Making a Murderer Out-Serialed Serial

brendan-dassey

You know you’ve made it when the internet starts using your creation as click bait. Such is the case with Making a Murderer, or “What America Did on its Christmas Break”. Seems everybody with a Netflix account became addicted to, and outraged by, this true crime tale. The partly unsolved murder, the characters with their own secrets and agendas, the details of the crime that just don’t add up no matter how hard you try, and the agonizing lack of closure at the end. Where have we heard this before?

Last year, the first season of the Serial podcast was our Making a Murderer. We listened along week by week (per Serial’s own slogan), absorbing all the details, acting as little armchair detectives coming up with theories and conclusions while the story played out. The season ended, we all moved on with our lives, and Making a Murderer took that baton and ran it to the next level – video. The extraordinary luck and persistence of the documentarians meant we got to see most things play out right for our very eyes, instead of relying largely on anecdotal accounts and Sarah Koenig’s (admittedly delightful) narration. It’s the Serial of 2015.

Except for one thing: Serial’s 2nd season is currently playing out as we speak. As of this writing, it’s about halfway through. And nobody seems to be talking about it. Did Making a Murderer steal Serial’s thunder? 

Well, yes. Sort of. But Serial kind of painted itself into a corner as well. It’s not that the current story of soldier Bowe Bergdahl’s abandonment of his post, capture by the Taliban, 5 years of torture and captivity and subsequent release, and all the drama surrounding it, isn’t interesting. In particular, the details of his treatment and living conditions while in captivity are harrowing. I would feel bad to say this story is failing to hold my attention, but it’s kind of true. This A Few Good Men stuff isn’t quite cutting the mustard.

Serial

Serial was never meant to be a murder mystery podcast. As the slogan goes, “One story, told week by week”. That’s it. And one gets the sense that the producers didn’t want to repeat themselves by covering another murder. The Bowe Bergdahl story seems to have it all. Mysterious motivations, hints of possible corruption in the military, POW drama, terrorism, national scandal… but it’s missing a crucial component that made season one so gripping, and, of course, Making a Murderer.

Depending on your beliefs, Making a Murderer is either a story about the police straight up framing an innocent man (men, really) for murder, or it’s a story about police exploiting holes in the justice system to ensure the conviction of a guilty man. Either way, we’re watching a piece by piece account of the criminal justice system failing. Really, the question of Steven Avery’s guilt or innocence is an intellectual challenge for us. Certain details seem to clearly point to the police framing him up, while others seem to clearly point to his involvement in the crime. It’s the other layer of this shit cake that really piques our anger – Avery’s nephew, Brendan Dassey, whom, as anyone who saw the documentary can conclude, is obviously innocent. That this challenged boy was tried, convicted, sentenced, and denied numerous requests for retrial based solely on a series of textbook coerced confessions (all videotaped) is mind-boggling. It’s the more powerful tragedy of this story, and the reason I used his image up top instead of Avery’s.

At the core of what made this story, and Serial 1’s mystery, go-viral material is the prospect of false imprisonment. The unsolved murder and police procedural angles obviously capture our attention on an intellectual scale (as the countless acronym titled cop dramas on TV attest), but the horror of a normal, law-abiding citizen losing their entire life in prison engages our emotional side. We feel that deep fury and sense of injustice while watching Making a Murderer not because we care that much about Steven Avery, or even Brendan Dassey, but because we’re putting ourselves in their shoes, imagining the same thing happening to us or someone we love. That’s not a condemnation of self-centeredness, by the way. It points to our innate empathy.

The Shawshank Redemption has one of the most satisfying, cathartic endings in film history (some argue too much so). It’s because when we watch the film, we are Andy Dufresne. Most of us are not murderers, and we imagine the prospect of being caught up in a series of terrible coincidences and ending up accused as one. It’s true, real life horror, and we ravenously crave an eventual restoration of justice. The closer we can get to true balance, the better. Shawshank’s ending is so pitch perfect because Andy doesn’t just escape from prison. The corrupt warden gets exposed for all of his crimes and blows his own brains out. The sadistic guard cries like a little girl during his arrest. And Andy gets reunited with his best buddy in the very same idyllic tropical location they dreamt about in the joint. It’s the only way to balance out the bleakness of the rest of the film.

Serial season one and Making a Murderer both tantalize us with that potential for justice, and both are unable to deliver it. In a sense, that’s what keeps us thinking about them long after they’re over. It’s what drives us to Wikipedia to scavenge for more details. It’s what baits our clicks for articles about missing evidence.

So far, halfway through season two of Serial, they’ve still barely touched on what should be the core mystery of the season: What Bergdahl was hoping to expose by going AWOL. This worries me, because it makes me suspect that they don’t have enough solid information to fill more than a couple of episodes. What his eventual punishment by the military will be is also seemingly up in the air. If these issues are satisfactorily resolved in five more episodes, season two will feel even more unsatisfying than season one, and not in the “I need to know more” sense.

I’ll still be listening, of course, and I really hope the case takes some interesting twists and turns and elicits a couple of jaw-drop moments along the way. Otherwise I’m left with nothing but more clickbait. “___ Things to Watch if You Loved Making a Murderer!”

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Comments (2)

  1. […] and fodder for future Buzzfeeds to leech off of. But remember at the end of last year when we were all wrapped up in Making a Murderer? Remember how outraged we all got and how we petitioned to win new trials for one or both of the […]

  2. The police interview with Bredon made it obvious the boy just said whatever anyone wanted to hear. I really felt for that lad, glad he’s out.

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