If you watch “Making a Murderer” looking for answers, you should know by now that you’ve come to the wrong place. The first season of Netflix’s cultural phenomenon was, on the surface, all about answers. Or the lack thereof. Or the search for them. But, over the course of the 10 episodes, which premiered in 2015, answers are few and far between. Of course, this is exactly what makes the show so appealing. There are so many questions — about the horrific murder of Teresa Halbach, the details that don’t add up, and about Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey — and so few solutions. On top of that, the answers that do surface tend to contradict every fact that came before. The show, created by Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, is a mystery of the messiest kind. And unlike the orderly truths we’ve come to expect from cinema, after carefully following the twists and turns and bearing witness to the grisly details of a young woman’s murder, there is no reward of justice or logic waiting at the end.
‘Part 2,’ which hit Netflix with all 10 episodes available now, is more of the same — for better or worse. The show, once again helmed by Ricciardi and Demos, picks up where the first season left off and keeps following the same grueling and repetitive theories, ostensibly in search of ever-elusive answers. One thing, though, shadows over every new update in the lives of Steven, Brendan, and their family: “Making a Murderer.” The show, which became a pop culture staple, was obviously well watched in Manitowoc County, where Brendan and Steve are from. More importantly, the show’s central issue — the guilt of two men versus the corruption of an entire local legal system — fell neatly inside a preset political debate, leaving many to develop fierce and firm beliefs about the case. In Manitowoc County, this tension boiled into hostility. For those involved, the national attention appears to have made it even less appealing to give any ground or concede even the most minor faults. The fight, as seen in season two, was even more entrenched, with even more lives and reputations on the line.
All of this, though, is mostly left to simmer beneath the surface of the narrative that unfolds throughout ‘Part 2.’ Very little is done to interrogate just how big of an impact the docu-series had (and is having) on the lives and post-conviction hearings of Steven and Brendan. And while such introspection on the part of the filmmakers could have come across as needlessly meta, denying the consequences of the series is almost irresponsible. At its worst and most melodramatic, season two can feel like seeing through the eyes of a pyromaniac admiring a fire they just poured gasoline on.
As far as narrative goes, the details, unlike the first season, are not likely to be shocking or hard to believe, in part because anyone who watched season one likely paid attention to the headlines when appeals were approved (and denied) and when trial hearings granted (and dismissed). In a strange way, “Making a Murderer” is its own worst enemy when it comes to the cliffhangers that propelled its first season. Thankfully, the show is mostly aware of this, and avoids relying on the plot points of Steven and Brendan’s cases, and focuses instead on the minutia of the ongoing investigation being carried out by Steven’s lawyers, the complex nature of Brendan’s lawyers’ attempts to get his confession thrown out, and the family’s slow and painful implosion.
It’s in the family — Steven’s parents and brothers, as well as Brendan’s mother and stepfather — where the heart of the season lives. It is also where the most issues become apparent. Many of the season’s most stirring moments come from Steven’s parents Allen and Dolores Avery, who view getting their son out of jail as a race against time as they both muse over the other’s health and imagine that having Steven home would help their financial and medical woes (as it undoubtedly would). Then there is Brendan’s mother, Barb, who is by turns distraught and indignant about the injustices perpetrated against her son. ‘Part 2’ forces a sort of reckoning with the destruction wrought upon these people — all of which is magnified by it being the subject of an internationally successful TV show. Certainly, there are questions about whether or not their respective family members deserve to be in jail, but the series seems more interested in simply bearing witness as they slowly wither beneath their extraordinary pain.
Unfortunately, their stories are plucked from a clearcut chronology and shoehorned inside the almost abstract narrative of the rest of the season. The episodes are disjointed and leap almost haphazardly throughout the last three years, theoretically to cover every conceivable update while preparing for the final episode to conclude both Steven and Brendan’s stories (for now). This scatterbrained approach doesn’t undermine the show, but it does mean a lot of ground is covered over and over again. But the unwieldy construction is drawn out by an excess of needless atmosphere and a complete lack of pacing. At times it is hard not to wonder whether or not Ricciardi and Demos had enough new information to make an entire second season.
Which brings up another question: why stop now? Clearly, 2018 delivered decisive blows to both families and appeals, but nobody seems finished — not Steven, not Brendan, not their families or their lawyers. Cynically, it’s easy to feel that if Netflix had waited much longer, interest would have waned. Either way, what we’re left with is a show with no firm end, laden with speculation and half-baked theories that shouldn’t satisfy anyone. There is, obviously, a value in seeing this, in taking a firsthand look at the frustrating mechanisms of a barely working justice system. And, similarly, there is no certainty that a ruling from a court would be final or conclusive. But there is something to be said of the dubious journalistic value in naming suspects who have not been charged with any crimes and haphazardly promoting theories that may or may not have any merit. Lawyers have an obligation to do what it takes to free their clients and courts have an obligation to meter out the rule of law. But what responsibility does a filmmaker have when subjects begin pointing fingers?
At the moment, and probably largely because of “Making a Murderer,” the killing of Teresa Halbach feels unsolved. And, whether or not you believe that Steven and Brendan are guilty, there are questions that have been left unanswered and actions by the county that have gone uninvestigated. But weren’t these the things we expected from the show? Isn’t that why we stuck around for 9 more episodes? Because we wanted answers?
At this point, it’s hard to know what the purpose of “Making a Murderer” is because more than anything else, it is a show working to justify its existence. But even still, buried amid an unruly structure in an almost theatrically dramatic series, there are beautiful, utterly human moments that encapsulate just how broken our legal system is. The result is the feeling that without the gift of such an incredible, heartbreaking story packed with unique and riveting characters, ‘Part 2’ would be a pointless, utter slog. [C+]