Making a Murderer (2015)
“Reviewing” seems a strangely literal – or a strangely inadequate – response to an event like Making a Murderer. Joining the ranks of documentaries that have aimed to directly intervene in the criminal justice process, it has launched what may be the greatest grassroots investigative impulses ever instigated by a film or television series and has been compared, quite rightly, to films like The Thin Blue Line and television series like the Paradise Lost trilogy and The Staircase. However, along with The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, released earlier in 2015 on HBO, Making a Murderer seems to represent a new iteration of true crime documentary peculiar to the increasingly flexible, provisional and collaborative approaches that have characterised television over the last half-decade. Indeed, if you were to paint a picture of television in 2015, it would inevitably be bookended by these two true crime series, both of which, in very different ways, draw the audience into the investigative process with a new degree of intimacy and urgency. On the one hand, The Jinx effectively renders the audience complicit in an obstruction of justice – at least in legal terms – as series creator Andrew Jarecki uncovers a piece of evidence in the course of the show and chooses to share it with his audience – and with Durst himself – before turning it over to the police. While, in retrospect, that produced the one thing that authorities were never able to glean from Durst – a confession of murder – Jarecki himself has also faced the possibility of prosecution for airing his discovery in this way, and a great deal of the cult following that the series has gained amongst its audience must stem from the risk that was taken to ensure that they were allowed to sift through the evidence before it was subsumed into regular procedural channels.
In Making a Murderer, the invitation to the audience is even more explicit: indeed, in the final episode, lawyers Jerry Buting and Dean Strang invite viewers to pick up the case where they left off, observing that a hundred minds are better than two. To a large extent, fans have made good on this promise, especially on the Making a Murderer subreddit, where several very significant pieces of evidence, as well as several quite plausible theories – theories that the defense were not at liberty to air in any great detail, both during the trial and in the documentary – have been articulated in quite a compelling and systematic way. Before moving on to the specificities of the series, the case and the response, however, it is worth noting that I deliberately held back from watching this series precisely because I felt it could only pale in comparison to The Jinx, which struck me as absolutely unrepeatable in its brilliance and genius. In retrospect, I think that is probably true, but partly because Jarecki and the rest of the cast were so fortunate to stumble upon the critical clue – and so fortunate that the clue was itself so suggestive and evocative, a synecdoche for the regionalist texture that Durst’s alleged crimes had mapped out in his movements from Katonah to Galveston to Los Angeles. Those textures are quite precious to American television at the moment, where, more than in any other American mass media, a kind of sustained argument is being made for the sheer variety of regionalist experiences in a country that seems increasingly homogenised by precarity and digital spectacle. In Making a Murderer, those textures are once again front and centre, but the entire scope and ambit of the series is utterly distinct from that of The Jinx. Had series creators Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos not spent over ten years on this project, I’d be tempted to say that they had explicitly defined themselves against Jarecki. As it is, it’s useful to draw a loose comparison between the two series, not merely to clarify how Making a Murderer managed to hold its own at the close of the year, but also to give some sense of the two televisual registers that in some sense defined 2015.
Of course, the first difference between The Jinx and Making a Murderer is the difference between Robert Durst and Steven Avery. As anyone who has even read about The Jinx will know, the series came about when Durst approached Jarecki after seeing his film All Good Things. Against the advice of his lawyers, friends and family – everyone in his life really – Durst volunteered to tell the story of his allegations from his own perspective, with the result that his ongoing testimony is at the heart of the series, turning it into something of a latter-day descendant of Errol Morris’ talking heads. By contrast, Steven Avery has a much more diminutive presence in Making a Murderer. From the outset, it is clear that he doesn’t have Durst’s garrulous way with words, nor do you sense the brooding, inscrutable intelligence that Durst exudes. By his own admission, Avery is not especially articulate, and certainly not especially extroverted in his conversations with the filmmakers. At one level, that explains why the interviews with him are kept to a minimum, and usually function more as a voiceover. However, there is an even more pressing reason why Making a Murderer can’t function as an extended monologue in the same way as The Jinx: the vast majority of it consists of footage from Avery’s second trial, in 2005. Couched within the massive apparatus and architecture of the trial, his voice would necessarily be qualified even if he had chosen to testify, but his refusal to speak in court cements him as something of a spectator to his own drama, resigning himself – as the series frames it – to a kind of stoic yet determined distance bred of his false conviction in 1985, and the eighteen years of jail that followed.
At this point, it’s necessary to very briefly recapitulate the series in order to give a sense of its broad scope and structure. At the same time, it’s only necessary to be general, since so much of the series itself – and the subsequent online response – is so scrupulous in piecing together timelines, filling in detail and sifting through evidence. In effect, the series is broken into several more or less discrete sections. In the first episode, which functions as something of a prologue, we’re introduced to Steven Avery, and the Avery family, residents of Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, and provided with an overview of Avery’s conviction for rape in 1985, and his definitive acquittal in 2003, after 18 years of prison, on the basis of DNA evidence. Extraordinary as this story is, the next couple of episodes of the documentary quickly move on to the disappearance and murder of Teresa Halbach, an automobile photographer who was last seen on the Avery property in 2005, before her cremains were discovered by police in a pit fire at the back of Steven Avery’s house several days after she fell out of contact with family and friends. These cremains are discovered under suspicious circumstances – to say the least – and coincide with Avery’s decision to bring a lawsuit against the Manitowoc Sheriff’s Department for their role in convicting him in 1985. In both cases, it seems fairly clear that the Manitowoc Police played a role in framing Avery, and the great majority of the series is comprised of footage from his second trial, combined with excerpts from press investigations and interviews with his lawyers, Jerry Buting and Dean Strang. Once the Avery trial comes to a conclusion, the filmmakers shift their attention to the trial of Brendan Dassey, Avery’s cousin, an intellectually disabled teenager who is implicated in the murder after his initial lawyer and the Manitowoc Police coerce a confession out of him. Recorded in its entirety on video, this confession is the one piece of corruption that seems entirely indisputable – an incontrovertible piece of evidence against the Manitowoc Sheriff’s Department, if you will – and even the most sceptical responses to the series have had to concede that Dassey’s trial was something of a farce.
At the same time – and to put my own cards on the table – my impression after watching the series and reading the various responses is that Avery himself was also framed by the Manitowoc Sheriff’s Department, which is not necessarily to say that he is innocent: it’s possible, of course, that he committed the murder, but that the Manitowoc Police planted evidence to make for a stronger case. What the series does establish is reasonable doubt, and yet I want to also say that Avery is probably innocent, not only because the extraordinary circumstances surrounding his first trial make me hesitant to assume anything about his culpability in this second one, but also because the sheer amount of circumstantial evidence against the Manitowoc Police is so overwhelming that it is hard to see why it would be necessary for them to take so many risks if Avery actually were guilty. In fact, one of the things the series – or, rather, the trial – complicates is the nature of circumstantial evidence itself, with a couple of key policemen, in particular, clearly perjuring themselves on the stand, and offering contradictory and incoherent versions of the same event – often within a single testimony – but repeatedly falling back upon the excuse of not remembering what they had said, or not remembering what had happened, in ways that make their role in the prosecution’s case feel more circumstantial than factual. Watching it, I actually found myself wondering how far the judge was going to permit witness after witness to simply claim that they didn’t remember things that they had been explicitly recorded as saying, while I also found myself questioning what the role of official police paperwork, record-keeping and documentation actually was if police were able to recant even the most signed-and-sealed statements in such a casual and circumstantial manner.
In many ways, then, the series speaks to an American milieu in which mistrust of the police – both as individuals and as an institution – is peaking as never before. Of course, in the post-Ferguson era, it’s become particularly clear that the main target of police brutality misconduct is and has always been “minorities,” and African-American people in particular. For that very reason, however, there is something especially powerful about seeing police misconduct exposed in what has to be one of the whitest regions of the United States: the Scandinavian Midwest. Far from deracinating or depoliticising police violence – as some critics of the series have claimed – this vision of misconduct stretching even into the white heartland of the United States seems a kind of riposte to anything but the most systemic response to police entitlement. Among other things, that means that Manitowoc County is very much a character in the series, with Avery’s family functioning somewhat as mouthpieces of Manitowoc – or alternative mouthpieces to the Sheriff and township – even or especially as they register themselves as being on the fringes of the County community. In that sense, Making a Murderer stands in sharp contrast to The Jinx, where the inscrutable insularity of Durst’s voice managed to encompass such a rich variety of regionalist tissues. Here, it is more like a single regionalist texture blooms out to encompass a wide variety of voices – voices competing, in effect, for their version of Manitowoc – with Avery’s own regional accents and inflections tending to be superimposed, with subtitles, over footage of the town, his home, and the trial, rather than occurring within a regular interview or talking heads framework. At the moment, I am also halfway through the second season of Fargo, and there is something salutary about the way in which Making a Murderer scrupulously refrains from revelling in the “Minnesota Nice” that pervades the Fox adaptation. In effect, both series designate the Scandinavian Midwest as a place to think about whiteness as a subculture, or a place where whiteness comes into visibility as a subculture in a peculiar and pregnant way, but whereas Fargo largely mines that in a comic spirit, to make a case for whiteness as a mode of eccentricity, Making a Murderer is interested in examining how police brutality and misconduct arises from whiteness as a state of mind. In Fargo, the more local the more eccentric – and so the more local the better – but the crushing, claustrophobic message of Making a Murderer is that the Avery trial was too local, too dependent on the police and citizens of Manitowoc County to ever have any chance of unfolding in a just and constitutional manner.
As might be expected, that creates something of an object lesson in the lengths to which the police will go in order to protect their reputations, as well as a series that is largely driven by the people involved in the trial. Indeed, one of the most impressive feats in documentary terms is just how much of the series depends on actual trial footage, with Ricciardi and Demos managing to include some four or five hours of the main trial, while keeping their own intervention to a minimum (they never appear or speak in the documentary, and only permit brief, factual intertitles when it is absolutely necessary). In other words, the only way in which the directors leave their trace lies in the way in which they select, shape and edit their material, creating a kind of found-footage feel that proves enormously immersive and engaging. Of course, that’s also prompted criticisms to the effect that the series is too selective, and that the filmmakers have deliberately chosen to include information that is favourable to the defense, while leaving out important points raised by the prosecution. Having read quite a few of these critiques, I’m not sure that I find this a serious indictment on the series. For one thing, as mentioned, part of what is so impressive about Making a Murderer is how much of the trial it manages to keep in, requiring the viewer to retain and process an enormous amount of information to move from episode to episode, and managing – I felt – to really capture the sheer informational density of a criminal trial without making too many concessions to the demands of entertainment. Admittedly, there were moments when I found it hard to follow, but the effect was that I sought out other media – some formal, like newspapers, some informal, like the subreddit – to explore the case in more detail, which is presumably part of what the film-makers had in mind. At no point does the case feel closed, and at no point does the documentary feel closed either, even if it does have a very clear purpose and agenda when it comes to the way in which Avery is framed.
Of course, the fact that so much is kept in doesn’t necessarily mean that nothing can be kept out either. And yet when it comes to the specific evidence that has been excluded, I haven’t found that it is especially prejudicial to either the prosecution or the defense. Some arguments that seem to favour the prosecution are missing, some arguments that seem to favour the defense are missing, but for the most part there’s nothing that’s been left out that couldn’t be used to make a case either way. In other words, it feels as if the filmmakers have more or less chosen the moments guaranteed to give a sense of both the broad contours and the main points of contention in the trial, coming as close as possible – at least within the span of a ten-hour documentary – to replicating the trial without jettisoning it from the broad ambit of the series either. Far from encouraging a blinkered mindset, Ricciardi and Demos’ painstaking focus on procedural and legal minutiae has sparked a grassroots movement, both on Reddit and Websleuths, to make the full details and transcript of the trial more readily available to the public, as well as the entirety of the case files against Avery, which take up half of an average sized storage space when presented in the series, and which are in the process of being digitised and made available in a clearer and more manageable way online. Nevertheless, the series has prompted some fairly emphatic criticisms for both its selectivity and its sensationalism, creating something of a backlash in the mainstream media, most notably in Kathryn Schulz’s recent article in the New Yorker, which accuses the filmmakers of not obeying proper journalistic protocol in their – supposedly – one-sided view of the case and its participants.
It’s probably no surprise that I find these kinds of responses fairly unconvincing, and while I’ve penned a more detailed response to Schulz elsewhere, I think it’s also worth reiterating here that her article – and articles like hers – actually say very little about the specificities of the case, and even less about the particular kind of documentary style that Ricciardi and Demos are trying to promulgate. Specifically, I read these opinion pieces – most of which are in “reputable” publications like The New Yorker – as evidence of a wider anxiety about the role and authority of the mainstream media – media that is still effectively print-based in its sensibility, even when it has been transplanted online – when it comes to the investigative journalistic process. For while writers like Schulz may lambast the series, and the subsequent online response, for its lack of journalistic integrity, the fact remains that both the series and the online response have – in their different ways – managed to effectively position themselves at the forefront of an investigative journalistic impulse that was once the province of the mainstream, print-based media that Schulz represents. It’s no surprise, then, that Schulz’s main message – and the message of articles like hers – is a kind of rhetorical caution against the journalistic integrity of televisual and online investigation, even as she offers absolutely nothing of investigative interest in their place. In effect, her “critique” is designed as a reminder that nothing outside the mainstream, print-based media can really be trusted, and yet if the series clarifies anything it’s that new investigative platforms are needed to tackle the kinds of intricate injustice that are on display in the Avery case. Of course, that’s not to deny that conventional news outlets can play a role in the process – indeed, some of the most memorable recurring characters in Making a Murderer are the Wisconsin reporters and news anchors who fill out the Avery press sessions, several of whom have developed something of a cult following in their own right. Nevertheless, there is also a sense in which even these figures seem to be lagging behind when it comes to the trial, partly because of the way in which Ricciardi and Demos puncture the notion of the press conference itself, and its claims to perky transparency, in their focus on the sensationalism that pervades District Attorney Ken Katz’s handling of the prosecution’s case.
It’s not hard to see, then, why Schulz’s article is compelled to accuse the series of sensationalism, since part of the point of Making a Murderer is that regular print-based and televisual reportage is more or less constrained by the sensational imperatives of the press conference as first point of entry into the investigative process. For Schulz, these depictions of the news cycle are simply ploys designed to divest Ricciardi and Demos of any sensationalism, but I don’t see them as mere rhetorical decoys so much as part of a staggeringly comprehensive account of the role that sensationalism plays in the defense of police misconduct against all available evidence to the contrary. Necessary to Schulz’s argument is collapsing the series’ sensationalism back into the specific sensationalism that it is critiquing, leading her to suggest that the filmmakers were thinking about ratings rather than investigative integrity – considerations that presumably don’t factor at a publication with the prestige and immunity of The New Yorker. In fact, this is to misunderstand how Netflix operates – and part of what is at stake in Making a Murderer is the distinction between Netflix and television as platforms, or even mediums. As Netflix have made clear over the last six months, ratings don’t especially matter when it comes to their flagship series: a show like Bloodline can perform reasonably poorly but still be renewed for a second season because it is a critical part of the Netflix brand, a reminder that Netflix offers quality television. In addition, the fact that Netflix departs from the scheduling and channelling concerns of regular television means that there is not the same pressure to economise episodes: if anything, the longer a Netflix episode, the better, since it prolongs the binging experience. More radically perhaps, there is no great need to standardise Netflix episodes either, a realisation that seems to be defining the latest wave of Netflix series. To take just one example, lately I’ve been watching Chelsea Lately, a four-part limited series following comedian Chelsea Handler as she “investigates” a number of cutting-edge topics. Although this series is designed as a precursor to her full-time Netflix chat show – the first Netflix series to be released weekly – it is also the closest Netflix has come to a genuinely variable-length series, with episodes clocking in between about 55 and 75 minutes. Granted, that kind of variation has happened in the past, but never as casually or as incidentally here, where the extra time allocated to some episodes never indicates a finale or something comparably eventful but simply reflects the whim of the directors and of Handler herself, whose special brand of irreverence seems to transform the Netflix model from the inside out. Between her up-and-coming weekly series and this one-off, variable-length offering, Handler’s relationship to Netflix seems to epitomise all the tensions and possibilities of Netflix as it currently stands, perhaps explaining why she actually visits, tours and scrutinises Netflix’s headquarters in Silicon Valley in one of her longest episodes.
On top of all these factors, of course, there is no way that Ricciardi and Demos could ever have anticipated a Netflix viewership – or a Netflix viewership on this scale – when they started filming in the early to mid 2000s. In fact, part of what is so compelling about the series is the process of witnessing footage that was gathered and collated without any clear outlet in mind. Certainly, Ricciardi and Demos’ project doesn’t seem to fit the parameters of the two most likely candidates for airing their footage at the time – a true crime series along the lines of HBO’s The Staircase, released in 2005, or a limited series of longform true crime documentary films, along the lines of the series of Paradise Lost films released in the 1990s and early 2000s. While both of these are undoubtedly true crime classics, neither of their respective media allow for quite the same kind of procedural immersion and informational density afforded by the Netflix model, which has effectively allowed Ricciardi and Demos to screen a ten and a half hour documentary – including a five or six hour trial coverage – with no ad breaks, no real segmentation, and no need or pressure to extract yourself from the process at any one time. For all that the series feels broken into several discrete parts, the distinction between Netflix “episodes” has never felt more nominal than it does here, luring you into one of the most staggering instances of longform television produced in the last couple of years. While that has clear practical and logistical consequences, it also creates a different kind of mindfulness and contemplation from that of a regular series, which perhaps explains why the online community has managed to grasp the intricacies of the case so quickly, and to offer up several pieces of compelling new evidence in turn. Tellingly, these leads haven’t tended to involve the “discovery” of new facts so much as a kind of heightened observation and interpretation of the material already included in the trial. For example, it took the online community to realise that the widely-circulated photograph of Teresa Halbach used in the trial shows her holding a set of key rings that could be of critical forensic significance. Indeed, one of the fascinations of Making a Murderer is the dawning awareness that the answer could somehow be already there – if not in the series itself, then in the records and transcripts that the series invites you to peruse – if only you give yourself over to the intense, dense scrutiny that the filmmakers are encouraging you to adopt.
It is that mindfulness that, for me, makes the charges of sensationalism feel peculiarly misplaced. By the same token, part of what makes the trial so dynamic and compelling to watch is that Avery’s lawyers, Dean Strang and Jerry Buting, are continually advocating and embodying just this kind of mindfulness when it comes to the material and strategies at hand. Their approach is all the more striking in that the prosecution, headed by Ken Katz, resort, time and again, to the most bullying, whining and dubious tactics, cloaking their case in a heady mix of the sensational, the sentimental and the sanctimonious, especially whenever there is the slightest suggestion of police misconduct involved. Indeed, to watch the trial is to be reminded of just how immune police are from the justice system, although the immunity here is not merely practical but rhetorical, with even the most incoherent, incompetent and contradictory police testimonies buried beneath a lugubrious appeal to family and community values, to the point where it feels as if the prosecution’s entire case for the innocence of the Manitowoc County’s Sheriff Department is simply that they are the Manitowoc County’s Sheriff Department, and so part of an extended family and community that should be above reproach. To suggest that the series is as sensational, or as biased, as some of these pronouncements is simply to replace the “reckless certitude” that Schulz criticises with a “reckless relativity” that assumes that anything beyond print-based, mainstream investigative journalism is doomed to total subjectivity, a response that, to me, wilfully ignores the series’ very serious invitation to sustained forensic contemplation. At the same time, to accuse the series of sensationalism is also to ignore the peculiar kind of procedural poetry brought out by Ricciardi and Demos’ approach. In particular, the aesthetic austerity of the series – close to a five-hour found footage compilation during some of the trial scenes – brings out the procedures and atmosphere of the courtroom – the particular tone and feel – with a patient scrutiny that tend to be precluded by the fictional imperatives of courtroom drama or the sensational imperatives of reality courtroom series. In some ways, it’s a bit like how David Simon might shoot a courtroom, except that it’s even more restrained and detached from that: although Ricciardi and Demos brought the cameras into the courtroom themselves, it often feels as if they have simply excerpted and collated footage from an official video recording. In that sense, the series provides a kind of minimally mediated insight into the justice system not unlike that of Charles Reznikoff’s great modernist poem Testimony, composed entirely of excerpts from real courtroom transcripts. Here, as well, the genius lies in the way in which these seemingly impersonal and procedural elements are edited and recombined for dramatic purposes, although Ricciardi and Demos are less interventionist than Reznikoff as well, immersing their camera in the minutiae of the Manitowoc Courthouse – and, from there, outwards to Manitowoc County – with the patience and dedication of documentarians who have spent several years living around and within the environs that form the subject matter of their film. Accordingly, you don’t simply observe Manitowoc – you gradually come to inhabit it, sinking into a naturalism that borders on neorealism, especially whenever the trial is front and centre.
What makes the series so extraordinary, then, is that this neorealist approach manages to yield a cast of characters that are every bit as charismatic and melodramatic as those of a film or reality series. Usually, in film or on television, charisma is a product of limited exposure, of only being permitted access to the most eccentric or endearing aspects of a character’s personality – and there are certainly some characters in Making a Murderer, such as the court reporters, and some of the expert witnesses, who are only given this narrow window to make their presence felt. When it comes to the main players in the action however – the judge, the prosecutors, and Avery’s lawyers – the filmmakers’ approach is genuinely procedural, spending hour upon hour following these figures as we move through the major moments in the trial. It’s extraordinary, then, that they gradually come to feel like some of the most memorable legal characters ever created – you could almost describe them as legal archetypes were they not so grounded in their own distinctive and minutely drawn mannerisms. Strang and Buting, in particular are stunning, working their way through the case with a piercing and insatiable sense of purpose that, combined with the elegant economy of the series as a whole, transforms them into the kind of folk heroes that once populated the courtrooms of classical cinema. As in so many of those films, the impression is not exactly that of lawyers pitted against the system – although that is certainly an element – so much as lawyers attempting to defend the system itself against its own worst tendencies. In that sense, Strang and Buting feel more aligned with the state than Katz himself – at least in terms of their vision of what it should involve and entail – and that gives their presense in the courtroom a peculiar kind of grace, a peculiar kind of gravitas.
At the same time, Strang and Avery are only the most notable in a string of lawyers that stretch from Reesa Evans, who represented Avery in his 1985 trial, to Robert Dvorak and Laura Nirider, who have taken on his case most recently, now that he appears to have exhausted all legal avenues for appeal or redress. While the filmmakers continually come back to Strang and Avery as the legal and procedural stewards of the series, the wider lineage of lawyers provides Avery’s story with a great deal of continuity, to the point where the lawyers are almost the main characters, just as you couldn’t ask for a better antagonist in Ken Katz, the slimily sanctimonious District Attorney who was subsequently convicted of sexually harassing several dozen rape and assault victims whose cases had been entrusted to his care. Of course, that makes for good television, but the way in which Ricciardi and Demos dwell on these characters doesn’t exactly feel like an exploitative bid for the kinds of engagement you might expect from a fictional series – although I would add that there is an obsessive drive to fandom that has also given the online investigate process a great deal of its energy and momentum – so much as a kind of study in how systematic injustice looks in terms of the kinds of characters it enables, as well as the kinds of characters that emerge to resist it. Once again, there is a sense that these characters are types, since part of the uncanniness of watching the series lies in the way in which our procedural proximity to them both draws out their particular quirks but also generalises them into the particular legal philosophies that they are espousing over the course of the trial. In effect, it is as if Ricciardi and Demos have set out to patiently train their cameras on their subjects for as long as it takes for them to disclose or reveal their inherent attitudes towards the law, and one of the near miraculous aspects of the series is how vividly this comes about, to the point where it feels like the trial is a philosophical battle as much a procedural battle. In particular, Strang and Buting spend a great deal of their rhetorical labour on making an argument for reasonable doubt and trying to induce the judge, jury and media to permit themselves the modicum of procedural scepticism that will allow them to do the same. Indeed, at times it feels as if it is the very concept of reasonable doubt that is on trial, or at least the freedom to reasonably doubt that is continually foreclosed by the prosecution’s posturing.
That preoccupation, above all, with the notion of reasonable doubt is perhaps the ultimate reason why I’m not convinced by critiques of the series that paint it as a heads-on, gung-ho assertion of Avery’s innocence. At the same time, it’s that scepticism that prevents the series ever feeling disrespectful to the Halbach or Avery families either. Unlike the people directly involved in the trial, these families are somewhat inscrutable, even if their comments and observations constitute, in some sense, the emotional core of the series. On the one hand, the Halbachs are largely represented by their eldest son, whose statements to the media are all that we really hear from them, and express their collective conviction that Avery is guilty. Beyond that, we don’t hear much, especially since Ricciardi and Demos treat the Halbachs quite discreetly and tactfully in the courtroom, only really including them in establishing shots and at key moments, as if to tactfully remind us of their presence and reiterate their privacy more than anything else. As a result, there’s no way of knowing if the family ever question the case against Avery, or wave in their conviction of his guilt. What is clear is that the series presents police misconduct – or the possibility of police misconduct – as a crime against the Halbachs as much as a crime against the Averies. Sure, Steven Avery may be front and centre, while his eighteen year wrongful imprisonment also provides him with a certain kind of sympathy, but the moral kernel of the series – its ultimate vision of horror, if you will – is of police prepared to further violate Teresa’s cremains to achieve their own ends, complicating the possibility of the Halbachs achieving real closure and catharsis – such as it is – in the process.
However, because the Halbachs have – quite understandably – chosen to maintain their privacy, it’s the Averies that tend to drive the emotional kernel of the series. This is a big family, set to the same sprawling scale as their massive autoyard on the outer fringes of Manitowoc and Ricciardi and Demos interview several of them in great deal, including Steven’s very memorable succession of girlfriends, culminating with Sandy Greenman, an apparently strait-laced Midwestern widow who strikes up a quite eccentric and endearing relationship with Avery after writing to him in prison. While all these figures have a certain presence and power in front of the camera, the most striking are undoubtedly Avery’s parents, Delores and Allan, whose plain-speaking, pragmatic stoicism often feel like the inspiration for the patient proceduralism of the series as a whole. Having weathered Avery’s eighteen-year sentence, they seem more than inured to the worst that the law can do, and follow the progression of the trial with full knowledge – even expectation – that Avery will be convicted, and that they need to have one eye on how best to help him during this next sentence. In their ability to live, day-to-day, with a profound scepticism that also never descends into outright cynicism –a scepticism that doesn’t ever consume the people they live for – they feel like role models for the kind of burnished patience and matter-of-fact determination that seems required by so many Americans today in the face of a justice system that is increasingly biased towards the wealthy, the powerful and the institutionalised. It is the great achievement of this magnum opus that it manages to provide them with a platform that is in some way commensurate to their resistance.
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