The ambitious second season of Netflix's doc series is a slower burn, but finds a compelling new character in Steven Avery's post-conviction lawyer
MAKING A MURDERER PART 2 (Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos). All 10 episodes streaming on Netflix Friday (October 19). Rating: NNN
“I think they screwed up my whole case,” says convicted murderer Steven Avery in the second season of Netflix’s Making A Murderer.
He’s talking about his own defence team and by the end of the first four episodes sent to critics, it’s hard not to believe him.
Part two of Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos’s true-crime doc series is most compelling when it focuses on Kathleen Zellner, the powerhouse lawyer who has overturned more wrongful convictions than any other private attorney (and solved the crimes in about half of those cases). She is working to show authorities in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, are guilty of “gross, extreme, egregious prosecutorial misconduct” and that Avery’s original defence lawyers, Dean Strang and Jerry Buting, missed a lot of evidence.
The original series became a breakout hit, inspiring legions of armchair sleuths. If, for some reason, you’re reading this without having watched part one, here’s the story: Avery was sentenced to 35 years in prison in 1985 for rape, but was exonerated in 2003 thanks to DNA evidence. Then, in 2005 in the midst of Avery’s lawsuit against the Sheriff’s Department, he and his then-16-year-old nephew Brendan Dassey were charged with murdering 25-year-old photographer Teresa Halbach, whose charred remains were found on his property. Both were convicted and sentenced to life behind bars. Both maintain their innocence, with Avery arguing he was the target of a police conspiracy to frame him and Dassey contending he was coerced into confessing.
Part two is largely focused on re-examining and uncovering evidence while chronicling what life is like for Avery and Dassey’s families during post-conviction legal manoeuvering. The filmmakers acknowledge the series has become part of the story, but although many viewers might believe in Avery’s innocence, Wisconsin authorities remain unmoved.
After recapping the intense reactions season one generated, including skepticism around evidence the directors omitted, the story catches up with Avery, who is broke and representing himself from prison. He tries repeatedly to recruit the famous Zellner after seeing her on TV, but gets radio silence.
When the first season airs, she agrees to take the case and immediately becomes the show’s most compelling character. Exacting, steely-eyed and media savvy, she has no problem using the show to taunt her legal opponents. At the end of episode one, she explains that “unmasking” prosecutor Ken Kratz’s alleged misconduct in Avery’s case “will be a real pleasure.”
She’s so charismatic that when we leave her to follow another story thread, Making A Murderer can feel unevenly paced. Her segments are compelling, but in an attempt to juggle multiple story strands the show sometimes struggles to lock into a groove that would make season two as instantly addictive as the first.
Part of that has to do with access – two major characters are in prison and are only present in recorded phone interviews – and part is the complex legal context that has to be conveyed. Infographics guide viewers through Dassey’s appeals process and maps show us routes police dogs took through the crime scene.
Despite the visual aides, the early episodes could benefit from a thorough recap of the timeline – defence and prosecution versions – surrounding Halbach’s murder. But with Zellner effectively using the show to present a new case, that would require the filmmakers to lay the revelatory cards on the table that they’re likely saving for later episodes.
In the first four alone, she persuasively suggests blood was planted, that “sweat DNA” is not credible evidence and that Halbach’s body could not have burned in the pit on Avery’s property.
Zellner’s investigative approach gives the show its most dramatic thrust – it also happens to be very visual. After signing on as Avery’s lawyer, she buys the same car Halbach drove and recruits a top expert in blood stain patterns to recreate the blood splatters found in the car. This results in a macabre scene of investigators flinging a blood-splattered mannequin resembling the victim into the trunk.
Each episode ends with a long list of people who refused to participate in the series, including Halbach’s family and friends. Ricciardi and Demos have been accused of taking Avery’s side, but are limited to one of Halbach’s college friends and archival news reports to humanize the victim.
It’s a worthy sequence, but often Making A Murderer can feel like it’s ticking reactionary boxes. More interesting are the scenes capturing uncertain emotions springing from the drawn-out post-conviction legalities, particularly when the wary parents navigate the often premature optimism of their imprisoned sons.
One sequence detours into the world of tabloid gossip when Avery becomes engaged to a woman named Lynn Hartman and ends up on daytime talk show Dr. Phil.
“I knew if there was going to be another season of the documentary that I was going to be on it as Steven’s girlfriend,” Hartman tells the camera. In a heartbreaking scene, Avery talks on the phone to his mother, Dolores, about the relationship. You can see she is holding back, perhaps not wanting to spoil her son’s happiness.
Dassey, meanwhile, has lawyers Laura Nirider and Steven Drizin of the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth working to overturn his conviction on the grounds that his confession was coerced. They are great at exposition, but we don’t get a sense of them as characters like we do with Zellner, giving the Dassey thread a lopsided feel.
The directors are juggling a lot of characters, story threads, context and competing narratives. Their standard TV news magazine style doesn’t always serve their more ambitious theme – post-conviction life – as it does the the still-fascinating whodunit.
But given how the series has interacted with real-life events so far, it will be interesting to see how Zellner’s evidence, timeline and alternative suspect theories impact Making A Murder’s ongoing meta-media narrative.