TV: The Shame of Wisconsin

Making a Murderer

a Netflix documentary series directed by Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos
Steven Avery after his arrest in 1985 for a crime he did not commit, and for which he spent eighteen years in prison; from Making a Murderer
Steven Avery after his arrest in 1985 for a crime he did not commit, and for which he spent eighteen years in prison; from Making a Murderer

Wisconsin is probably the most beautiful of the midwestern farm states. Its often dramatic terrain, replete with unglaciated driftless areas, borders not just the Mississippi River but two great inland seas whose opposite shores are so far away they cannot be glimpsed standing at water’s edge. The world across the waves looks distant to nonexistent, and the oceanic lakes stretch and disappear into haze and sky, though one can take a ferry out of a town called Manitowoc and in four hours get to Michigan. Amid this somewhat lonely serenity, there are the mythic shipwrecks, blizzards, tornadoes, vagaries of agricultural life, industrial boom and bust, and a burgeoning prison economy; all have contributed to a local temperament of cheerful stoicism.

Nonetheless, a feeling of overlookedness and isolation can be said to persist in America’s dairyland, and the idea that no one is watching can create a sense of invisibility that leads to the secrets and labors that the unseen are prone to: deviance and corruption as well as utopian projects, untested idealism, daydreaming, provincial grandiosity, meekness, flight, far-fetched yard decor, and sexting. Al Capone famously hid out in Wisconsin, even as Robert La Follette’s Progressive Party was getting underway. Arguably, Wisconsin can boast the three greatest American creative geniuses of the twentieth century: Frank Lloyd Wright, Orson Welles, and Georgia O’Keeffe, though all three quickly left, first for Chicago, then for warmer climes. (The state tourism board’s campaign “Escape to Wisconsin” has often been tampered with by bumper sticker vandals who eliminate the preposition.)

More recently, Wisconsin is starting to become known less for its ever-struggling left-wing politics or artistic figures—Thornton Wilder, Laura Ingalls Wilder—than for its ever-wilder murderers. The famous late-nineteenth-century “Wisconsin Death Trip,” by which madness and mayhem established the legend that the place was a frigid frontier where inexplicably gruesome things occurred—perhaps due to mind-wrecking weather—has in recent decades seemingly spawned a cast of killers that includes Ed Gein (the inspiration for Psycho), the serial murderer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer, and the two Waukesha girls who in 2014 stabbed a friend of theirs to honor their idol, the Internet animation Slender Man.

The new documentary Making a Murderer, directed and written by Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, former film students from New York, is about the case of a Wisconsin man who served eighteen years in prison for sexual assault, after which he was exonerated with DNA evidence. He then became a poster boy for the Innocence Project, had his picture taken with the governor, had a justice commission begun in his name—only…

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