Netflix limited series Unbelievable shines light on harrowing true story


The official Netflix poster

Juliana Webb

Warning: This article contains discussion sexual assault

The crime series Unbelievable has been available on Netflix for a few months, and I was thoroughly excited to watch it, but did not know the whirlwind of emotions that would come with watching it. The show is based of the Pulitzer winning article, “An Unbelievable Story of Rape.” The official Netflix description is, “After a young woman is accused of lying about rape, two female detectives investigate a spate of eerily similar attacks.” 

The show is a powerful story; it follows a split timeline of Marie Adler in Lynwood, Washington in 2008

 and, a little closer to home, Detective Karen Duvall and Detective Grace Rasmussen in Colorado in 2011. Unbelievable starts off already hard to watch with Marie Adler reporting being raped by a masked intruder in her apartment. 

Kaitlyn Dever in her stunning performance as Marie Adler

I was initially worried that the women who went through this would be able to be found easily and contacted in real life, because I wouldn’t want a very personal detail about my life and my face to be shown on millions of tvs. Luckily, the show respects the real women the characters are based off by protecting their anonymity. Their names, appearances, and some ages are changed. Even Marie Adler’s real name isn’t Marie; it’s her middle name. Everyone else’s names are also changed, but their real names are listed online. The real detectives names are Stacy Galbraith and Edna Hendershot, but were called Karen Duvall and Grace Rasmussen instead. I think it’s the smart thing to do, not only for the victims, because Netflix has such a wide broadcast system.

One of the first things I felt while watching this show, besides deep hurt for the girls who went through this horrific time, was anger. The two male detectives assigned to Marie’s case show little compassion as they become increasingly unconvinced the rape actually happened. They have her repeat her story—one of the worst moments in her life she’s been through—eight times. They are essentially asking her to relive it unnecessarily. I felt anger at the rapist for doing this to the women who in no way shape or form deserve it. 

More people become skeptical to Marie’s claim, due to her “off” reaction, as her own previous foster mom, Judith, said—as if there is only one reaction a victim is allowed to have. Eventually, the cops manipulate her into saying she lied about the rape, and when she wrote her statement as something different than what they were expecting, they became verbally angry. They even went as far as to say “What do you think should happen to someone who lies?” like a threat. Instead of supporting Marie and trying to catch the man (who would become a serial rapist), they belittled and yelled at a young woman who had experienced a trauma.


Merritt Wever (left) as Karen Duvall and Toni Collette (right) as Grace Rasmussen

As the show goes on, it flashes forward five years later to Colorado, where there have been more victims. Detective Duvall, from the Golden Police Department, responded to a rape from a college student named Amber. Duvall is a compassionate cop with a calm demeanor, determined to solve Amber’s case. When talking to her team, she says, “This is not something they get over. This is something they carry with them, forever, like a bullet in the spine.” Fifteen miles over in Westminster, Detective Rasmussen is still solving her month old rape case. Driving a golden car, combined with her experience of working many years on the police force—more than Duvall—and with her sarcastic and forward personality, she is one of the best detectives out there. Duvall reaches out to Rasmussesn when she realizes their cases are extremely similar. The victims being forced to shower, bed sheets and everything he touched stolen, gloves and a backpack, tied up, and to further violate the women, pictures taken of them. 

As they go on a hunt to find the rapist, they discover two more victims, Lily and Doris. Doris is a sweet old woman now living in a frat house, taking care of the boys by cooking for them, being called “Mama D” and treated like the favorite grandmother. Lily is a young woman who dove off her balcony onto solid concrete to stop her rape. She shattered her pelvis, fractured her leg, and punctured a lung. Proof of America having the most expensive health care system, Lily says, “The medical bills would floor you.” Their rapes were never solved. 

One of the things that stood out to me was what an amazing job the cast did. Kaitlyn Dever, who plays Marie, portrayed her with heartbreaking vulnerability and managed to show her emotions so well, it is like a hit to the heart. Duvall and Rasmussen’s passion and the rest of their team’s determination was breathtaking. You cheer the characters on, feel their successes and downfalls, wanting the best for them. You hope that in the end, these women will get the ending they deserve: happiness and the rapist behind bars. 

It is not all heavy, though. The creators did a good job mixing in humor, because without it, Unbelievable would be ten times harder to watch. Duvall, not knowing what “nose goes” is, made me laugh in the thick of a heavy episode. Amber, relating to all of us at Fossil Ridge High School, says “I’m a student. We never sleep or eat well.” The other funny moments and lines, I will let you see for yourselves. 

My favorite character is Detective Duvall. I love how kind Duvall is, and how she pushes and advocates for others. If you are a good person, you should be in the clear with Duvall. If you are not, she will not hesitate to take you out. She has a good soul. She works endlessly to protect people and bring people to justice (in this case, a serial rapist.) Overall, I would give Unbelievable a full five out of five. The cast is very skilled, and the creators did an excellent job writing realistic trauma, and knew exactly how to draw you in. Unbelievable had me on the edge of my seat the entire time I was watching it, and the ending was an excellent conclusion to these women’s storylines. If you are looking for something new on Netflix to binge and have eight hours to spare, add Unbelievable to your queue.