The relationship evangelical Christians have with Netflix is strained at best. The decision of the content platform and production company to offer Cuties (2020), a French film portraying young children in a hyper-sexualized way, was reasonable grounds for many to cancel their subscriptions. My own incredulity about Netflix producing something worthwhile was recently shattered by watching the 2019 miniseries, Unbelievable
Spoiler alert! As a fictionalized account of a true crime story, Unbelievable (2019) is clearly intended for a mature adult audience only. Over eight episodes, two stories are told side-by-side until they converge at the end: one is about a young woman, Marie Adler (played convincingly by Kaitlyn Dever), who reports that she’s been raped and then is pressured by her Washington detectives, because of inconsistencies in her account, to say that she fabricated the story to get attention; the other is about two female detectives, Karen Duvall (Merrit Wever) and Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette) who, though from different jurisdictions in Colorado, collaborate to resolve several rape cases which bear remarkable commonalities. When the Colorado rapist is finally apprehended, it becomes apparent that Adler was one of his victims, and she is vindicated.
Here am I. Send me!
Throughout the miniseries, Christians are strikingly portrayed favorably. Adler’s ex-boyfriend, Connor (Shane Paul McGhie), is her only loyal friend and his support for her is unconditional. When she asks him whether he ever thinks about rekindling their relationship, he admits he does but won’t seriously reconsider until she goes to church. The lead detective, Karen Duvall, is herself an evangelical Christian. On her dashboard, she has a quote from Isaiah affixed: “Here am I. Send me” (Isa 6:8). Karen sees her job as a police officer as a calling from the Lord. In several scenes we are given a window into her devotional life, seeing her pray before meals and participate in Sunday worship, singing “In Christ Alone” with her congregation.
Depicting the World with Integrity
Aside from its positive portrayal of Christians (as well as marriage and even lawyers!!) there are areas where the world is portrayed truthfully. First, the series highlights the competency of female cops, too often disregarded by Hollywood, by featuring two strong female leads in the Colorado detectives. Karen Duvall is the empathic one and she is motivated in her work by her concern for victims and Grace Rasmussen is a no-nonsense (albeit foul-mouthed) cop who will not tolerate injustice.
Secondly, the series acknowledges the sober realities of foster care. Adler has spent her youth in various foster homes and therefore struggles with attachment. She is extremely skeptical of authorities (foster parents, therapists, etc.) who promise to help her. In showcasing simultaneously vulnerability, confusion, frustration as well as confidence and determination, Kaitlyn Dever is perfectly cast for this role. Interestingly, foster parents are also favorably depicted. Though they aren’t always wise in their decisions, they do seem genuinely to care.
Third, the series acknowledges the grim phenomena of police allegations of false reporting. We see how easy it is for detectives to dismiss an allegation of rape, especially when the victim doesn’t have strong advocates. Adler confuses some of the facts and sequences in her account of rape and so it sounds contradictory in the end. The detectives in this case should have known better. Memory is often imprecise, and we never remember an event in exactly the same way. Moreover, false reporting of rape is extremely rare, especially when the facts themselves are disturbing and traumatic.
I was Wrong and I’m Sorry
The series also embeds important lessons about confessions and apologies. In the last episode, Washington detective Robert Parker (Eric Lange), who had played apart in pressuring Adler to recant her story, feels horrible about his mistaken judgment and searches for Adler to report that evidence from another arrest proves she was telling the truth and that he was wrong. It is so important for offenders to acknowledge their wrongdoing to victims. When her lawyer recommends that she refuse the city’s settlement offer of $150,000 for a better one, Adler is inclined to accept it. “All I want,” she says, “is for them to acknowledge it.”
Yet Adler is still unhappy with Detective Parker, and she eventually goes to the police station to confront him. When the receptionist alerts him that Adler is there to see him, he says, “Send her up!” In response to something the receptionist says (unintelligible to the viewer), he says, “Ok, I’ll come down.” Come down is what he must do. Adler confronts him, “You know what I never got, ever, from anybody? An apology. When you mess up, you apologize.” Convicted, Parker responds, “I’m sorry. I’m very, very sorry.”
Parker had earlier admitted to Adler that he was wrong, but it was void of an apology. Biblical repentance is both emotional (“I’m very sorry”) and ethical (“I was wrong”). In fact, full repentance is sorrow over sin, the admission of wrongdoing, and the enacted pledge not to repeat it.
What are You Doing about Injustice?
There are a couple of scenes in the series which together establish a theological response to the problem of evil. In an early scene Detective Rasmussen mocks faith in God by questioning how God could permit crimes so heinous as rape. Moments later, however, she acknowledges to Duvall that she envies believers. Duvall responds that it’s hard enough with faith and that she can’t imagine what life would be like without faith. In jest Rasmussen indicates she handles it with alcohol.
Towards the end of the final episode, Adler confides in Duvall that she had been increasingly excluding the possibility of human goodness and careening towards hopelessness until she discovered how Detectives Duvall and Rasmussen had been working so hard to right the wrongs of society. In this scene we discover a partial answer to the earlier question: Where is God in the midst of an evil world? In those places where justice is being pursued!
As Christians we don’t know much about the origin of evil. The serpent appears on the pages of Scripture without introduction. Our hope, however, is lodged in knowing the destiny of evil. On the cross, Jesus stepped on the head of the serpent, triumphing over powers and principalities, and so secured the ultimate demise of evil. But God will also crush Satan under our feet (Rom.16:20). We answer the problem of evil in part by fighting it, implementing the victory Jesus has already won. Before asking what God is doing about injustice in the world, we need to ask ourselves what we are doing.
Yet the problem of evil is never going to be fully resolved by people. Adler’s newfound hope, instilled by discovering that two Colorado detectives were working hard to fight injustice, is unstable. Yet this is precisely the hope of so many contemporary dystopian and apocalyptic productions. The world is a mess but look! There are a few doing good. This is false hope: the best of people disappoint and therefore redemption must come from beyond humanity. Human problems require theological solutions.
The series is titled Unbelievable, I suppose, because Adler’s account of rape is considered by her Washington detectives as “unbelievable.” There might be another reason, however, though none of the reviews I read proposed it. Perhaps God too is unbelievable. Evil is so rampant it seems ludicrous to believe in a good God. But in the last episode, Detective Rasmussen who on a couple of occasions mocked belief in God acknowledges to Duvall that for the first time she prayed and, because the rapist was located, “it worked.” Perhaps God is as unbelievable as Adler’s account of her rape. In other words, God is believable.
Unbelievable has dislodged my incredulity about the value of Netflix. By means of this miniseries the viewer is confronted with the problem of evil and in so doing God is not cavalierly dismissed. The series embeds an invitation not simply to fight injustice but to consider how a purely human fight might prove inadequate without help from above. Apart from faith in the work of Christ on the cross—God’s answer to evil—the ultimate defeat of injustice will remain unbelievable.