In episode five of the new mini-series Unbelievable, about the real-life hunt for and apprehension of a serial rapist in Colorado eight years ago, Detective Karen Duvall (played by Merritt Wever) is following up on a lead in Kansas. Crossing state lines in her car, she fiddles with the radio; a girlish smile spreads across her face as she recognises a familiar tune, and then she begins singing along to the folksy song “All Around the Kitchen”.
It’s a delightful little moment because of its sheer unexpectedness and because of Wever’s endearing performance. Here is a laidback interlude during a high-stakes, high-stress investigation: a detective, very much in the call of duty and on her way to getting important work done, allows herself to drift for a short while. She warbles lines like “Throw your hands up in the air / Cock-a-Doodle Doodle Doo”, and yet, the preoccupied look in her eyes doesn’t ever go away – you can tell that she is still “on”, and thinking about the case.
So far, we have seen the soft-spoken Duvall being efficient and compassionate at the same time – and a little diffident too when she gets to partner an older, more experienced detective whom she has long admired, Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette). But this is something new.
The car scene will also acquire significance when viewed in light of a later conversation between Duvall and Rasmussen. Explaining why she finds it hard to relax when on a case, why she needs to stay switched on, Duvall recalls a time years earlier when, after handling a domestic-violence incident, she made a mental note to go back at night to check on the battered woman; instead, she allowed herself to be coerced into a night out drinking with her colleagues, and discovered the next day that the husband had got out on bail and returned to “finish the job”, leaving his wife in a coma.
That exchange is one among many that enable us to understand the lives of these detectives, trying to maintain their own sanity, ground themselves in their personal lives, while not losing sight of their responsibilities in a very demanding profession.
This engrossing series about strong women is driven by three protagonists: in one timeline, set in 2011, Duvall and Rasmussen join forces after realising the similarities in sexual assaults committed within their jurisdictions (their interactions reminded me in some ways of the relationship between two policewomen in the Hindi film Soni). In another timeline, set mostly in 2008, a young woman named Marie Adler (a harrowing performance by Kaitlyn Dever) struggles to collect the pieces of her life after she is not just raped but also disbelieved by the police and shunned by friends. Later, we will learn that everything would have gone very differently if this first crime had been properly investigated: the police dismissed Marie’s story because of her behaviour and her personal history, and didn’t do enough with the available evidence – in the process emboldening the rapist to continue targeting other women.
Marie’s story comes to seem suspicious to the people around her because she seems too casual in the days after the attack; she doesn’t act like a rape victim is expected to. In an early scene, her concerned former foster mom Colleen keeps trying to reach out to her, and says all the right things – but Marie seems more concerned with finishing her household chores. With hindsight, we can view her behaviour as a sort of survival mechanism – turning to everyday things to shut out what happened to her.
Because Unbelievable is also a story about getting on with the more mundane aspects of life, and the push-pull relationship between the quotidian and the dramatic: how immersing oneself in the everyday can be a form of self-therapy (if you’re the victim of a crime) but can also be a way of neglecting the urgent things you need to do (if you’re an investigator racing against time to catch a criminal). Ultimately, everyone here must find their own balance, and it is an ongoing process: Marie needs to stay distracted, but she also needs closure; Karen feels like she can’t afford to be distracted, but even she must take a break now and again, just to stay sane.
[Earlier Hindu columns here]