Ever since the trailer for Making A Murderer dropped on the internet, a month prior to the Netflix premiere, I was dead set in watching from the beginning. December 18 could not have come sooner. I eagerly awaited by my television for the clock to strike 12:00AM EST. Perhaps since Netflix wants to make media available for all U.S. time zones, the docuseries did not premiere immediately at midnight. Already feeling drowsy I hit the sheets instead.
As an avid early bird riser, the first thing after waking up was hit play on episode 1 of MaM. Immediately I learned the individual behind this whole series: Steven Avery. There were many raw moments. The opening scene of the camcorder recording Steven’s arrival in the wake of his exoneration was special in itself. The filmmakers, Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, especially aimed for his arrival as a striking moment, not only to his family but to the audience as well. This is the happiest moment in the whole series. Soon this dissipates when the backstory of Steven’s wrongful conviction is introduced.
Just at 22 years old, he was convicted for the rape of Penny Beernsten. Gregory Allen was the real perpetrator behind the 1985 beach assault. Based on some insider information, Steven could have been exonerated in 1995, if it weren’t for the weird malfeasance from P.O Andrew Colburn. That same year Allen sexually assaulted another woman. Fast forward to the millennium where the Wisconsin Innocence Project dedicates their work on Steve’s case. September 11, 2003 is his release date after serving 18 hard years in prison.
Now let’s get to the real meat of this series, the unimaginable: Steven gets arrested and convicted for the 2005 murder of Teresa Halbach, 25 year old Auto Trader photographer. The even bigger surprise twist is the inclusion and conviction of his teenage nephew, Brendan Dassey, for the rape, murder, mutilation, and torching of Teresa. This case was larger than life.
I had an inkling that Avery’s cases were in my radar before MaM. Connecting the dots between beach rape and trailer slaughter, I was right. In the height of Serial’s popularity with media outlets recommending crime podcasts and documentaries to follow, I came across a Radiolab episode featuring the story behind Penny’s assault in 2014. I remember thinking how powerful it was, that this man, who I now know today as Steven Avery, served a wrongful prison sentence. Even then I felt incredulous that one man would be responsible for such heinous acts. It all makes sense today as the documentary gathered details of how these events precipitated.
“I put a lot of hours into these boxes,” Dolores, Steven’s mom, motions towards the gargantuan stack of case files in episode 1. Copies were sent to 60 Minutes and Dateline, eventually they were turned down. Fast forward to the juggernaut media attention. A Dateline producer unashamedly says “Right now murder is hot” in regards to the widespread local interest in Teresa’s case –the very opposite of what Dolores and family hoped for when they were turned down years prior.
I was under the impression her murder was way more obscure than Hae Min Lee’s, the subject behind season one of Serial.
Manitowoc County became the talk of the town. I’ve never come across such feverish attention to one case, especially where the locals are dead set in believing the defendant’s guilt. I remember when first listening to Serial, the amazing storytelling from Sarah Koenig made the case of Adnan Syed and story so unbelievably raw that I had to snap into reality, reminding myself “Oh yeah these people really exist. This all really happened.” On the basis that this was a podcast about a really obscure high school murder set in Baltimore in 1999, it had that advantage of letting you fill in the imagination slots. However with MaM, the audience is generously offered with court footage, archived news media from the 80s to today (trials, post conviction hearings, etc). Seeing the families in their daily lives was even more unique, and that relatable. Dolores cooking, turning on the 6 o clock news, buying chocolate at the county jail vending machine. The normal nuances of life. This is everything Serial listeners wanted.
I especially love that Laura and Moira moved to Wisconsin in the wake of Steven’s second arrest; all before Brendan was even implicated. Not only as a filmmaker, Laura being a lawyer in the past was advantageous towards the audience understanding the legalities of these cases. I appreciate the persistence of these two filmmakers grinding this out for 10 years. Also, props towards Netflix agreeing to a deal set in stone in 2013 after Laura and Moira demoed a three episode rough cut. If it weren’t for the quick speed availability of Netflix I would have never accessed this docuseries. Due to my reclusive ways I prefer seeing things in my own accord. My stubbornness has led me to miss out on a few documentaries (The Seven Five, The Wolfpack, Dream/Killer) from the past year in theatrical release.
Thank God for The Jinx.
“Take the deal” echos Sarah in episode 10 of Serial. She refers to Adnan’s painstaking wish in accepting a plea deal, one he couldn’t access at 17 years old. This is something he advocates for youth or anyone entering the system. Accept a deal for the sake of brevity. I was thinking the same as I learned about Brendan. As a 16 year old being falsely implicated in a series of crimes, I still think the best option was vying for a plea deal. The judicial system only rewards convictions.
Russian roulette occurs in a series of ways: being denied bail, scrambling for a new attorney, deciding to plead not guilty, accepting your fate from a jury panel. Verdicts are unpredictable. Brendan didn’t really have a chance with Kenchinsky. My favorite scene is when Brendan testifies on the stand that his false confession was influenced by the James Patterson book, Kiss The Girls. He seemed sorta stoic in an act of defiance, displaying a in-your-face moment to Ken Kratz about the absurdity of his non-involvement.
In addition to the Avery’s and Dassey’s, I liked seeing the appearances of Teresa’s family. Such a contrast in picture on one side of the courtroom with the raven haired and conservatively dressed Halbach’s, while seated on the opposite side were the defendant’s kin. Blonde and fair eyed, dressed in flannel with their arms crossed as if saying “we’ve been through this already.” Another thing was seeing Brendan’s physical transformation in his post conviction hearings. No longer does he resemble the sweet and shy young boy sporting the black sweatshirt and Jnco jeans in his first interrogation. It’s all really relative considering our close age range. The milestones I have experienced in the last five years –high school graduation, college graduation, my early 20s– have been unexceptionally limited in his life.
As a supporter of Avery and Dassey my wish is for their overturned convictions, however I’m aware the courts pass years to take things in consideration. I was hoping Steven’s parents hadn’t passed away during the passage of this doc. Thankfully they’re still alive and feverishly fighting for justice. What happened to Brendan occurred to Steven in 1985. Getting out of Green Bay in 2048 in his 50s, entering the world as he encounters new plights and perils never slighted before being imprisoned. Will he be branded with the boogyman symbol like his two time convicted uncle, then be accused of another crime he never committed? These problems and stigma might haunt Brendan if he is released and living in Manitowoc County. My only hope is the community accepts these men before branding them as criminals, but the deep seed in pointing the finger has long been planted.
I didn’t mind if I was watching 80 episodes. I was immersed in the filmmakers’ vision. I wasn’t interested in Google short cutting my way onto the end result. Laura and Moira excelled at pacing the story as I alternated between two days of binge watching. My only interest was seeing how everything played out in real time.
On a final note, during Steven’s pre-trial motion, his defense asks Monotowoc sheriff Robert Hermann (Avery’s arresting officer from 1985) if he were in the defendant’s shoes would he have faith in his own police department. The question posed by Jerome Buting is the entire foundation of Making A Murderer.
Whose to trust? Who did it? Are we capable of being accused of a crime?