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The Problem of True Crime Sequels

Part 2 of ‘Making a Murderer’ is a direct result of its first season—which means there is less to talk about and more complicated influences to unpack. It’s a large burden to put on so few developments.

Netflix/Ringer illustration

The stated purpose of Making a Murderer, the Netflix true crime docuseries created by Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi, is for the audience to have “a better understanding of the criminal justice system.” By this standard, the 10-episode first season of the Making a Murderer saga was a massive success. Released in December 2015, the series was an early example of a streaming service turning a traditional TV downtime—in the case, the end-of-the-year holidays—into an opportunity. Sure enough, millions of people watched the story of the possibly wrongful convictions of blue-collar Wisconsinites Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey over the holidays. Along with the podcast Serial and HBO’s The Jinx, Making a Murderer became a foundational member of the still-thriving true crime boom, a phenomenon that now includes comedy podcasts, scripted adaptations, and in a postmodern twist, a Making a Murderer–style parody also on Netflix. Meanwhile, Avery and Dassey’s cases became a cause célèbre, attracting national scrutiny and dialogue surrounding police misconduct, coercive interrogations, and the many, many qualifications to the supposedly ironclad dictum of “innocent until proven guilty.”

The second volume of Making a Murderer, released last Friday, has a more complicated relationship between its mission and its outcome. Rather than recounting the circumstances that initially put Avery and Dassey in prison—Avery’s initial wrongful conviction for rape in 1985; the death of Teresa Halbach in 2005; Manitowoc County police subsequently planting evidence against Avery and eliciting a false confession from Dassey—Part 2 follows the post-conviction phase of the two men’s legal sagas. Avery and Dassey remain in the picture, but the focus shifts from Avery’s initial defense team, Jerry Buting and Dean Strang, to the convicts’ new counsel. Avery is currently represented by Kathleen Zellner, an attorney whose work has led to more overturned convictions than any other private practitioner in the United States. Dassey’s case is now handled by Steven Drizin and Laura Nirider, professors at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law and co-directors of its Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth.

An educational component is certainly present: Part 2’s most consistent visual device might be the flow chart, outlining the many different phases of the appeals process in painstaking detail. But as Zellner, Drizin, and Nirider make their way through state and federal courts, motions, and forensic testing, it becomes clear that Making a Murderer no longer depicts the kind of railroading and abuses of power that occur in the American criminal justice system every day, albeit an extreme example of it. Part 2 tracks a chain of events very few defendants will ever go through, because it requires resources and commitment very few defendants will ever get.

The awkward truth hanging over Making a Murderer’s second installment is that virtually everything in it is a direct result of the first. In the years since Part 1, Zellner took Avery on as a client; Avery got engaged to Lynn Hartman, a woman who learned of his existence from the show; and Dassey’s parents were flooded with gifts for their incarcerated son, whose conviction was overturned in 2016 then upheld by a federal appeals court. (Hartman has subsequently broken off her engagement to Avery.) Making a Murderer is no longer a story about Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey’s legal battles; it’s an inextricable part of them. Which means that Demos and Ricciardi are no longer separate, impartial narrators of the story, if in fact they ever were. They’re major characters within it, influencing people’s opinion and even behavior through their work.

Yet Part 2 barely reckons with Demos and Ricciardi’s ethical quandaries or even acknowledges their presence. The viral ubiquity of Part 1 is acknowledged in a montage early in the premiere then largely kept in the background. Widespread criticisms of Part 1, such as its omission of the so-called sweat DNA introduced by the prosecution during Avery’s trial, are quickly waved away by Zellner. Her point that the origin of DNA is almost impossible to pinpoint is a sound one. What stands out is that Zellner is refuting an argument about the filmmakers’ creative decision-making—not the filmmakers themselves. In works like Serial and The Jinx, Sarah Koenig and Andrew Jarecki make their investment in the action visible, letting the listener or viewer decide for themself the extent of their bias. Demos and Ricciardi, on the other hand, remain firmly behind the lens, a creative decision that becomes more and more of a liability.

Every episode of Part 2 ends with a list of the relevant parties who declined to speak with Demos and Ricciardi for their follow-up, a caveat that takes up the entire screen with dozens of names, including almost every member of the Halbach family. Demos and Ricciardi have said that they wanted to do Halbach and her loved ones justice in Part 2 by giving more voice to their perspective, yet their only representative is Chris Nerat, a college friend of Halbach’s who voices skepticism toward Zellner’s attention-getting tactics, including her use of Twitter. Meanwhile Zellner, and to a lesser extent Drizin and Nirider, gives the documentarians full access, resulting in extensive interviews with expert witnesses for the defense with little to no rebuttal from the opposing side. The reasons for this imbalanced point of view are easy enough to infer. It’s in Avery and Dassey’s interest to have their case in the public eye, garnering supporters and maintaining pressure on the state. It’s not in the interest of a mourning family trying to process their grief on camera, or a prosecutor trying to keep widely known defendants in jail. But the skew makes Demos and Ricciardi’s pretense of neutrality harder to maintain.

Part 1 of Making a Murderer balanced advocacy with illustration. Despite the second Avery trial that ensued in the court of public opinion, the season maintained its focus on the actions of Manitowoc County law enforcement, illustrating the distressing ability of police and prosecutors to bypass due process and retaliate against perceived enemies. (At the time of his murder trial, Avery was waging a multimillion dollar civil suit against the county for his wrongful conviction.) By entering into the far more rarefied legal sphere of the appeals process, Part 2 leans heavily toward pure advocacy. There aren’t many new facts for Demos and Ricciardi to introduce—just new interpretations of existing ones, such as Zellner’s alternative theories of who could have killed Teresa Halbach. Some of Part 2’s frustratingly slow pacing is a conscious attempt to mirror the agonizing crawl of an actual legal battle, yet much of it also feels like Demos and Ricciardi straining to keep their cause in the spotlight, stretching relatively less material into an equivalent amount of screen time.

At the end of Part 2, little has materially changed for either Dassey or Avery. The Supreme Court declined to take up Dassey’s appeal, effectively siding with the 7th Circuit in its decision to let his conviction stand; Zellner continues to argue hearings and litigate evidence in lower courts. There’s no conclusive twist to culminate the new episodes or serve as a peg for them. Instead, Making a Murderer has delivered a smaller, slighter postscript, tightening its focus from examining criminal justice through the lens of one sensational case to the case itself. That’s quite the burden to put on just a handful of developments. It’s little surprise they don’t hold up to it.