When it landed on Netflix in 2015, the documentary series “Making a Murderer” was a near-instant sensation, with both the internet commentariat and the national media expressing strong views about the case of Steven Avery and his unfortunate nephew, Brendan Dassey, two Wisconsin men convicted of a 2005 murder. (Opinions diverged, but many viewers seemed to end up, led by a methodically edited 10-hour journey encompassing decades, believing that Avery had been wrongfully convicted even if he had done the crime, and that Dassey had been railroaded by the legal system.) The show became, for a while, something bigger than a hit show; it was, at least for some weeks, the nation’s central discussion topic, sitting at a nexus of high-toned entertainment and real-world horror.
Filmmakers Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi, in the opening moments of their second installment of “Making a Murderer,” show just how familiar they are with the impact of their own work. The season begins with a montage of news and entertainment programs discussing the show and its aftereffects, including petitions pleading that Avery and Dassey be freed. The dissent gets its voice too, including a protester shouting “Don’t let Netflix tell you what to think!” and a college friend of murder victim Teresa Halbach, speaking more in sorrow than in fury about the ordeal of her family and friends. At the end of the first episode’s first act, we meet a new character in the drama, Kathleen Zellner, a defense attorney for Avery who, like a heat-seeking missile, finds her storyline. It’s not just about freeing a man she believes has been wrongfully imprisoned; it’s about humiliation for her adversaries. “That will be a real pleasure,” Zellner intones directly to the camera, “like, unmasking Mr. Kratz.” (Franchise fans will know that “Mr. Kratz” is the villain of season 1, a former district attorney who served as special prosecutor in the Avery case before his 2010 resignation from office amid scandal.)
A putatively high-minded story about American law enforcement that can be said to have “characters,” “villains,” and “fans” is operating on at least one other level: The show exists to educate viewers about the real disadvantages defense attorneys face in the justice system, but also to thrill with a morality play about good and bad lawyers and the civilians whose lives they throw into disarray. Season 2 seems, at least at first, like an exercise in pure enjoyment and in spiking the ball, providing those who thrilled to the first installment a bit of fan-service, even as there’s not much story here.
Zellner, for one, is willing to pitch her advocacy at the level of WWE-style displays of power; over the course of the second season, she seems at times to be running a double game, seeking first to get Avery freed from prison and second, and more zealously, to convince the public to rise up in outrage. She’s fluent in the language of swaying public opinion these days, tweeting missives directed, in her words, at “all the skeptics, doubters & haters.” And she’s hardly the only one pleading her case to the nation. We see Dassey’s lawyer, who will later falter in court as her enthusiasm for setting a seeming new standard for police interrogations based on the notorious Dassey case overtakes the case at hand, speaking to camera about Dassey’s unjust imprisonment. We meet the prosecutor, pouring cold water on “Murderer”-adjacent enthusiasm in making a methodical and un-flashy case before news cameras, clearly in response to the show’s popularity. And, in one of the season’s most twisted moments, Kratz, no longer involved in the case, delivers a televised interview from “CrimeCon,” a convention for devotees of the true-crime genre.
The overarching plot of the season revolves around separate legal efforts to free Avery and Dassey, and little interruptions reminding the viewer that this is no ordinary legal case stand in for a more overarching awareness that justice, for either of them, may effectively be impossible. Especially in the case of Dassey — the mentally handicapped young man who endured a seemingly coercive interrogation — there appear to be multiple instances when the state might well walk away and accept that Dassey has been freed on appeal rather than continuing to challenge the judgment. Legal experts for TV news say as much in clips inserted into “Murderer.” But the mere fact that the story is being discussed by TV news, as well as that it has been and will continue to be streamed on Netflix, means that to concede defeat is impossible for both sides.
“Making a Murderer” wanted, and wants, to frame Avery and Dassey as men who’ve been consigned to an unfair fate. Perhaps the show would have played out differently had the family of the victim chosen to participate; as it stands, we see only Avery and Dassey, watching their lives tick away as they and their families get older and wearier of waiting for a freedom that seems ever-more elusive. They can’t help but become sympathetic, and the viewer can’t help but coming to his or her own opinion about what really happened. It’s easy to see why so many have signed petitions for the pair’s release, and, even if one is opposed to the prosecutors’ cause generally, to understand why prosecutors view it as free advertising for Avery’s and Dassey’s cause.
But carried along in the numbing slipstream of hour-plus episodes, the viewer becomes sleuth while being led by the story. In her least responsible moments, Zellner floats an entirely new theory of the case to cameras that seems to impugn a person because he watched violent pornography. It’s a hail-Mary play attempting to find a new way towards freedom even as every door seems closed; that it threatens to break apart the Avery-Dassey family is trundled past quickly by Zellner, encouraged by the cameras documenting her new theory that at least she’s found something provocative.
If anything, the show seems to have made it more difficult for Avery to be exonerated. Zellner’s attempt to find a way out by going through “Murderer’s” fandom seems perverse, but the power of the show to catalyze response is so powerful that it seems to blind. “Making a Murderer” is more than a hit, but the question of whether it can actually have any impact seems answered. Many already-ruined lives seem yet worse off under the camera’s glare, and the already-vengeful court system is yet more opposed to whatever compromise might have been found under other circumstances.
As entertainment, “Murderer” remains expertly made, its seductive slow pace gripping viewers by the neck; as morality play, its terms are kept blunt and simplistic enough by Zellner to come through. As advocacy, though, it achieved precisely the opposite of its mission from the start. Building a season around a few years of thwarted Avery and Dassey appeals, cases blunted by the very enthusiasm that the show fostered, ends up lacking much of a point at all, beyond sustaining itself as a TV show even after the legal system has provided its answer. If anything, it reads like something viewers, enthralled by the story, are not equipped to hear: The beginning of an apology to Avery and Dassey, from two filmmakers who made their case more difficult in the real world by converting it into a made-for-TV drama.
Documentary. Netflix (10 episodes, all screened for review), Fri., Oct. 19.
Executive Producers: Lisa Nishimura, Adam Del Deo, Ben Cotner, Moira Demos, Laura Ricciardi