It took me a long time to start watching the second season of Making a Murderer. The first season, while wildly compelling—and one of the first true crime documentaries to captivate what felt like the entire country at the same time in late 2015—ultimately pointed strongly toward one conclusion: that Steven Avery, a salvage yard worker living in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, was framed by local police for the rape and murder of a young photographer named Theresa Halbach, for which he received a life sentence. The documentarians Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos followed Avery and his family for months and spun a (fairly convincing) tale about a blue-collar family that struggled to gain community respect and so wound up as the target of local corruption.
The filmmakers presented an equally persuasive case for Brendan Dassey, Avery’s nephew, who confessed to being an accomplice to the crime, but who later said that he invented his confession while under extreme pressure. (Dassey was 16 at the time, and also had a IQ of about 80, which means he was particularly vulnerable to manipulation and coercion). Both Avery and Dassey were found guilty and are serving life sentences, a fact that enraged many Netflix subscribers who were sure after ten hours of couch time that they had witnessed a grave miscarriage of justice.
In presenting the story as they did, the documentarians several bits of criminal evidence that didn’t serve the narrative thrust of their film. What Ricciardi and Demos wanted to probe and indict was corruption and systemic malfeasance, and so they chiseled away some of the facts that did not support their case. As Kathryn Schulz wrote in the New Yorker of season one, “The point of being scrupulous about your means is to help insure accurate ends, whether you are trying to convict a man or exonerate him. Ricciardi and Demos instead stack the deck to support their case for Avery, and, as a result, wind up mirroring the entity that they are trying to discredit.” In trying to expose bias, the filmmakers showed their own.
This is not to say they necessarily drew the wrong conclusions; we still do not know the truth of what happened the night Halbach died, and we may never know. But Ricciardi and Demos’s project might have been even more compelling had they let their conclusions stand up against all the facts. While I felt righteously angry by the end of the first season, I also felt manipulated and exhausted. I wasn’t sure I wanted to experience that queasy feeling all over again.
Yet I am ultimately glad I stuck with the show, as season two sets off in a new direction, following two captivating women, both lawyers, who wear their own commitments and belief systems with a refreshing openness. I don’t think there would have been a second season if the documentarians had not found these women. Avery and Dassey barely appear in the new season; they are floating voices from prison telephones. The show reorients itself and nearly switches genre: It is no longer a Whodunit but a long-form character study, a dual portrait of two legal crusaders, and an examination of the appeals process. If the first season was a bonanza for Netflix, the second season feels as if it belongs on PBS.
The two women at the heart of the new season are both lawyers trying to exonerate a member of Avery family, but that is where the similarities end. Steven Avery’s attorney Kathleen Zellner is what some might call a “celebrity” lawyer. She focuses on one thing only, which is getting innocent people out of jail. She is good at it. She has done it over 17 times. She seems like a character out of a John Grisham or Gillian Flynn novel (like Gone Girl’s Tanner Bolt), but she is very real, swanning around Wisconsin in designer suits with crimson lipstick and a sleek blowout.
Zellner has a knack for courting the media. When she files her appeals paperwork at the county courthouse, she makes sure to hold a press conference. She is good at throwing out snappy one-liners (“If you are guilty,” she says bluntly, “I will do a way better job of finding out you are guilty than any prosecutor could.”). But she also has a bloodhound’s nose for unasked questions and breadcrumb trails; she does over a dozen new forensic tests and experiments around the Avery property, claiming that the original defense team put in little legwork the first time round. Zellner’s tactics may be flashy—she tweets openly about the case, and still does—but they come from a place of distrust for institutions, an instinct that has guided her work unknotting so many false convictions. She believes the system is broken and twisted on a grand scale, and so she needs to be larger than life to take it on.
Brendan Dassey’s lawyers take a different path. Laura Nirider and Steve Drizin work for Northwestern University and The Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people who were incarcerated as minors due to forced confessions and other manipulative interventions. Nirider, who gets the most screen time of the team, is less bombastic than Zellner, and perhaps more idealistic. She wears conservative cardigans and sensible clogs (a contrast with Zellner’s velvet blazers and statement jewelry) and spends late nights preparing her cases in her small, cluttered office under buzzing fluorescent lights. While Zellner has yet to have the chance to bring her new case to court, Nirider has been in court defending Dassey several times over the years, as his case moved through a lengthy appeals process.
If Zellner’s story is one of bluster and theatrics, Nirider’s is a slow churn, marking the years that go into trying to extricate someone from the prison system. Dassey’s case made it all the way to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, where at first a panel of three judges upheld the decision of a federal judge, agreeing that Dassey’s confession had been coerced. But after the Wisconsin authorities appealed and asked for a full en banc review (meaning all nine judges of the Seventh Circuit weighed in), Dassey’s conviction remained, and the Supreme Court of the United States declined to hear his case. He has now exhausted all options for appeal and continues to serve time. Throughout this arduous process, Nirider looks worn down, and yet she never loses her pluck. She knows the system is a mess and yet wakes up every morning determined to try to navigate it as best she can.
Making a Murderer Part Two doesn’t place a higher value on one woman’s approach, but instead shows both the banal paperwork and canny tricks required to get through the American justice system. Is it better to have a dogged, media-savvy lawyer who tweets about her progress and uses the latest lie-detector technologies? Or one who does tireless pro bono work from an academic perch? Both women meet much resistance at every step of the process. No matter what kind of lawyer a person hires, seeking exoneration, this season shows, requires nearly superhuman stamina. The fights often take years, with long stretches of waiting in between court decisions. And with every dash of hope can come a deluge of crushing news.
What the documentary is missing, as it was in the first season, is a real sense of who in this mess is the victim. We still don’t learn much about Teresa Halbach—a lacuna that so many popular true crime shows and podcasts share. In the first episode of season two, the filmmakers are self-aware enough to note that the Halbach family was devastated at the way the documentary was met with such a ravenous response. And yet they don’t try to deepen her story moving forward. When the series ends, she still feels more like a plot device than a person who once lived.
What you do get from the second season is a sense that no one in this story is happy. All are punished. Both the families of the victim and the convicted are in terrible pain, which shows no sign of abating. The only truth we come away with is that a lot of the evidence in this case doesn’t add up or make sense. It’s all a scramble, and there are no winners. Perhaps this is not how you want your true crime story to end: There’s no big Hollywood twist. Making a Murderer ends not with a bang, but with a whimper—the familiar sense that justice, at least in this case, may remain just out of reach.