Making a Murderer landed in December of 2015 and displayed yet another new jewel in Netflix’s crown of programming dominance. The streaming service had already set benchmarks with its US reimagining of House of Cards, as well as Orange is the New Black. The binge-watch culture felt like it was establishing itself in original programming, yet it was Making a Murderer, a series that tackled the complicated murder case of Teresa Halbach, that highlighted Netflix’s ability to acquire and create defining documentaries as well as fiction.
Making a Murderer was yet another example of just how attuned Netflix is to their audience. Released only a year after the popular podcast Serial, Making a Murderer helped bolster the current wave of true crime stories that have come crashing through people’s smartphones and interactive TVs since.
The case was, and still is, equally as alluring as that of Serial’s Adnan Syed and the murder case of Hae Min Lee: Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man who had served 18 years in prison for the wrongful conviction of sexual assault and murder of Penny Beerntsen. However, when Teresa Halbach is murdered and her vehicle and remains are found on Avery’s estate, he and his nephew, Brendan Dassey, are arrested and convicted of her murder. The first season covers all aspects of the case, accurately pinning down the absurdity of many elements. From the dubious nature of the conviction to the uncertainty of the condemned felon themselves, the show’s episodic nature (alongside the peculiarity of the case) made the show a compelling, if not manipulative, endeavour.
The problem we have with the first four episodes of Season 2 is that the filmmakers now know they will definitely won’t give up on a good thing, even though it’s a bad event. Opening with a far-too-telling montage of coverage of the original case through various different recordings, newscasts and Vox Pops, Part 2 seems to be patting itself on the back – not only for bringing the Avery case to light but for their own placement in the case. It’s quick to note that not everyone was happy with how the filmmakers documented the case, with other Netflix docs operating in a very similar, flashy way since its release.
This season shifts most of its focus onto Brendan Dassey’s postconviction and looks at whether or not his verdict can be overturned. When Making a Murderer keeps it focuses on Brendan and his family, the show retains some of the sparks of the first season, going all in on the method and detail of the defence. While the likes of prosecutor Ken Kratz are only seen fleetingly, his appearance and his previous coda, which involved disbarment due to sexual assault, again illustrate just why this case and results were placed into question. Sequences such as the recalling of Brendan’s confession or the dubious press conference by Kratz are very despairing. Whether or not Brendan performed the acts he was made guilty of, it’s clear that the execution of such aspects were highly suspect.
Making a Murderer, though, is still the Steven Avery show and we bear witness to Steven’s agitation to still being in jail, a rather dubious courtship and the incoming of confident and ruthless Kathleen Zellner – a highly media-savvy lawyer now in his corner. A lot of the opening episodes fixate on the media circus that has presided since the first season’s release and it’s here that will cause the most controversy. An early interview with Teresa’s friend, Andy Behrendt, denouncing the filmmakers and the almost perverse obsession with the case is one of the more honest highlights, simply because it reminds us of the real victim once more. For all of Steven’s exclamations about “his life” and whether or not he’s innocent, Part 2, despite making marked efforts to highlight Teresa as a friend, like another Netflix Documentary, Amanda Knox, just cannot do enough to remind us that a young life has been lost. The end of every episode reads a long list of people who decided against co-operation with the show makers and this feels very telling – nostly because Teresa Halbach felt like such an absent avatar in the first season. It is difficult not to feel an element of ghoulishness creep into proceedings; the show now has its fame, but family and friends will never get Teresa back.
Unlike the Paradise Lost series (1996), which work better as a documentation of a broken system and justice lost, Making a Murderer’s slick production values and the ever tugging need for the folks at home to keep binging with its cliffhanger endings do muddy the waters; there’s a feeling that the machine needs to be fed and that your viewings of this case will sit snuggly next to your weekend marathon watch of BoJack Horseman.
Making a Murderer, along with the likes of Serial, has highlighted the clear craving for accounts of true crime. The curveball narratives and the similar-to-fiction nature of their structure have been vital to the attraction and success of their shows. However, these first four episodes of Part 2 only seem to provide more insight into our viewing habits than truly depicting the broken system that allowed the show to even exist. It’s hard not to feel that it wears some of the damnation of the project on its shoulders.
Strangely, the comedy true crime podcast, My Favourite Murder (2016), seems to fare better with similar aims. Its comedic approach is definitely not for everyone, and yet its growing sensitivity towards its own fans and the victims of the truly heinous crimes they talk about, gives us an honesty that Making a Murderer struggles with. At one point, Brendan’s mother notes the number of likes a status on the appeal for her son’s release gets and she beams at the support. Later on, a friend of Teresa doing a sponsored run in memory of her friend only has a few words to say: “There’s a whole world looking at the wrong side of the story.” It’s difficult not to disagree.
All episodes of Making a Murderer are available exclusively on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.