“This time we won’t leave no stone unturned,” says Making a Murderer’s Steven Avery in season 2 of the hit Netflix documentary series. He’s talking about the post-conviction efforts of his lawyer, but it’s also an apt description of the 10 new episodes, which premiere today. Filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos have spent the last three years chronicling the efforts of Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey — who were convicted in 2007 of the rape and murder of Teresa Halbach, a 25-year-old photographer, in Wisconsin — to clear their names. The result is a painstaking, sometimes excruciating tale of forensic science, politics, the bond of family, and human fallibility.
The new season of Murderer begins with a sort of “previously on” recap, as archival news footage traces the documentary from unexpected phenomenon (“It’s all anybody’s talking about!” says Matt Lauer in an unfortunate Today show clip) to the predictable backlash, as critics — including former Calumet County District Attorney Ken Kratz, who prosecuted Avery and Dassey — blast the series for leaving out key evidence discussed at the trial. Flash forward to 2016, when two very different legal teams are working to prove that someone else is responsible for Halbach’s death. In Avery’s corner is Kathleen Zellner, a well-known Illinois lawyer who has 19 overturned convictions to her name. Blunt and formidable, with a penchant for self-promotion and statement jewelry, Zellner is a captivating — and sure to be polarizing — figure. “This… is a case of gross, extreme, egregious prosecutorial misconduct,” she says, fixing her steely gaze on the camera.
Much of season 2 hangs on Zellner’s dogged attempts to dismantle the state’s case against Avery, which entails meticulously evaluating the evidence collected — or, as she asserts, planted — at the crime scene back in 2005. If season 1 of Murderer inspired thousands of amateur sleuths looking to expose alleged evidence tampering and corruption in the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department, season 2 doubles down on CSI-style wonkery, spending an extensive amount of time on blood-spatter recreations, microscopic images of bullet fragments, partial nanograms of DNA, and so on. While it’s all clearly essential to constructing Avery’s appeal, the testing sequences at times border on tedious. Still, Zellner can boil down even the most abstruse discussion into a compact and compelling sound bite: “Once I uncover one lie… I know there’s a whole bunch more lying going on.”
The filmmakers balance the scientific minutiae of Avery’s defense with the more human-interest narrative of Dassey, the intellectually disabled young man whose case features no forensic evidence. Serving as the passionate Mulder to Zellner’s just-the-facts Scully is Laura Nirider, the attorney working to prove that Dassey’s confession — which the then-16-year-old offered piecemeal after a laborious four hours of questioning, with no lawyer or guardian present — was coerced. Beneath Nirider’s fresh-faced appearance and dimpled smile lurks a fierce legal warrior; she’s also the co-director at the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law. While Zellner confronts every victory and setback with the same stone-faced determination, Nirider and her partner, Steve Drizin, cannot hide their joy or heartbreak as Dassey’s case inches its way through federal court. This head-vs.-heart contrast between the lawyers is striking and unexpectedly moving, even when the judicial battles get bogged down in legal esoterica. (Get ready to hear a lot about Brady violations, Denny evidence, and en banc reviews.)
Murderer has clearly learned some lessons from season 1, and the new episodes attempt to anticipate sources of potential backlash and parry them pre-emptively. An ample amount of time is spent on evidence that naysayers blasted the series for ignoring in season 1 — like Avery’s so-called sweat DNA, which was found on the hood latch of Halbach’s car. Episode 3 highlights criticisms of Zellner, whose prolific use of Twitter has been called “Trump-like” by former Wisconsin prosecutor Michael Griesbach. Notes one of Halbach’s college friends, “If this wasn’t a high-profile case, I highly doubt she’d be working on it.” (As with season 1, Halbach’s family chose not to participate in the documentary.)
Making a Murderer, of course, was instrumental in launching Halbach’s murder from a regional story to a national obsession — but nowhere in the 10 episodes do the filmmakers directly address the potential damage this attention might be doing to Avery and Dassey’s efforts to clear their names. Over the course of the season, we see the Wisconsin attorney general’s office go to greater and greater lengths to block Dassey’s release on bond — and it seems likely that the state is fighting so hard precisely because so many people around the world are watching. Zellner is characteristically blunt in her assessment: “Now it’s on a world stage, and they’re frightened, so what are they doing? They’re just clinging to this absolutely implausible story that was cooked up a long time ago.” Ricciardi and Demos — or their project, anyway — are now undeniably a part of Steven Avery’s story, and the documentarians’ failure to explore or even acknowledge their role is this season’s one major misstep.
Whether or not Murderer helps Avery and Dassey or seals their fate, it remains a vital reminder of the need for transparency in the criminal justice system. But the series never loses sight of the many human tragedies at the center of this ongoing legal saga: The murder of a beloved young woman, Teresa Halbach. The quiet suffering of Avery’s elderly parents, Dolores and Allan, who fear they will never again see their son and grandson outside of a prison visiting room. Season 2 culminates in an explosive argument between Steven and his sister, Barb, Brendan’s mother, who is infuriated by Zellner’s scrutiny of her husband and her older son, Bobby. “This needs to stop now,” pleads Barb, her voice fraught with years of anger, frustration, and despair. No matter which side you believe, that’s surely a sentiment we can all agree with. Grade: B+