Netflix Making A Murderer: Narrative Deconstruction Part I

Jan 11, 2016

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imagesOn December 18th, 2015 Netflix concluded their epic original content run by releasing the captivating true crime documentary series, Making A Murderer.  The story retells an unprecedented state case as DNA exoneree, Steven Avery, is charged with the murder for Teresa Halbach in 2005. On September 11th, 2003, Avery is released from prison after a wrongful conviction in 1985. He decides to file a civil suit against the Manitowoc County Sheriff department, seeking $36 million in damages. Between October 11th and 13th, four authoritative members of the department are deposed for professional misconduct in the Avery case. Sheriff Ken Petersen, Lieutenant James Lenk, Sergeant Andy Colborn, and Chief Deputy Eugene Kushe; all revealed to play integral parts during the Halbach investigation in 2005.  Filmmakers Moria Demos and Laura Riccadi shot the series over a ten-year period. They began in 2005 during Avery’s preliminary hearing, shown predominately during the third episode. The combination of Demos’ filmmaking background coupled with Riccadi’s lawyer perspective allows the pair to craft a brilliant case about the flaws in our justice system. Set in America’s heartland, Wisconsin, Making A Murderer is not simply a story about Steve Avery and his nephew, Brendan Dassey, but a portrait of American injustice.  Now before I deconstruct their narrative keep in mind that the governing narrator of any documentary is the film editor.

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Eighteen Years Later 1×01

“It was like the same old Steve was back, he was smiling. I did tell him be careful Manitowoc County is not done with you yet…they are not even close to being finished with you,” states Kim Ducat (Steven’s cousin, as we are shown footage of Steven Avery’s return home after eighteen years in prison. The first episode subtly begins to plant seeds of reasonable doubt (and presumed innocence), as Demos and Riccadi retell Steven Avery’s 1985 wrongful conviction case, as he simultaneously begins to rebuild his life. Essentially the pilot plays like a breaking news dateline episode about justice finally being served. Then the first chapter concludes with Steven being forced into suing the Manitowoc County Sheriff department. A poignant ending note that builds the tension between the Avery family and the Manitowoc County Sheriff department, “They weren’t going to be made a laughing stock that’s for sure…something in my gut said they’re not done with him.”

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October 31st, 2005 the day that forever changed both the Avery and Halbach’s families’ lives forever. The opening sequence consists of close; sharp cuts between various b-roll footage shots of Manitowoc County. The filmmakers evoke eeriness through the score, camera’s perspective driving around town, and audio from a Halbach home video. “I just want people I love to known whenever I die, that I was happy,” says Teresa Halbach three years before her murder. The foreboding in the calmness during the Halbach opening is mirrored during the concluding footage of Ken Kratz press conference, “Because DNA evidence from the suspect of Steven Avery was found on the key and Mr. Avery’s blood was found on the inside of Mrs. Halbrock’s vehicle it is no longer a question…who is responsible for the death of Teresa Halbrock.” A resounding final note, as the very evidentiary tool that set Steven Avery free from his original conviction is the definitive piece of evidence triggering officials to charge him with Teresa Halbrock’s murder.

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Plight of the Accused 1×03

“The absence of any serious commentary that the presumption of innocence that he enjoys may in fact be valid, that there should not be a rush to judgments,” states Walter Kelly, civil rights attorney. Demos and Riccadi present a strong case about the misfortunes befallan those whom only been accused of committing a crime. A sharp contrast is drawn between this opening sequence and the one found in the pilot, as the media begins to slander his name. The case expands as we’re introduced to Steven’s lawyers, Dean Strang and Jerry Buting, in addition to his nephew, Brendan Dassey. In addition, the filmmakers begin to construct a dynamic character arc as Jodi (Steven’s fiancé) returns into the fold. He’s willing to fight against the charges, because there’s something waiting for him on the other side. Accusation whether true, or false place individuals in quiet a predicament that makes them susceptible to exploitation. This concept is fully realized as we watch Brendan Dassey be interrogated by crime investigator, Tom Fassbender. My heart broke for Brendan as he asks about how long the interview will take, since he has a project due at one-thirty. Instead of returning to class he’s arrested and take from the school’s premises as Dean Strang describes Dassey’s plight, “He’s not a bright kid, he’s a soft, quiet kid, whose easily pushed around, whether you mean to, or not. He’s an easy target.” Now this is no longer Steven Avery versus the State, but he’s pivoted against his own family too.

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“If I was out there and all of that was happening, you know which side would you want to believe? There ain’t nothing good coming out of this,” says Steven Avery during a recorded interview. The footage shown as Barb Janda attempts to comfort her son Brendan, and we hear Steven’s views on his nephew’s situation, evokes despair and desolation. A fitting precursor to this chapter that features Brendan’s court appointed attorney, Len Kachinsky. The recorded interview scenes between Brendan and Kachinsky’s investigator, Mike O’Kelly, are extremely distressing. Basically, we observe O’Kelly bullying Brendan into his unsettling confession about the murder of Teresa Halbach. Meanwhile, Jodi (Steven’s fiancé) continues to face pressure from the police that results in her calling off the engagement, “So, I must give it up then, the only thing I was holding onto was her,” says Steven Avery after his parents break the news to him over the phone. The previous episode perfectly setups the loss felt during episode four’s conclusion, as Steven begins to loss momentum in his fight against the system. Meanwhile, Brendan unknowingly finds himself at the mercy of the prosecutor. All hope is not lost though, as Dean Strang and Jerry Buting begin to put together their defense about the systematic failings during the Halback investigation. The DNA evidence found on both Teresa’s key latch and in her car has clearly been tampered with and the Manitowoc County Sheriff department’s hands are all over the investigation, so “Game on.”

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The Last Person to See Teresa Alive 1×05

“When Officers are accused of what they’re being accused of they deserve to have their reputations protected they’re good, solid, decent family men,” persists the state prosecution attorneys as Steven Avery’s trail begins. Demos and Riccadi deliberately use this plea from the prosecution to depict the entitlement police offices have in this community. The scene also continues to support the growing bias these “good, solid, decent family men” have against the Avery family as a whole. A predisposition so strong that they may have been motivated to both plant evidence and direct the neutral investigators straight to the Avery family. During this episode we retrace the search party’s steps as they find themselves at the Avery salvage yard, uncovering Teresa’s abandoned car.   The evident negligence in the investigation to pursue other suspects adds an extra layer of discord in the case, because this is not simply an injustice to the Avery family, but for Teresa Holbach too. Finally, Manitowoc County Sergeant Andrew Colborn takes the stand and is cross-examined by Dean Strange, “There’s no way that you should have been looking at a license plate on November 3 on the backend of a 1999 Toyota…because you’re aware now the first time that Toyota was reported found was two days later on November 5.” Not, only does this Sergeant Andrew Colborn contradict himself while on the stand, but refutes the prosecution’s opening please for the Aver defense team to respect the “good, solid, decent family men” of the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s department.

Episode Average: 9 

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