumatised, Adler gives a false confession.

Meanwhile, Rasmussen and Duvall meet when working on rape cases with similar features, believing they may be looking for the same man. Eventually, their investigations will lead them to Adler.

What is striking about Unbelievable is how a thrilling cop drama carries a forceful anti-police message. The first episode opens with Adler reporting her rape. She has to recount the experience five times to three different professionals who show zero support or understanding. Throughout the series, the holes in the police investigation get bigger and bigger. As Duvall exclaims after months of work: “It’s always the same thing: rape, rush of policing, new evidence, new leads, and then one by one, they dry up, nothing to go on, nothing to pursue”. In one scene, the detectives admit how little detail police give when entereing rape cases into the offical system, suggesting how easy it is for neighbouring forces not to realise similar crimes are happening elsewhere. In short, nobody ever really cared enough.

It is powerful to watch at a time when the UK sees its highest-ever reporting of rape and lowest-ever conviction rates

Yet then we see Rasmussen and Duvall interveiw rape victims – and it’s an enitrley different story. It’s no coincidence they are both women, unlike the detectives on Adler’s case who are both men (a gender split that feels offset by the disbelieving foster mother). But they are also both_knowledgeable_about rape crimes and how traumasited victims repsond: they cast no judgment. “You don’t have to explain your choices to me,” Duvall says to a victim. They put the hours in – working late, carrying on work over dinners supportive husbands have cooked, worrying about sick children from afar. While everyone else had been so quick to believe Alder had fabircated her rape, Rasmussen and Duvall do whatever ishumanly possible to support victims, over weeks, months and years, to catch the perpretrator, the emotional strain of investigating rape clearly, at times, devastating. Their work and the commitment to it, becomes a physical manifestation of “I believe you”, the phrase coming to define the #MeToo era.

It is refeshing to see a Netflix crime thriller that tells a different story about rape. Rape here isn’t a gratuitous plot device; it is a profound violence and violation. Unbelievable is an extremely emotional watch, provoking tears throughout, underpinned by excellent performances and a willingness to confront the impact of this crime head-on. So unflinchingly painful at times, I have had nightmares from watching the show as it preys on every woman’s darkest fears – a stranger entering your home in the middle of the night. Uncommonly, it explores how the system harms victims; not just one, lone perpetrator. As Adler’s therapist points out, Adler was “attacked twice” – once by the rapist, and once by the police. And, unusually, there is a semblance of justice, eventually. Resources are spent on investigations; a successful conviction takes place. This is powerful to watch at a time when the UK sees its highest-ever reporting of rape and lowest-ever conviction rates.

Most importantly, Unbelievable also asks us to reconsider what truth and lies mean for different people. In a time when believing women has become a political act, this show is a powerful – and necessary – piece of television.

Just so you know, whilst we may receive a commission or other compensation from the links on this website, we never allow this to influence product selections - read why you should trust us