Netflix is here, you may have heard. You’ve survived without it all your life. But now, with its Wonka-like world finally available to you, a new problem has arisen: where to begin? We chose Making a Murderer. A decision - we conceitedly report after quickly giving ourselves a pat on the back - was as wise as it was enlightening. We emphatically urge you to do the same.
Let’s get some things out of the way right off the gate. Making a Murderer is a documentary. And it isn’t about the breeziest subject in the world. But what it lacks in finesse it more than makes up for in sheer watchability. In fact, it’s one of the most engrossing stories put on screen, small or large, this year. By the time you’re done with its 10 deeply addictive episodes, you’ll either be left catatonic with rage or in disbelief with shock. Maybe it’s just us, but when a show or film manages to elicit a reaction this strong, it’s hard to just Netflix and chill.
There is no way to adequately explain what this show is about without, and we hate to use that word in this context, spoiling it. Spoiling is reserved for Star Wars, is it not? But Making a Murderer might well be about a galaxy far, far away as well.
The series is about Wisconsin miscreant Steven Avery, a man who has been living a life of petty crime since his youth, always having run ins with the law, and, like every other poor white trash kid who takes a step out of line (or in this case doesn’t), losing.
In 1985 Avery was arrested and convicted for the rape of Penny Beernsten, a lady who identified him out of a police line up and testified against him in court, providing a positive id. Open and shut case you’d say. And you wouldn’t be wrong. The evidence is all there and the victim’s testimony is as good as a guilty verdict. Then, after serving 18 years in prison, never having settled for the plea bargain that would have drastically cut short his term, new DNA evidence is found and Steven Avery is exonerated of his crimes.
A free man now, he gets back to work on his family’s large junkyard, posing for pictures with stranger’s babies and giving interviews to anyone who cares. Upon advice from his lawyers he decides to sue the state for his wrongful imprisonment for $36 million. Then, in 2005, a woman named Teresa Halbach is reported missing. And whose door do the cops knock on? You guessed it.
Unbelievably, all this happens in the first episode. There are nine more to go. This is where we advise you to start early. Bingeing is the only way. This is a story that is difficult to walk away from, despite the infuriating nastiness of what’s happening on screen.
The two directors of the show, Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos arrived at the scene soon after the disappearance of Halbach and the second arrest of Avery. They filmed this case for over a decade, simply and bluntly. To them, the injustice is there for all to see, no reconstructions or flashbacks or voiceovers are needed. The Manitowoc county messed up once and instead of admitting its blunder and settling the lawsuit, it slapped another case on Avery.
Shows like this remind us that the American legal system is broken. There’s no two ways about it. Like any other bully, it’s unfair towards those who can’t defend themselves. And that’s exactly who it targets, time and time again, having assured itself that it is too big to fail. Here, the prosecutors target Brandon Dassey, Avery’s nephew. He is interrogated without the presence of an elder for three hours till he is coerced into confessing a horrific account of rape, murder and burial. Oh, and another thing: Dassey is a minor, with severe learning disabilities.
You can watch the first episode here
It is a volatile time in America. On one side we have unrelenting violence against the blacks, on another there is a man running for president who wants to kick out all the immigrants by literally building barriers. But it’s stories like these that usually go unreported. Stories of ignored, forgotten ‘white trash’ families living in abject poverty, uneducated and simple. Errol Morris’ great documentary The Thin Blue Line, about a similar premise is eclipsed only by the legendary Paradise Lost trilogy, about three Arkansas kids convicted of murdering children just because they listened to Metallica and wore black.
The Wisconsin of Making a Murderer, like the Bible belt lunacy of Paradise Lost, is a hellscape. There are no straightforward relationships between two people. Everyone’s a half-something or ex-something. Both Avery and Dassey have an IQ of less than 70. Snide hints at the inbred nature of the family are made more than once.
Make no mistake: Avery is no saint. He would probably be the first to admit that. But it’s like that great line from Oldboy: “Just because I am a monster, does that mean I don’t have the right to live?” And Avery isn’t even a monster.
So how in the world does a documentary series about a white trash miscreant from Wisconsin capture the imagination of the Internet like The Red Wedding happened all over again? Like we said, it isn’t something most people would be immediately attracted to. What it does have, however, is a raging desire to tell its story. There are Atticus Finch-like heroes out there to fight the system but there is also evil, fighting back just as hard.
Making a Murderer is a gripping courtroom drama, a harsh critique of a flawed and corrupt system, and an angry call to action. Above all, Making a Murderer is the kind of work that has the power to save lives. Take that for a blurb.
Follow @htshowbiz for more
The author tweets @NaaharRohan