Netflix’s new true-crime docuseries opens with a homecoming. Steven Avery’s hair is buzzed, his white beard is long and wiry, and he feels wonderful — or so he says. His mother hugs him hard. He smiles shyly. But the scene’s exuberance belies both the brutality and the downright strangeness of the complicated case that landed Avery in prison for nearly two decades. To whet your appetite, here’s an introduction to the 10-part series as it stands (spoilers ahead!).
After spending 18 years behind bars for the rape of Penny Beerntsen, Avery — with help from the Wisconsin Innocence Project — was exonerated and freed on September 11, 2003, thanks to DNA evidence linking the crime to another man, Gregory Allen. He filed a lawsuit against the sheriff’s department, and the state eventually adopted a criminal-justice reform bill named after Avery that was intended to prevent wrongful convictions just like his. He became a celebrity in criminal-justice circles.
This all may sound fairly cut and dried — but it’s not. From the beginning, something feels amiss about Avery. He’s hard to trust. On the surface, he’s all smiles and apologies — but he also committed some burglaries in the past. He even went to jail for pouring gasoline on his own cat and tossing it into a fire. The show presents these hard-to-stomach aspects of Avery’s character, and the viewer’s impression of him duly sours.
On the other hand, law enforcement also seems to have had it out for Avery. The show paints the initial investigation into the crime as faulty and prejudiced. This bias partially stems from a family feud between Avery and his cousin Sandra Morris — who, as it happens, is the deputy sheriff’s wife.
The series intersperses descriptions of Avery’s previous crimes with images of his newborn children and sorrowful parents — and the viewer is caught in the middle, forced to pick sides. Watching the show, it feels as though you are constantly at risk of falling into the same trap as the police and the community who viewed him and his family as unsavory and undesirable.
And then, Avery is accused again. While in the midst of his high-profile civil case, a woman goes missing from Manitowoc County, Wisconsin — and he is the prime suspect. The rest of the 10-part series follows the ensuing investigation. Did Avery do it? Was he framed? And, if so, why?
Exploring issues of evidence tampering and witness coercion, this complex, real-life thriller piggybacks off of other recent cases that have forced the public to question its own trust in the justice system. The series challenges you to re-examine your first, second, and third impressions of any given story or person. Things are never quite as they appear.
What are your thoughts on the case and the series? Is Steven Avery guilty? Can he be trusted? Can anyone? Over the coming weeks, this Making a Murderer discussion club will pick apart each episode, so be sure to leave your thoughts and questions below. If there’s anything in particular you want to examine, leave a comment. Watch the series on Netflix to join the conversation. You can also catch the first episode and the trailer on YouTube to get a quick taste.
Nandita Raghuram is a Senior Writer at Studio@Gawker. She tweets here.