'Making A Murderer' And How The True Crime Genre Evolved Past The Whodunit

The unsettling "Making A Murderer," and the upcoming "American Crime Story," are retiring some of the genre's oldest tropes.

Mid-way through the final episode of "Making A Murderer," criminal defense attorney Dean Strang -- the Atticus Finch to the Millennial generation -- refers to his convicted former client Steven Avery and says, "I just hope he is guilty."

It's one of the most harrowing moments in the unsettling, and wildly engrossing, Netflix docu-series. And it's a shocking statement coming from Strang, the series' one true harborer of justice. Avery, a poor, blue-collar man from Manitowoc County, Wis., was convicted of the 2005 murder of Teresa Halbach in 2007. For more than two years Strang and Jerome Buting served as his legal counsel.

Strang's confession is equal parts heartbreaking and noble. Not because he's certain Steven Avery is guilty -- in fact, the series presents an overwhelming lack of certainty on that front -- but for Strang, it's about the very belief in the system he's dedicated his life to. If Avery isn't guilty of killing Halbach, then Avery's conviction, and the conviction of his young cousin Brendan Dassey, is not only unjust, but it's also downright criminal.

In other words, the possibility of Avery's guilt is what helps Strang, and the countless others who binged "Making A Murderer" over their holiday break, sleep at night. But it's not what drives the story, at least not anymore.

If last year’s record-breaking podcast "Serial" is responsible for reviving the true crime genre, then it's "Making A Murderer" that has irrevocably changed it. Unlike the genre-defining narratives of its past, such as Vincent Bugliosi's "Helter Skelter" and Ann Rule's haunting "The Stranger Beside Me," true crime has evolved past the provocative whodunit. Now, the genre aims to expose something more unsettling all together: our failing criminal justice system.

"Serial" and "Making A Murderer" both analyze the effect that prejudice, shoddy investigations and shaky evidence have on criminal justice proceedings. Adnan Syed and Steven Avery were both victims of a system created on the grounds that all people are "innocent until proven guilty" -- and yet, it does nothing of the sort.


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Steven Avery, pictured above, and the Avery family, lived on the outskirts of Manitowoc County and were often demonized by the community.

Rarely do we see reasonable doubt come into play on popular crime dramas like "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" and "Law & Order: SVU" and yet, it's the very backbone of our judicial system. Why question due process when prime time procedurals often wrap everything up in one tidy, 42-minute bow? We're constantly being shown criminals getting their comeuppance, but it's not always that black and white. In fact, true crime stories now live somewhere in the murky grey depths of our subconscious.

And Netflix’s first foray into the true crime genre has paid off for the streaming service. Following in the footsteps of "Serial," the 10-part docu-series has become a cultural phenomenon, inspiring everyone from Mandy Moore to Ricky Gervais to sing its unnerving praises over the holiday weekend. Alec Baldwin even live tweeted his 48-hour rage spiral.

For those who didn't spend their Christmas avoiding family for the true crime series, the story of "Making a Murderer" picks up in 2003 when Avery is released from prison, after being exonerated for a rape he never committed. After serving 18 years of his 35-year sentence, DNA evidence finally freed him -- but the docu-series paints Avery as an easy target for the Manitowoc County sheriff's department... A poor, working-class man with lower-than-average intelligence and a criminal record. He became a symbol of justice in the mainstream media.

Two years later, Avery is arrested for a brutal murder -- right as his legal team is proceeding forward with a $36 million dollar lawsuit against the Manitowoc County sheriff's department for wrongful imprisonment. In 2007, he's convicted and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. But there's something about Avery's conviction that doesn't add up.

Was Avery made into a murderer and framed by the Manitowoc County sheriff's department, who were angered and embarrassed by his exoneration and subsequent lawsuit? That's the question at the heart of Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos spell-binding series. The evidence for police and prosecutorial wrongdoing is frustratingly abundant, but the answers are elusive.

After 10 hours of stomach-churning interrogations, testimonies and evidence, we still know nothing about Teresa Halbach's final hours. And we probably never will. But in many ways, "Making A Murderer," and the modern true crime genre in general, isn't about its victim -- and that's what makes us so uncomfortable. We, as a society, want answers. We want "The Jinx," Andrew Jarecki's critical, and ultimately fruitful, investigation into possible serial killer Robert Durst. We want Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood." We want our villains to pay the ultimate price, which is what makes all of the painful uncertainty surrounding Avery's case so unbearable.

Through all of its unsettling twists and turns, "Making A Murderer," like "Serial" before it, has inspired an impassioned Reddit community to scrutinize every detail of Avery’s case. No piece of evidence is too insignificant for this group of civilian sleuths. Amateur detectives theorize probable suspects -- Teresa’s "smarmy, press-happy" brother Mike Halbach, the sketchy ex-boyfriend who admittedly hacked into Halbach's voicemail, Avery’s apathetic brother, the far-fetched "German Man" -- often taking things a step further than producer-directors Ricciardi and Demos dared to go. For the filmmakers, that wasn't the story; the story was Steven Avery.

Because "Making A Murderer" offers no resolution, no just ending for its poor subjects, we feel compelled to draw our own conclusions. We believe that there needs to be some sort of satisfactory ending to the frustrating narrative Ricciardi and Demos spin, but "Making A Murderer" isn’t a whodunit. It's not about solving Teresa Halbach's murder. (For what it's worth, Halbach's family declined to be part of the documentary, so it's easy for viewers to read them as willfully blind throughout this years-long process.)


Steven Avery

Steven Avery still maintains his innocence.

"Making A Murderer" is about the systemic failings of our justice system -- a system that allowed a 16-year-old, intellectually handicapped boy to be railroaded into confessing to a heinous crime he likely didn't commit. (Unlike Avery, Brendan Dassey's DNA was nowhere to be found at the crime scene.) Our system failed Steven Avery's right to due process. It failed Brendan Dassey's right to a fair trial. Most importantly, it failed Teresa Halbach, just as its failed countless other victims before her.

This miscarriage of justice is also at the center of the forthcoming FX mini-series "The People V. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story." On Oct. 3, 1995, after a 252-day trial, Hall of Fame pro-football player and actor, O.J. Simpson was found not guilty in the 1994 murders of Nicole Brown Simpson, his ex-wife, and Ronald Goldman.

The Simpson murder trial spoke volumes about race and the criminal justice system in America. The Juice's defense lawyers, often referred to as the "Dream Team," used a similar defense strategy to that of Strang and Buting's defense for Avery: he was a victim of law enforcement malfeasance.

Despite the damning DNA evidence found at the crime scene, the Dream Team, led by Johnnie Cochran, painted Simpson as yet another African American victim of the white judicial system. They cited the questionable character of detective Mark Fuhrman and alleged blunders in the police investigation as cause for reasonable doubt. Unlike Avery, Simpson walked free.


American Crime Story

David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian, John Travolta as Robert Shapiro in FX's "The People V. O.J. Simpson."

Again, the gruesome deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman are regulated to nothing more than a macabre afterthought. The show doesn't try to answer the question of O.J.'s guilt. (MTV News has screened the first four episodes of Ryan Murphy's "The People V. O.J. Simpson.) It's not about striving for justice -- we already knows how that played out -- but rather, it's about the event. The spectacle of it all.

It's unsettling how easily the media glosses over the glaring manipulation of justice in both "American Crime Story" and "Making A Murderer." They seemed to be driven by the story, not by the truth: two true crime stories, told through different lenses, each with a similarly unjust ending.

Of course, there's the flip-side -- the side that helps Strang sleep at night. What if they all really did it? What if Steven Avery and his 16-year-old nephew chained Teresa Halbach to a bed, then raped and killed her? What if they are monsters? What if Adnan Syed really did strangle Hae Min Lee in a Best Buy parking lot? What if O.J. Simpson brutally killed his ex-wife outside of her Brentwood apartment? (He did it, right?) Then, how are we supposed to feel about our justice system's failings? Is it moral to feel relieved?

True crime is a look into harrowing events that ruined lives, and as unsettling as it may sound, sometimes, those events don't add up to a conclusion. Sometimes, events are altered to fit a certain narrative. Facts are corroborated with false confessions. Interrogations are a means to an end, not a search for the truth. And most of the time, as Avery says himself, "Poor people lose." It's a sickening and overall disheartening thought.

But that's what you're left with at the end of "Making A Murderer" -- and presumably, given history, at the end of "American Crime Story." It's the urge to resolve the whodunit, without the actual resolution. And it's the fear of an easily manipulated justice system, that becomes the most harrowing true crime story of them all.