This review contains major spoilers.
There’s a scene in episode nine of this newest season of Making A Muderer, where Barbara Tadych (mother of Brendan Dassey) calls Steven Avery. Tadych unleashes an angry tirade at Avery, whose new attorney has just pointed the finger at her husband, Scott, as a possible suspect in the murder of Teresa Halbach — the murder for which Avery is currently incarcerated. Scott is also heard in the background swearing, screaming, and professing that he always hated Avery. It’s a very jarring scene, where the show’s primary functions come to a head; the pursuit of the truth, and to offer a compelling, bingeworthy drama with a few twists for Average Joe, before he moves onto the next thing. People played Armchair Detective after season one, with some theories implicating Scott and stepson Bobby Dassey, so seeing the theory somewhat vindicated was undoubtedly thrilling; but at the expense of Barb’ Tadych, the long-suffering mother whose human interest story has been a source of levity in the show.
Making A Murderer’s second season is a different beast to its first; an evolution of the core idea. These might typically be read as compliments, but honestly, I’m not so sure.
The true crime mega-hit has tried to come of age somewhat; taking in criticism with the best of intensions, and barfing up something of a response. Where they were lampooned for showing no real compassion for the murder of Halbach, they’ve kinda sorta tried to illustrate how beloved she was by her peers. Where they were knocked, rightly, for leaving out compelling evidence against Avery, they’ve kinda sorta outlined how it’s not valid. Where they were called one-sided… well, they paid lipservice to some of the awful things that happened as a result of their sensationalism. Ken Kratz is undoubtedly a skin-crawling presence on both seasons of the show, but a sub-10 second clip of him saying his family have recieved death and rape threats isn’t exactly doing justice to the mess that’s been made of this story in the last three years.
That’s very much a microcosm of the season as a whole; feeble attempts at broadening their horizons, making something of a haims of it, but still managing to make me think more broadly about this case, and the true crime genre itself. This is far from the first show to milk a tragedy for its creator’s gain and for punters’ amusement. It’s far from the first one I’ve watched this year. But for whatever reason this one felt the need to try and rationalize it’s place in the world.
There’s an extended sequence early in the season dedicated to speaking with what few friends or peers of Halbach are willing to meet the filmmakers. It’s sincere enough, and tastefully done, but rings somewhat hollow when you know her family still disavow the show, and are viewed as villains by some of the audience as a result. If anything it makes the show almost feel seedier, more disingenuous; continuing to make a media circus of this woman’s death, but acting like ‘hey, we really care though.’
Later in the season, the aforementioned pantomime villain Ken Kratz is on a media tour to promote his book, and he speaks to reporters from CRIMECON(!) — a Comic-Con-esque venture for true crime fans, which honestly made me question the very nature of fandom itself in 2018.
Central to the show’s mix of stone-faced seriousness and hollywood twists and turns is Kathleen Zellner; Avery’s previously mentioned attorney. She’s prolific and respected in her field, notable for getting dozens of convictions overturned in her career. She’s also something of a showman; leading the charge for Avery’s freedom with rallycries on twitter that almost read as blurbs for episodes of the very Netflix show she now stars in. New evidence! New suspects! A man robbed of his life! All this and more, tonight! She couldn’t be more perfect for this show; a talented legal mind who seems very aware of the fanfare surrounding the case and loves every second of it.
For a season so bogged down by its own place in pop culture, it also remains thoroughly poignant in places. As you might expect, the legal trials and tribulations are much slower in this season compared to the last, so things are padded out with more interviews with the Avery and Dassey clans. Steven’s ageing parents are easy to root for, struggling to keep their families together and merely hoping to see their son free again before they pass on. It might sound like a brutal summation of things, but that’s explicitly stated by everyone involved. Likewise the turmoil suffered by the Tadych/Dassey family, as Brendan comes SO close to freedom, is an upsetting reminder of the human cost of this story, outside of prison walls.
Making A Murderer season two is a compelling mess. For some reason it feels determined to draw your eye to the dehumanising mess it’s made of this story, stroking its chin about what it all means. Every slick montage of Wisconsin scenery set to their ominous score feels more like a work of fiction than any kind of documentary. But the story at its core is so hard to tear yourself away from. The term guilty pleasure should really be taken back from lowbrow comedy and the like, and be applied here. It might be award-winning, prestige TV, but I’ve never felt quite so conflicted during a TV show as I did during this.