Sarah Hutchison looks at how the second instalment in the Making a Murderer story handles the celebrity status of two convicted rapists and murderers in light of the first series’ success, and its subsequent effects on the portrayal of the victim(s).
In 2015, Manitowoc County, Wisconsin and the resident Avery family were propelled into the spotlight with the release of Netflix’s Making a Murderer. An American crime documentary, the 10-part series told the now infamous story of Steven Avery. Just four years after his release from prison – having served eighteen years for a crime he did not commit – Avery was found guilty of the rape and murder of Teresa Halbach. He was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Yet Season 1 framed the Halbach murder investigation and Avery’s subsequent trial as anything but clear-cut. It was a series of unexpected twists and turns – building a compelling counternarrative to that of Avery’s prosecutors. Suspect cops, a sleazy district attorney, evidence that didn’t quite fit… and Avery’s unwavering claims of innocence. The first instalment made us want to believe Avery was telling the truth. Undoubtedly, this was because of what Season 1 did best – humanising Avery and his family. We saw their jubilation after Avery’s release in 2003 and their horror after his guilty verdict in the 2007 Halbach murder case. What stuck in viewers’ minds most, perhaps, was the story of Avery’s nephew, Brendan Dassey. The investigators were able to extract a confession from the sixteen-year-old, where he admitted to assisting Avery in the rape and murder of Halbach. He too was later convicted, with life imprisonment. Since then, there has been widespread condemnation of the tactics used by detectives to extract Dassey’s confession and real doubt over the validity of his statement. His lower-than-average IQ was one of the arguments used in his defence. Dassey, like his uncle, rejects the admissibility of his confession and continues to proclaim his innocence.
The first season was criticised for its sensationalising of Avery and Dassey’s stories. They were framed as the victims at the expense of Teresa Halbach, who became something of a secondary character in her own murder. Caught up in the fervour of Season 1, how far did the show and its viewers promote insensitivity for the sake of entertainment? And how, if it all, did Season 2 address these concerns?
Right off the bat in episode one, the documentary acknowledged these accusations of bias and insensitivity. In a particularly moving moment, we saw community members donning blue (Teresa’s favourite colour) in her memory, during a local charity race. They openly shared their anger at the apparent disregard for Teresa and her family, from both Netflix and its supporters. Furthermore, the show’s credits include a list of the individuals who were invited to participate in the series, but who had not responded or declined. Tellingly, six members of the Halbach family appear. To a degree then, Season 2 has attempted to portray Teresa as someone who had lived, and not just as the body in a complex murder case. Nevertheless, its predecessor set a precedent which the second season could not ignore; undeniably, Making a Murderer was the story of Avery and Dassey – and the show’s audience wanted to see the pair’s quest for justice since 2015. Season 2 certainly delivered.
This quest for justice came in the form of Kathleen Zellner, Steven’s postconviction defence attorney and a formidable figure. By the end of the first episode, Zellner had conducted a thorough investigation of the blood splatters found in Teresa’s car. Through expert opinion and the exploitation of a rather sad looking mannequin, Zellner finds convincing evidence to suggest that the blood was planted. It is this rigorous and hands-on style which comes to characterise Zellner in the series. Moreover, it is arguably her and her rapidly progressing investigation which keeps the viewer hooked. Particularly in the final three episodes, Zellner exposes new information on the case which truly stuns – exposing major violations made by the prosecution and unveiling potential new suspects, notably Bobby Dassey and Scott Tadych, Brendan Dassey’s brother and stepfather.
Where Season 2 tends to drag is in its following of Dassey’s postconviction legal case. A lot of legal jargon is required to make sense of the proceedings and only audio clips could be used when documenting crucial courtroom debates. Of course, this was unavoidable – and provided necessary detail – but it did mean these scenes lacked the fast pace of Season 1. That said, we come to share in the frustration of Brendan’s legal team. Brendan’s story is a difficult one to watch unfold. His confession in Season 1 was, for many, a deeply uncomfortable scene. Seeing how it has changed the course of his young life only adds to this frustration. Numerous shots of the exterior of his correctional facility, which lacks any signs of life, act as a stark reminder of the stagnancy of his life for the past thirteen years.
The triumph of Making a Murderer remains its ability to capture the human element of the Avery story. Throughout Season 2 we are given access to some of their most intimate moments. In the phone calls between Brendan and his mother, Barb, we hear his hopes that he will be home soon as he tells Barb he wants hamburger and French fries for his first meal at home. In the final episode, soon after Zellner has revealed her possible new suspects, we hear Barb’s conversation with her brother Steven. She lays bare her anger and disappointment, stating that if another of her family members is to be accused of murder, Steven will “have a dead sister”, expressing her inability to handle any more pain. Yet it is the plight of Steven’s mother, Dolores, which is perhaps most poignant. With every episode, her rapidly deteriorating health is made abundantly clear. There is an unspoken awareness that Dolores, who has longed for all these years to have her son home, may not live to see it. In including these stories, Making a Murderer reminds us that while building a legal case takes time, time is not something the Averys have in abundance. If they truly are innocent, we are left to contemplate the time they and their family have lost together.
Zellner’s investigation certainly provides the shocking revelations which so defined Making a Murderer’s first season, and has added some genuine credibility to Avery’s claims of innocence. Criticisms will undoubtedly remain regarding the handling of Teresa’s story, as she continues to be largely overlooked within the series. Yet, Season 2 certainly does not fail to recognise the human cost of this story. Instead, it adds to the list of potential victims, if one day these men are indeed found innocent.
‘Making a Murderer’ Season 2 is on Netflix now.