This article contains details on the case in Making A Murderer, it didn’t want to call them spoilers because that’s tacky.
What is it that fascinates us so much about these real life murders? Is it the grisly details? Or the idea that your neighbour isn’t who you think they are? Perhaps it speaks to some kind of genetic morbid curiosity as humans are always looking to escape death. Is someone else’s death a reassurance that you’re OK, that on some level them getting ‘got’ lowers your chances?
You probably know about Making A Murderer, either because you’ve seen it, or you haven’t and someone has said to you: “Oh my God, you haven’t seen Making A Murderer, you HAVE to watch it!”, or you know, words to those effect. While TV genres go in and out of style, true-crime is an ever-present, from the polished class of The Thin Blue Line, to the trashy ‘murder in the suburbs’ kind of stuff you might see on Channel 5 at 4pm on a Sunday.
For the uninitiated, Making A Murderer follows the case of Steven Avery; a Wisconsin man, wrongfully imprisoned for 18 years for a brutal attack, only to be re-imprisoned after his release for the murder of Teresa Halbach; a young woman whose burned remains, car and several other pieces of damning evidence were found in and around Avery’s residence. What seems cut and dry is quickly and skillfully deconstructed to heavily imply something far more sinister – that the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department sought to frame Avery for Halbach’s murder. So far, so TV movie – but this is reality.
A young woman is dead, but don’t worry, Reddit is on the case. Making A Murderer – perhaps predictably, given its Netflix ‘bingeability’ – went viral, and viewers and the internet at large became an amalgamation of a detective and an angry pitchfork waver. I don’t feel like this is the place to discuss the ins and outs of the case. I watched all ten episodes of Making A Murderer in three days and it’s difficult to dismiss the potency or effectiveness of its technique. However, like the flawed justice system it exposes, it’s too sure of itself and one-sided. It’s very well made true-crime television, but its production values, beautiful cinematography and cinematic soundtrack don’t disguise what is, on reflection, quite trashy itself.
Of course, there is always the wider question of the ethics and functionality of documentary filmmaking. The idea of a defense and prosecution to both tell one-sided stories. However, the documentary isn’t and perhaps shouldn’t be as binary as that system. Ironically, Making A Murderer’s own certainties ally it with the justice system, a system that, particularly in North America always seems to have a cut and dry conclusion (the conviction rate in the US exceeds 90%).
Making A Murderer’s stamp on the internet is a strange one. It’s a show dealing with rape and murder, but has already spawned comedy memes, and tumblr pages – weirdly focused on style. Despite its reality, the show has morphed into something else; it’s become part of pop and internet culture, at the cost of its victim. Lawyer girl crushes and cringe inducing hip-hop tracks only serve to create more despite for the victim and her family (whose lack of participation in the documentary only leads viewers to putting them in the ‘against’ camp), something that’s actually really awful when you take a second to think about it. But hey, maybe new evidence will find that the brother did it and the internet detectives will be vindicated for their unaccountable aspersions – see, it’s impossible to discuss this without exposing its trashier aspects, which leads to another question: What do we want from Making A Murderer?
Is it empathy? Do we put ourselves in Avery’s shoes and imagine going through the hardships that he has? Is it a sense of social justice for a family, that, like so many others were torn apart by a system that favours the wealthy middle-class and acts with nothing but disdain for the poor ‘white trash’? We might like to believe that these are the reasons, but in reality, we just want a thriller. We want scheming villains encircling a man they need to destroy to save themselves: we want an episode of CSI made real. It’s about participation, we want to affect this reality by sending death threats to the creepy pervert prosecutor or by flooding the White House with signatures to pardon Steven Avery.
So what does the popularity of Making A Murderer mean? Well, inevitably, swathes of people will be looking to replicate it, no mean feat given it was made over a 10-year period. I think what we can look forward to is a resurgence in ‘court of doubt’ cases. Perhaps this will garner positive results as forgotten, innocent prisoners are suddenly given a second chance. All I know is that whatever becomes the ‘new Making A Murderer’, the victim will be forgotten and replaced with tumblr memes.