Saying Merritt Wever delivers a tremendous performance in the Netflix limited series “Unbelievable” is pretty much like saying Merritt Wever stars in the Netflix limited series “Unbelievable.” In other words, obvious.
I’m sure Wever has had roles she could not quite make come alive with her magnetic low-boil vitality, but I’ve never seen any of them. Her characters on “Nurse Jackie,” “The Walking Dead,” “Godless” and even “The New Girl” inevitably steal, albeit quietly and kindly, every scene with neither showiness nor regret. Wever is a sidelong kind of performer, one who always appears to be on the fringe of the action even when she’s not, listening and watching, kicking dirt or doing whatever business is required and speaking in deceptively low tones; most of the time, you do not realize you are completely riveted by her until she’s gone, leaving behind a breathless vacuum.
“Unbelievable,” which is based on true events, tells two stories. In the first, a troubled young woman named Marie (Kaitlyn Dever) is raped and reports the crime to the police. Based on nothing but “gut instinct,” the cops come to believe she is lying and bully her into recanting. In the other, two police detectives from different cities work together to find a serial rapist. Wever plays Det. Karen Duvall, who consults Det. Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette) when a rape she is investigating appears to resemble an older case.
The first episode is devoted entirely to Marie’s story, a tragic chronicle of one crime following another. Because of her foster care background and the fact that she doesn’t behave the way others think a rape victim should behave, the police become convinced she is making up the incident for attention. The officer who re-interviews Marie and forces her recantation is a nightmare of anger and contempt.
In the second episode, we meet Duvall, in another city and another timeframe, as she heads to another rape scene. In dealing with this victim, a college student named Amber (Danielle Macdonald, who is also terrific), Duvall reinforces the brutality of Marie’s encounters with police by showing what it looks like when a rape victim is treated with respect and no suspicion.
In Duvall’s car, Amber begins to tell her story and when she attempts to explain why she has not yet told anyone, not even her boyfriend, about what has happened, Duvall interrupts her. “Amber, you don’t have to explain yourself to me,” she says. “Who you choose to tell, when you choose to tell them, that is entirely your decision.”
As always, Wever speaks quietly, her eyes wide and steady, but she leans hard into the final words., before backing off, adding with a kind of facial shrug, “Just wanted to know.” In over-full silence, Amber smiles a tiny tight smile and you can feel the emotion choking her. “OK,” she whispers.
It is an exquisite moment, a subtle but certain re-establishing of Amber’s control of her life, which has been shattered so recently by hours of having that control horrifically taken from her. The scene, and others between Amber and Duvall, continue in the same vein, with Duvall guiding Amber gently but firmly through all the investigative necessities — revisiting the bedroom where the rape took place, taking Amber to the hospital to be examined for any evidence. Wever radiates Duvall’s concern with empathetic eyes that rarely leave Amber’s face and quiet explanations of what needs to happen next that reflect the seriousness of the crime and the importance of Amber’s well-being. She does not shower Amber with sympathy or reassurance or restrained anger at the crime; she does her job, part of which is to make sure Amber feels heard and in control of the process.
It is a heartbreaking series of conversations, in which Macdonald also does incredible work, revealing not only the devastation of rape but also the cruel mythology surrounding it, including the way it is often depicted in film and television. I have never seen a rape victim treated with such respectful thoroughness on any screen, and in a way that proved at once a pointed message and an utterly organic revelation of character.
The power of that message is down to the writers, Susannah Grant, Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon, but the graceful astonishing effectiveness of the scenes came from the performances, especially Wever’s. It would have been so easy to overdo, for Det. Duvall to have seemed overly protective or preachy. “You don’t have to explain yourself to me” could easily have turned into a bit of well-intentioned bullying or perfunctory professionalism. But Wever‘s reading of just a few words reveals the theme of the series: An acknowledgment of what has happened to Amber, deepened by Duvall’s own experience as a detective; an underlining of the fact that it has happened to her, not because of her, and a validation that whatever Amber is feeling, whatever she chooses to do or not do with those feelings, is no one’s business and has no bearing on the fact that she has been the victim of a crime.
It is not easy, what Wever does, in that moment and through her role as Duvall. She is a thorough, dogged police officer, a devout Christian and an often-worried mother who feels things, including irritation and personal aggrievement, deeply. She finds both tension and relief in her relationship with Rasmussen. Collette is also excellent, bringing a sparkling humor and humanity to the hard-shelled, tough-talking Rasmussen. But Rasmussen is a far more familiar character than Duvall, who is just as aware of and angered by the often sexist treatment of rape victims, and female detectives, but has shaped her life as one of service rather than aggression.
Which is, not to get too wildly existential about it, a good way to describe Wever’s performance in “Unbelievable.” It is not so much a performance as a near-spiritual service to the message of the series — that rape is a crime of violence and its victims deserve comfort and respect.
In a later episode, Duvall, obsessed with finding a white pick-up she believes belongs to the rapist, chases one down. When she discovers the driver is an elderly black man, who greets her with a wary politeness born no doubt of his own encounters with police, she is horrified. Again, the scene is powerfully written, but the sorrow with which Duvall realizes that, in trying to right one historic wrong she has carelessly perpetrated another, that is all Wever. Not anger, not guilt, sorrow. Not every actor can do sorrow, another thing you don’t realize until Wever does it.
Early on, we see Duvall has a quote from Isaiah on her dashboard: “I am here, send me.” One suspects Wever might have something similar on hers.