Tardy Ethics Observations On The Netflix Series “Unbelievable” [RE-Corrected]

I have at least four posts written already in my head this New Year’s Day morning, but I wanted to begin 2023 with a discussion that is at least a little bit positive, hence this. In truth, the 2019 series “Unbelievable” is the reason the first post of the year is going up so late: disgusted with the vulgar and idiotic New Year’s Eve coverage on the networks (“Do you two have children, are will you be making one tonight?” one of ABC’s celebrity hosts asked a kissing couple.) Grace and I started watching “Unbelievable” on Netflix for the third time. I thought it was better this time than before, and on the earlier viewings I thought it was great. Thoroughly engrossed we couldn’t stop midway, so as a result, the Marshall got to bed after 3 am last night. (And I woke up with a cold.)

Over at “Simple Justice,” lawyer/blogger Scott Greenfield wrote about his regret that so many examples of flaws within the justice system escaped his metaphorical acid pen in 2022. Yeah, welcome to my world, Scott. I write three or hour posts a day to his one, and I still miss more ethics issues, often major ones, than I cover. I do not understand why I didn’t write about “Unbelievable” in 2019, or in 2021, when I watched it again. In such situations, I’m just letting readers down. “Unbelievable” is not only an ethics story, but an important one; it also happens to be true. (It was also partially created by the Marshall Project. I am awash in shame.)

I usually don’t worry much about spoilers, but in this case, I don’t want anyone to enjoy the series less because I’ve given away the plot completely, although, as I said, I enjoyed “Unbelievable” more the third time around, but perhaps for different reasons than I did on first viewing. If you want to experience the story, the performances (which are all excellent), the incrustation and emotional finale cold, then maybe you should stop reading here. But I’m going to try to make some ethics points here without giving too much away:

  • “Unbelievable” was based on “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,”  a 2015 article covering a series of rapes between 2008 and 2011 in Washington and Colorado ,and the police investigations that eventually solved the mystery of who was responsible. The Marshall Project and ProPublica collaborated on the project, which won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting and the 2015 George Polk Award for Justice Reporting. Read it after you have seen the Netflix series.
  • “Believe all women” is obviously a recipe for abuse (and despicable Supreme Court Justice confirmation hearings, among other abominations), but the story of “Marie,” the first rape victim and one of the main characters in “Unbelievable,” almost justifies that mantra. A teenager living alone, she reported her rape to police and because some aspects of her accounts seemed strange, she met with skepticism and ultimately was bullied into recanting her story. The publicity surrounding her accusation and the withdrawal of it sent her life, already a series of one hurdle after another, into a tailspin.
  • I found “Marie” as portrayed in the series both breathtakingly sympathetic and infuriating. A lifetime product (victim?) of the foster care system, she lacks critical thinking skills and is so limited rhetorically that she constantly fails to communicate what urgently needs to be explained. It’s impossible to tell what her intellectual capabilities are, but when caregivers, parents, guardians and teachers fail so completely to prepare a child for life, disasters like what befell “Marie” are going to be far more disastrous.
  • This time watching “Unbelievable,” my mind kept running to the “privileged” rationalization that supposedly justifies bestowing eternal race-based advantages on all black Americans. Why can’t our culture, all of it, including its racial subdivisions, resolve to make the development of critical thinking and communication skills a basic duty of parenthood and education? What I am seeing is the opposite argument, in, for example, claims that teaching standard grammar is “racist.” Over and over again, we see “Marie” stumped by  basic questions like, “Were you raped, or weren’t you?” “I’m pretty sure I was,” she says at one point. Yes, yes, I know: she’s young, she’s traumatized, two hard-boiled and hostile male cops are interrogating her, but still: this is no time to be equivocal, kid! “Yes, I was raped. I’m a bit fuzzy on the details, but I know that.” By 18, an individual has to have learned how others react to uncertainty and equivocation.
  • The saga is both anti- and pro-police. I don’t think I have seen a better portrayal of why police have such a bad reputation among many Americans, why their job is almost hopeless difficult, why the enmity focused on them by certain political factions (and Barack Obama) is so unfair, why we are heading into a crisis where nobody is foolish enough to want to do the job who is capable of doing it well, and why it is so unfair that police have to perform their dangerous and difficult duties under such conditions. Yet the central tragedy of the story is triggered by two veteran, serious, well-meaning police officers who completely botch the case. At the end, one of them says, “You know, we all talk about bad cops, and we say, when we find them, get rid of ’em. Maybe it’s time to get rid of me.”
  • Other ethics issues raised as the complex story unwinds: when the ends justify the means (violating policies to stop a serial rapist); how well-meaning foster parents make terrible decisions; bureaucratic incompetency; how total ignorance of the law and legal system endangers the young and makes them victims-in- waiting; trial lawyer ethics; the lack of accountability when local governments fail their citizens, moral luck, willful blindness (call me cynical, but I find it difficult to believe that your family member and house mate could be a souvenir-keeping  rapist for years and you’d never suspect a thing…), and more.
  • In that “more” category: the failure to consider the effects of technology and to play “ethics chess.” There was or is a police manual on investigating rapes, and someone downloaded it on the “dark web” where aspiring rapists used it to perfect their craft and stay one step ahead of police. The web has been around long enough to anticipate this sequence. If it involves technology, you have to think about the implications.

In short, watch “Unbelievable.” Particularly impressive are the three lead actress, Toni Collette, and Merritt Weaver as the police detective who finally break the case, and especially Kaitlin Dever as “Marie.”

You can stream it here.


6 thoughts on “Tardy Ethics Observations On The Netflix Series “Unbelievable” [RE-Corrected]

  1. We watched it a year ago or so. It is incredibly good. We found the behavior and actions of all the principle characters unnerving at times. But it was very engaging drama all around.

    I will come in on the side of someone not genuinely knowing that a person living in the home is a criminal.

    While there are people who are willfully blind to obvious criminal activity, I would hate to live in a world where one must automatically assume the worst about a family member, even a husband, brother or father.

    The women in the lives of BTK or Gary Ridgeway trusted the creeps. Maybe they should have been more cynical. But even when someone recognizes that a loved one is weird or secretive, the last thing anyone would think is, “You know, I wonder if he’s a serial killer?”

  2. Typos: “Responsibel” and “serial racist”.

    It’s sad how the system failed Marie in so many ways. It gives a grain of truth to the notion of “privilege”. If Marie was an upper-class, well-spoken girl, I doubt she would have had such a hard time being believed.

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