There’s an odd, slightly uncomfortable line when both creating and watching true-crime documentaries like Netflix’s new 10-part series Making A Murderer: Is this “entertainment” or is it something else? (Or both?) As evidenced recently with The Jinx and Serial, there’s no doubt that these types of stories can be gripping and intense—and even capable of being shaped and intruded upon by their observers. Without Serial, it seems unlikely that Adnan Syed would have any hope at the moment; without The Jinx, Robert Durst might still be walking around a free man.
Now, having watched the first two episodes of Making A Murderer, I have no idea where Steven Avery is going to end up, or whether the series will have any real-world effect on his case. I’m not going to cheat and look up the details. (At least I don’t think I am.) What’s clear from the first two episodes is that Avery’s case (cases, actually) are complicated and mysterious and incredible in that you-couldn’t-make-this-shit-up way.
If this were simply a case of a man wrongly imprisoned for 18 years, there’d be plenty of story to tell, and plenty of characters with which to tell it. Steven Avery is painted as a fun-loving, low-IQ troublemaker who doesn’t seem to have a truly violent side. It’s absolutely clear by the end of episode one that the crime for which he was convicted in 1985—a violent sexual assault in Manitowoc, Wisconsin—was in fact perpetrated by someone else, and that the local police railroaded him, even likely knowing the identity of the actual rapist. It’s a sad, frightening, horrific tale of systemic injustice that would’ve made a powerful hour-long 48 Hours or something. (It probably did.)
Avery’s personality takes it to another place: He seems unflappable—unwilling to confess to a crime he didn’t commit even as it all but guaranteed him an earlier release. He’s painted as a person who sticks to his principles and owns up to his indiscretions. (Which include, it should be noted, burglary and setting a cat on fire.) He’s not necessarily a great guy, or somebody you’d want as a neighbor, but he doesn’t—this doc seems eager to point out—seem to be especially violent, or a killer. He is, in fact, a secondary victim to a horrible crime.
Where things get interesting are when addressing his assailants—members of law enforcement so comically, transparently guilty of bending the law for their own purposes that they may as well be wearing black hats and twirling their mustaches, though it’s far more insidious than that. They are portrayed, even after the evidence of his innocence is irrefutable and plain, as arrogant and self-righteous, still ready to say he’s guilty even in the face of that evidence, even after he’s been released.
But are they the kind of people who could or would—if their jobs or reputations were on the line—frame him for a totally unrelated crime once he got out? Making A Murderer, in its second episode, paints some of the players into a corner. Avery is set to sue the city of Manitowoc, and some of the individuals responsible, for $36 million, and he’s got a strong case. What the doc asks us to believe—or at least consider—is that under-the-gun law enforcement officers would be able to murder an innocent woman, then plant the evidence on Avery so that it looks like he did it, thereby discrediting his suits against them.
Now, neither of these episodes comes right out and posits that theory directly; it’s all implied. And what makes the case so fascinating is the utter implausibility of either scenario: Would a guy who just got out of jail and who has no history of this kind of violence be dumb enough to kill a casual acquaintance on his own property, and then sloppily try to cover it up? On the other hand, would a local sheriff’s department be as craven and cold-blooded to not only frame this man a second time, but also commit a murder themselves to do it?
We’ve got eight more episodes to go, so I assume there will be at least one or two more theories batted around—it wouldn’t be a true-crime series without them. But so far, Making A Murderer has done an excellent job of building suspense and introducing its characters without reducing the whole thing to a salacious free-for-all. The filmmakers— Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos—have access to seemingly everybody, from direct interviews to various depositions, and they’re able to build suspense and bring light to huge problems at the same time. (It makes sense, since they’ve been working on Making A Murderer for a decade.) So far it strikes the right balance.
- In looking up a name, I learned Avery’s fate in the murder trial, and some details from upcoming episode. Don’t spoil yourselves if you can help it.
- It’s easy to forget how frightening pretty everything about this case is, and how easy it was for the police to get “the right guy,” and to be so cocky about it.
- In the ‘80s, there was a supposedly airtight, positive identification. This time out, there’s some damning evidence right in his house. Of the two possibilities, Steven Avery actually killing a person seems more plausible.
- If you haven’t watched The Staircase, you should. Things were not what they seemed there, either.