It is no longer enough for a documentary to tell a true story well; to be successful today a documentary has to change the story it has set out to tell. This year The Jinx set a high bar when its subject, Robert Durst, was arrested just before the airing of the final episode. For the current season of Serial, the audience didn't have to wait long for results: Bowe Bergdahl was court martialled after the second show. Today, Netflix adds a major new entrant to this burgeoning new genre of shows about deeply misunderstood crimes with Making a Murderer, the story of Steven Avery, a man who may or may not have been wrongfully imprisoned for murder.
Avery was already falsely convicted for rape, which is what makes his story Jinx-level bizarre. The Averys were an outsider clan in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin. They ran an auto salvage yard and were not part of the farming community that dominated the life of the local political and legal institutions. Steven had a criminal record for burglary and animal cruelty by the time he was arrested in 1985. He served eighteen years in prison before new DNA evidence exonerated him. The Wisconsin Innocence Project used the case to push massive reforms through the state's legal system.
Avery was putting his life back together and was in the process of suing Manitowoc County for $36 million when a woman named Teresa Halbach was murdered. She disappeared immediately after taking photographs on the Avery salvage yard for a trade magazine. Her remains were later found burned on the Avery property. So was her car. The car key was then discovered inside Steven Avery's bedroom. A splatter of Avery's blood was found on the dashboard of the car that had belonged to Halbach. Then Avery's 16-year old nephew confessed to helping his uncle murder her.
Making a Murderer painstakingly takes us through this mountain of evidence as each piece slowly begins to unravel. The search of the Avery property was completed unprofessionally, which brings all of its evidence into question. The confession of the nephew—which they have on tape—is a model in the use of the power of suggestion to influence a dumb kid into saying things he doesn't understand the consequences of. And then of course there is the matter that Avery's blood sample turns out to have been tampered with. Meanwhile, Avery's civil suit against the county was dropped for a fraction of the original amount.
You might think that ten hours would be too much time to spend following a single man's struggle with the justice system. But extensive detail is, in a sense, the only way to tell a story like Avery's. Unpacking the information bit by bit shows just how precarious and difficult knowledge can be. Every certainty is temporary; you believe that he's guilty, and slowly you see how he may not be, and then you believe that he isn't. Wait, maybe he is. The more you know, the less you are certain what exactly you know.
The best crime documentaries, from The Thin Blue Line to Capturing the Friedmans, have searched for a level of truth that courts—never mind the press—may be incapable of attaining. The intense fragility of facts is the real subject of these shows. And however the Steven Avery story turns out, Making a Murderer is unbelievably compulsive viewing. Serial and The Jinx were released on a weekly basis; but Making a Murder is on Netflix, so you're going to be able to binge-watch it. I wouldn't make any plans tonight. Real life is so much harder to turn away from than fiction.
From: US Esquire