Netflix’s Unbelievable – Sexual Assault Victims Fight for Justice

No one ever accuses a robbery victim of lying. Or someone who says he was carjacked. But when it comes to sexual assault…

Unbelievable, an eight episode series now streaming on Netflix, is a sobering reminder that women must still fight to be heard. The production is based on the 2015 article by Ken Armstrong and T. Christian Miller about a series of rapes that happened between 2008 and 2011 in Washington and Colorado. Susannah Grant, who wrote, directed, and produced Unbelievable, delivers a taunt, tense drama that benefits from performances by a stellar cast. 

Eric lange, Kaitlyn Dever, Bill Fagerbakke

When teenager Marie Adler (Kaitlyn Dever) reports that she has been raped, the initial support she receives from the Lynwood, Washington police quickly begins to crumble. The trauma of a sexual attack often finds the victim not able to recall important details. The two male detectives questioning Marie home in on the inconsistencies in her account and soon are pressuring her to admit she made the whole thing up.

Elizabeth Marvel

Marie grew up in the foster care system, surviving some horrific situations. Her last two placements were in fairly stable homes, but the foster mothers she became close to begin to doubt that she’s telling the truth. One, Judith (Elizabeth Marvel), actually meets with Detective Parker (Eric Lange), to suggest that Marie has invented the rape as a way of getting attention. Marie, seeing the odds stacked against her – something that seems to happen frequently in her life – wants the whole ordeal to end and confesses that she was lying. With her few friends now turned against her, Marie has little to hold onto and even considers suicide.

Meanwhile several states away in Golden, Colorado, Detective Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever), takes a statement from Amber (Danielle Macdonald), who says a man broke into her apartment and raped her. When Duvall searches for other possible rapes in Colorado, she turns up one in Westminster and contacts the lead detective, Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette). The attacker’s MO is similar. No forensic evidence is left behind and he forces the women to shower for 20 minutes before he leaves them. Because the assailant is meticulous, not only about the crime scene, but also making sure never to commit more than one rape in any jurisdiction, thus preventing the police from attributing the attacks to a serial rapist, Karen and Grace begin to suspect that he’s a police officer.

Kaitlyn Dever

Unbelievable pulls no punches, taking us inside the aftermath of a rape. The staff at the hospital is kind to Marie, but collecting evidence after a rape is invasive, exacerbating the trauma. We also hear from several of the women in Colorado, including Lily (Annaleigh Ashford), who jumped off a second floor balcony to escape her attacker and sustained serious injuries. The rapist doesn’t seem to have a type, assaulting a diverse group of women, including an elderly woman who is housemother for a boy’s fraternity house. 

With different work styles, Karen and Grace take some time to develop a partnership, but they are united in their determination to find the rapist and put him away for life. They are aided and supported by their husbands: Max Duvall (Austin Hébert) is a Westminster police officer, and Steve Rasmussen (Kai Lennox), is an investigator with the attorney general’s office in Westminster. When the suspect’s arrest happens, it’s as dramatic as we hope it will be. The police work that leads to that event is less flashy but critical to making a case against a suspect. The team’s investigator, RoseMarie (Dale Dickey), and her intern Elias (Omar Maskati), add valuable intelligence while providing some comic relief.

It’s been several years since the events depicted in Unbelievable, and because of the #metoo movement, sexual assault victims are speaking out and, hopefully, being taken more seriously. What becomes obvious in this series is that it took two women in law enforcement to spearhead the investigation and get results. Marie was treated badly and even an apology by Detective Parker does little to make up for what she has suffered. Looking him in the eye, she tells him: “Next time do better.” We hope all the Parkers of the world heed that message.

Photos courtesy of Netflix
Top photo: Merritt Wever and Toni Collette

About Charlene Giannetti (398 Articles)
Charlene Giannetti, editor of Woman Around Town, is the recipient of seven awards from the New York Press Club for articles that have appeared on the website. A graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Charlene began her career working for a newspaper in Pennsylvania, then wrote for several publications in Washington covering environment and energy policy. In New York, she was an editor at Business Week magazine and her articles have appeared in many newspapers and magazines. She is the author of 13 non-fiction books, eight for parents of young adolescents written with Margaret Sagarese, including "The Roller-Coaster Years," "Cliques," and "Boy Crazy." She and Margaret have been keynote speakers at many events and have appeared on the Today Show, CBS Morning, FOX News, CNN, MSNBC, NPR, and many others. Her last book, "The Plantations of Virginia," written with Jai Williams, was published by Globe Pequot Press in February, 2017. Her podcast, WAT-CAST, interviewing men and women making news, is available on Soundcloud and on iTunes. She is one of the producers for the film "Life After You," focusing on the opioid/heroin crisis that completed filming on February 1, 2020. Charlene divides her time between homes in Manhattan and Alexandria, Virginia.