Spoilers for Netflix's Unbelievable below.
What's interesting (and terrifying) about Netflix's Unbelievable is that it seems like the kind of situation that could happen to any woman, at any time: a teenager in Washington, Marie, files a report to the police in 2008 that she was raped by a masked intruder, only for her close friends and the detectives assigned to her case to completely brush off her claims. Deeply traumatized by having to relive her rape over and over again by describing it to investigators, she becomes mentally exhausted enough that the police essentially gaslight her into believing — at least partly — that her rape might not have happened at all.
If you've watched the series all the way through, then you know that yes — Marie was actually raped, and the male detectives who initially processed her claims (as well as a cruel, disbelieving foster mother) failed her in just about every way possible. Though Netflix has dramatized some portions of Marie's story for the screen, as well as some characters, it's actually based on the true events reported in The Marshall Project and ProPublica's Pulitzer Prize-winning article "An Unbelievable Story of Rape," written by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong, as well as an episode of This American Life ("Anatomy of Doubt").
While you'll likely come away from watching the first season of the limited series with a few questions, a big one is likely about the time period in which everything actually takes place. Like in real life, Marie (played by Booksmart star Kaitlyn Dever) first reports her rape in 2008. Her case is batted back and forth between the multiple detectives handling her case, until they later decide to charge her with a gross misdemeanour, punishable by up to a year in jail, for "filing a false report." The ordeal isn't resolved for years. Fortunately, two female detectives from two different districts end up catching on to a string of remarkably similar sexual assaults in the area that, in the end, lead them to Marie.
In Unbelievable, the detectives are played by Emmy winners Toni Collette and Merritt Wever, with the characters being fictionalized versions of the real women who solved the crime: Detective Stacy Galbraith and Detective Edna Hendershot. A rough timeline of the real events depicted in the series is as follows:
- August 2008: Marie first contacts the police about being raped in Lynnwood, Washington.
- March 2009: Marie takes a plea deal from the prosecutor that puts her on supervised probation for a year, during which she must stay on the straight and narrow and pay $500 to cover the court's costs. (Charges will be dropped if she can do so.)
- January 2011: Detective Stacy Galbraith investigates a report of rape in Golden, Colorado, and tells her husband (also a police officer) about it. He refers her to Detective Edna Hendershot, who had investigated a few similar rape cases, and the pair team up — bringing in cops and agents from the FBI and the Colorado Bureau of Investigation to help.
- February 2011: Hendershot and Galbraith track down the rapist, a man named Marc O'Leary, and arrest him.
- December 2011: O'Leary is sentenced to 327½ years in prison for the serial rapes in Colorado.
- June 2012: O'Leary pleads guilty to a rape he committed in Kirkland, earning him 40 extra years, and to the rape of Marie in Lynnwood, earning him 28½ years.
- January 2014: The city of Lynnwood settles with Marie for $150,000.
The show roughly follows the same time period as the true events. In the final episode of the series, Collette and Wever's characters find the man responsible for the rapes and obtain proof that he's the same person who broke into Marie's apartment and sexually assaulted her years earlier. Marie sues the city of Lynnwood and receives the $150,000 settlement, which allows her to start over in a new town, with a clean slate.