Overview: Netflix’s captivating true crime documentary series follows the life and trials of Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man who served eighteen years on a wrongful rape conviction and was then accused, along with his nephew, Brendan Dassey, of the murder of young photographer Teresa Halbach. Netflix; 2015.
A Troubling Case: I’m pretty torn on this one. On one hand, Making a Murderer is fascinating, engrossing, and just as infuriating as it sets out to be. On the other hand, if documentarians Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos created a series as biased and selective as former district attorney for Avery’s trial Ken Kratz says they did, then Making a Murderer is downright dangerous. The series blatantly points the finger at a purposeful setup of Avery and Dassey by Manitowoc County police officers, and the series’ argument is as compelling as any I’ve ever seen in documentary filmmaking. After watching Making a Murderer, one is compelled to make every effort to right this perceived wrong. But, and there is always a but with this series, what if Avery wasn’t set up? What if Avery brutally murdered Teresa Halbach, and his nephew helped him? What if Making a Murderer is making a case for a guilty man?
I can’t know for sure if Avery did what he was accused of or not, and neither can the makers of Making a Murderer. No one can, save Avery, and maybe Dassey. But it does feel irresponsible. and even downright dangerous, to point the finger at the officials involved when the evidence is murky at best, but aren’t documentaries almost always biased? Maybe viewers should assume that what we’re watching has been filtered through a biased personal lens.
Its Greatest Strength: Making a Murderer is strongest in its quiet moments spent with Avery and Dassey’s families, when it steps away from the questions and looks at what we know for sure, namely that the events depicted as a narrative in this series ruined actual lives. Whether or not these men are guilty, their families went through hell, and there’s something to be said for shining the light on the families of those going through this long and exhausting process. If Making a Murderer had lingered longer on its subtler moments, I don’t think I’d be so torn about it.
Its Glaring Weakness: Making a Murderer is a tough series, and I am torn. It’s clear that there are a lot of questions in these cases, perhaps too many questions for Avery and Dassey’s convictions to have been lawful. Near the end of the series, one of Avery’s former lawyers says that he almost wishes that Avery were guilty. I feel the same way. If Avery didn’t commit this crime and did indeed get set up, this is a horrific inside job to ruin a man’s life in order to keep up appearances. But then again, maybe Avery is guilty, and this series is a dishonest and troubling work.
Overall: As a whole, Making a Murderer is a complex, wholly engaging indictment of the American judicial system, or it’s a highly biased piece of harmful and selective propaganda. One thing’s for sure: This is a tough one, and you’re going to want to watch it.