[This is a review of Making a Murderer season 1. There will be SPOILERS.]
It is not often that the value of a television series can be measured in its ability to make audiences scream at their TV screens in disbelief and frustration. And yet, while watching Netflix’s built-to-binge true-crime docuseries, Making a Murderer, it is not hard to imagine the ways in which the filmmakers recognized the value of situating their audience in a frustration spiral – not only to encourage them to watch another hour (or four) when they should be getting to bed, but also to highlight what appears to be an unbelievable miscarriage of justice happening to the same man twice.
Filmed over the course of a decade and constructed from countless hours of taped interviews, news broadcasts, and courtroom video, Making a Murderer comes from filmmakers Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi, to become the latest in a string of crime thrillers with plots as intricate and tense as anything this side of an airport bookstore. The only difference is, like NPR’s Serial and HBO’s The Jinx, Demos and Ricciardi’s series tells a seemingly unbelievable story, the twist of which is that it all happened in real life.
The 10-hour series dives so fully into the situation in which its subject Steve Avery finds himself, and with such a keen understanding of tension – how its built and how it is sustained – that it often feels as though the story is riding on rails. That is, it can be difficult to tell how much of what you’re watching is the result of two documentary filmmakers’ storytelling prowess, and just how much of this is the result of the naturally fascinating and circus-like nature of the murder trial Steve Avery unwittingly finds himself at the center of.
Set in Wisconsin, the story begins at the end of another harrowing tale. Steve Avery, a short, stout man with a graying crew cut, wizard-like beard, and a beaming, high-wattage smile emerges from a car to face a throng of revelers and local news crews. As it turns out, Avery has just been released from prison after serving 18 years for a crime he didn’t commit. Exonerated by DNA evidence linking a violent sexual offender to the assault of a woman on a Wisconsin beach, Avery is set to start his life over and to seek recompense from the state for the nearly two decades he spent behind bars as a result of the failings (and possible prejudices) of the police and the criminal justice system.
What makes Making a Murderer so fascinating and so endlessly watchable – it is perhaps the most compulsively bingeable series Netflix has so far produced – is that the story of Steve Avery and his ongoing troubles with law enforcement don’t end when he emerges from prison after already serving 18 years. Again, that’s just the beginning. As the series posits by the end of its first hour, Avery appears to have been destined for a life behind bars due in large part to the vindictiveness of those whose job it is to uphold the law.
Demos and Ricciardi largely stake their claim in the current climate of this country and the opinion of the American justice system and its agents. And in doing so the two make their series into something more than a mere retelling of Avery’s would-be-preposterous-if-it-wasn’t-true tale. Making a Murderer taps into a very real concern for many Americans right now: the way they justice system more closely resembles a steamroller intent on crushing them, than it does an agency designed to serve and protect them. The filmmakers double down on that line of thinking early and often, underlining their subject’s (and his family’s) lower social standing and past history with the police as the framing device through which the prejudice of law enforcement towards a certain class of people is, in the eyes of the filmmakers, culpable in the events that unfold over the course of the series.
Understanding the specifics of Steve Avery’s story allows the series’ title to be read two different ways. The phrase Making a Murderer is either the result of Steve Avery’s guilt in the murder of a young woman named Teresa Halbach, or it refers to the institutional corruption that successfully convicted an innocent man – twice. If Avery is a murderer, then, it isn’t outside the realm of plausibility that his nearly two decades in prison is where his penchant for homicide was born. If that’s true, then, in addition to having a riveting courtroom drama on their hands, the filmmakers also have a sobering indictment of the American prison system and its propensity for breeding and worsening criminals rather than reorienting them into productive members of society.
What’s fascinating about Making a Murderer is that even if it were to speculate on the possibility of Avery’s guilt, Demos and Ricciardi would still have a captivating story of discrimination and the disastrous results of possible corruption and conspiracy on their hands. And yet the series very clearly comes at its subject from the point of view that Avery is innocent of the crime for which he was convicted. It is as intent on demonstrating the failings of law enforcement and the criminal justice system in this particular case as those systems were in demonstrating Avery’s guilt in the death of Teresa Halbach.
That is a bold move by the filmmakers, especially since, in their presentation of the evidence that Avery was framed by law enforcement, there is little suggestion or theorizing as to whom, then, is actually responsible for Halbach’s murder. Demos and Ricciardi manage to sidestep this potential shortcoming by intimating Halbach’s ex-boyfriend might serve as a possible suspect. But mostly they do so by positioning the purpose of the series as less an effort to solve what they purport is an unsolved crime and more as an indictment of the criminal justice system and the prejudices that seemingly dictate who is prosecuted successfully regardless of his or her guilt. Doing this leads to a great deal of the aforementioned viewer screaming at the screen. But it also provides the necessary framework for the series’ most potent discussion on the way in which individuals from a lower stratum of society, those deemed to be living on the fringes or outside what many consider decency or the norm, are more likely to suffer the consequences of prejudgment leveled against them.
Making a Murderer is riveting television any way you look at it. Despite its failings in certain areas (like addressing Teresa Halbach as a human being and not just the catalyst for Steven Avery’s misfortune), the series is consistently compelling. It satisfies by presenting a rich, detailed look at a small town captivated by a horror story unfolding within its borders, and then flipping the switch to present the accused as the victim. The unsettled end to Avery’s story hints not only at the ramifications of possible social prejudice, but also at the discomfiting realization that the truth is often unknowable and what we settle for more often than not is simply the construct of supposed authority.
All 10 episodes of Making a Murderer are currently available on Netflix.
Photos: Netflix, Inc.