On watching others

Warning: Making a Murderer spoilers dwell ahead.

The series Making a Murderer is an amalgamation of filmmaking and storytelling techniques that, from a technical standpoint, explain the lingering commotion and frenzied reaction over the series. Polarising audiences and exciting critics, Making a Murderer is the latest televisual sensation in an ongoing ‘golden age of television’. Produced by Netflix, the series has galvanised thousands into discussing, tweeting and even so far as petitioning in regards to the case it so deftly studies.

The series tells the story of Steven Avery, a man charged with sexual assault and attempted murder who was acquitted after serving 18 years in prison; two years later, in 2005, he is arrested again and, in 2007, charged with the murder of Teresa Halbach. Creators Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos follow Avery’s case as it develops, at the same time presenting archival footage and interviews with just about everyone involved in both cases. By the conclusion of the series, Making a Murderer has crafted a comprehensive dossier of Steven Avery’s life, misfortune and – most essentially – the reasons behind his incarceration. Setting its audience alight with intrigue and emotion, the documentary series has, as with most art, drawn accusations of manipulating facts and deliberately omitting evidence. As they say, never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

The 2010s has been a satisfying decade thus far in television and cinema, allowing the ongoing dramas and experimental narratives of the 2000s to mature. Another development of the new decade is that of the documentary series; if other ultra-successful documentary series The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, released in early 2015, acts as a harbinger of popular documentary television then Making a Murderer is certainly an affirmation of this new cultural epoch. Designed to engage an audience, the series plays into the human obsession with watching others.

It was David Fincher who claimed that ‘people are perverts’, calling that fact ‘the foundation of [his] career’. Cinema has always acted as a mirror for society to gaze into, placating the innate voyeurism of people. Alfred Hitchcock most notably recognised this voyeuristic facet of society, utilising this knowledge in many of his films, most commandingly in Rear Window (1954). Some years later Hitchcock released his most critical analysis of voyeurism in Psycho (1960). With murder victims staring directly into the camera coupled with characters peeping through holes in walls, Hitchcock’s film contemplates and even condemns the human obsession with watching others. This obsession translates to the popularity of Making a Murderer, as documentaries skate even closer to reality than any other form of screen entertainment can. Scrutinising Avery’s case as it happens, the series captures life with authenticity, much like Errol Morris’s incredibly popular The Thin Blue Line (1989), which rejuvenated documentary filmmaking and marked an increase in films about true crime. With cliffhangers and melodrama aplenty, however, Making a Murderer is the furthest possible from your ordinary, garden variety story.

This sordid tale is as intriguing as the true crime genre gets. Already tackling such a popular genre, the series further sates an audience who demands mystery, harrowing discoveries and twists at every turn. To generate this level of viewer interest, Ricciardi and Demos have structured the series with a similar format to current popular drama television: the slow burn of the series and its gradual revelations (such as Brendan Dassey’s episode four confession to assisting Avery in murdering Teresa Halbach, followed by his increasing unreliability) keeps the audience engaged, with twists scattered formulaically. The end of each episode is likely to entice its audience with new questions, evidence and general scandal. The series also takes Steven Avery, an average man with no particularly charming qualities, and sympathises with him: the underdog, hounded by the unjust system. From the outset, Avery’s innocence seems the agenda of this series.

Avery is portrayed as the protagonist of the series, each piece of the film discussed from his point of view; his family chronicles their understanding of his behaviour and journeys through legal tribulations, while he provides commentary to his emotional evolution. When the police speak to the camera, however, they can but radiate inanity and incompetence. Later in the series, the lead investigator on the Halbach murder, Tom Fassbender, is linked to a note that suggests DNA technicians ‘put [Halbach] in [Avery’s] house or his garage’. While the meaning of this note is unclear as to whether Fassbender was trying to plant DNA or suggesting a more comprehensive search, the series is intent on construing this moment as blatant corruption in the case. Moments like this make it obvious that Avery is supported by the filmmakers, and there are few instances of complete objectivity on their part.

Prosecutor Ken Kratz, who featured heavily in the series, has since expressed his indignation with Ricciardi and Demos’s work. Kratz claims the creators missed several pieces of key evidence, such as a sample of Avery’s sweat that was found inside Halbach’s car along with blood that the series portrays as having been planted. But with no possible access to Avery’s sweat, Kratz noted that this fact ‘is completely inconsistent with any kind of planting.’ Along with his other claims, Kratz’s statement has been refuted, though these disputes – being an apt microcosm of the series – have been inconclusive. According to Ricciardi and Demos, this information is irrelevant to the outcome of the case.

On the other hand, the exclusion of key evidence provides the series with a simplified case of innocent-man-wrongly-accused. To add to this, throughout the series, Avery and his family are repeatedly mistreated and disrespected by the authorities, including the small matter of Avery having spent 18 years in prison for a crime of which he was wrongly convicted. This positions the audience to sympathise with Avery, a man beaten down by the establishment with every step he has ever taken. Therefore, the series paints him as innocent, because who would be the protagonist of the story otherwise?

Steven Avery may well be guilty, but the parochial (and oversimplified) scope of the series never allows for this possibility. A series comprised entirely of villains with no positive main characters is not what you would call commercially appealing. Everybody likes a tale of fighting against an unfair system; nobody likes to support an underdog who fights that system, only to realise that he really could be guilty.

Making a Murderer has both political and artistic merit. Unfortunately, the series is marred by its own doctoring of the case, constraining its political relevance to some degree. Although, even if his case has fallen victim to artistic license, the series has garnered considerable attention for Steven Avery. More than this, though, it has shone a light on prejudices that exist in a supposedly impartial system. ‘Poor people lose all the time,’ Avery tells his parents while incarcerated. While Avery may have lost for other reasons, the moral he imparts matters more than ever in our turbulent society.



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Linus Tolliday is a Melbourne-based freelance journalist and has written for the website Taste of Cinema and his hometown newspaper, Ballarat's The Courier.

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  1. I think the series is so popular because it’s so well made, not because people like watching other people

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