Making A Murderer Season 2, Episode 3 Recap: Brendan Dassey, Breaking Free

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
The first really emotional episode of Making A Murderer feels a little bit like its treading water, biding time until the real meaty legalese starts to unfurl. After episode 1 brought us up to speed, and episode 2 gave us a deeper look at potential new evidence, episode 3 delves into the personal lives of those affected by this murder trial: the Halbachs, as much as they’re willing to talk, the Dasseys, who are devoted to Brendan, and Steven’s girlfriend. Mostly, though, this episode is about the Dasseys and the trauma caused by his uphill battle. It leads into one of the better parts of the season: when Brendan’s case was first overturned, the first time this case saw a little bit of hope. (We all know now that the case was eventually dismissed, but let’s not dwell on it!)
The Halbach camp isn’t happy from what we see of them (most declined to participate in the docuseries). Chris Nerat, Teresa’s college friend and the one Teresa-related person willing to talk to the filmmakers for this season, is upset about the case. He’s irked that Zellner is using Twitter to update fans of Steven’s progress. He is, essentially, mad that the case is now famous, which is something that comes up a lot this season. Steven Avery is effectively a celebrity, and that changes what happens to him. Some people involved in his case will fight back against his celebrity. Others, like Zellner with her Twittering, will bolster it. Some will utilize it for their own good.
Before the pathos, though, the episode reckons with the legal system. Once again, a fascinating look into what's happened to our constitution. In regards to Brendan's case, Nirider and Drizin argue that recent legislation has hindered his ability to claim habeas corpus.
Nirider and Drizin are far better at explaining all of this, but let me try for the sake of enjoying some new legal info: In 1996, U.S. congress signed AEDPA (the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act), an anti-terrorist piece of legislation that changed habeas corpus procedure, into law. In blunt terms, AEDPA made it harder to use your legal right to habeas corpus. It was a response to the Oklahoma City bomber, and a violent one at that: It served to ensure that people given the death penalty met a swift end. But the bill itself, per an impassioned speech from former North Carolina representative Mel Watt, wasn’t limited to terrorism or death penalty cases. Thus, it restricted the rights of everyone, and this is why Brendan’s case is so difficult to appeal. A federal habeas appeal, Drizin says, is nearly impossible to pull off. This is all to say, Brendan’s case is a real knotty one, and that Brendan even got his verdict overturned is huge. It's as if the show wants us to know that, even if he lost his appeal, getting Brendan this close to release was impressive legal tightrope-walking.
Elsewhere, Zellner is still chatting up experts. Her big task in this episode is the fire in which Teresa’s body allegedly burned. She consults Dr. John DeHaan, a leading fire expert, who informs her that the prosecution’s info was wrong. A body can’t burn in a shallow pit without a lot of fuel. Based on evidence, the fire didn’t have enough fuel to burn a body fully. Plus, a burned body would leave behind a brown goo, which would have stained the ground.
“So this couldn’t have been a primary burn site,” Zellner concludes. Zellner's a bit of a performer, which puts her in harsh relief against the other people in this show. Most of the people featured in Making a Murderer mostly want to get out of the frame. The Averys clearly like the filmmakers, but they have little to no desire to connect with the camera. Zellner is the opposite. Her job is a performance, a layered magic trick that requires nothing but the utmost showmanship from her. She makes declarations of fact just so we, the audience, can hear them. She's our modern Elle Woods, striding through Manitowoc County in a variety of pearl necklaces and leather jackets.
All of this is operating slightly ironically, as fans of the show will know that Zellner has yet to be successful. Her research is deep and her drive forceful, but viewers have no choice but to feel despondent. Hearing Steven wax happy about his eventual release hurts this time around — the show has the implicit suggestion that this might be useless.
“I figure we all leave Wisconsin, we’ll be alright,” he says over the phone. He promises to take care of his family and pledges to build a big house. As if to turn the knife, this episode rolls out a series of photos of Steven throughout his life, from his childhood to present. The photos serve as a reminder of how much of his life Steven’s spent dealing with the legal system.
We needed that reminder of the tragedy of the series. Because, without the villains of the first season, the show has lost some potency. This season doesn’t carry the implication that Manitowoc County framed Steven so much as it wants to convince us that it bungled the case. This isn't about motive anymore.
“The thing that compels me or keeps me going is when I believe that other people have just gotten it totally wrong,” Zellner says, smiling slightly. That’s the new way of thinking: Manitowoc County got it “wrong.” There aren’t enough photos of the burn site. Not enough people were investigation. Put simply, the people involved in this trial clocked out early, content to convict the nearest guy. (The banality of evil strikes again.) However, without the villainy of Manitowoc County driving the narrative, the series has plunged into sadness. In one particularly affecting moment, Steven weeps over the phone to Zellner, concerned that his mother Dolores won’t be alive when he is released. What if?
Nevertheless, Zellner is confident, and she’s on the path of the fire. Now, she’s focusing on the discovery of Teresa’s bones with the help of her teenage-looking law clerks. The bones, she thinks, may have been planted on Avery's property. Or maybe someone else moved them. Whatever it is, the bones being discovered on Steven's property isn't enough information for Zellner, and she's going to train her sights on more bones-related information.
The real question at the bottom of this story is: If Steven didn’t do it, who did? This episode points to Josh Radandt, the owner of the quarry. According to Zellner, Radandt was the first to suggest that Steven committed the crime. He owns the quarry that Zellner keeps mentioning, and he had the opportunity to plant Teresa Halbach's bones — but that’s all this episode has to offer.
The action of pointing to the next killer isn’t all that fruitful, especially because this case is so late in the game. There are too many suspects and too little time. What is intriguing is the possibility that Brendan will get out. This episode entertains that slightly, playing audio of Brendan discussing his first meal home with his mother. (She suggests chili. He wants a burger.) For a brief moment, the case looked like it could unravel. And that would then unravel of the rest of it. Without Brendan’s confession, Steven’s case is considerably looser.
Meanwhile, in Halbach-land, there’s a 5k going on, an effort to raise awareness for Teresa Halbach and her family. This is the show's reminder that, for all the focus on Steven, there are others who suffered. Manitowoc County as a whole is suffering. Some people there are furious at Steven. Others are anxious to see him out of prison. Some just want the news crews out of their town. Kim Ducat, Steven’s cousin, puts it nicely: “I don’t think Manitowoc County is ever going to heal from this.”
Check out the episode 4 recap here.
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