Family is Unconditional
At first glance Chris Evans’s latest venture Defending Jacob looks like nothing more than another ‘whodunit’ story, capitalising on the release of the critically acclaimed Knives Out. However, it’s anything but.
Disclaimer: There will be spoilers moving forward.
Defending Jacob follows Andy Barber(Chris Evans), an assistant district attorney, living in a small town in Boston, with his wife, Laurie (Michelle Dockery) and, son Jacob (Jaeden Martell). After the murder of a local teenager, Andy’s family is pushed to their limits as Jacob becomes the number one suspect. The question on everyone’s lips throughout the series is ‘did Jacob do it?’. Interestingly, we don’t get an answer to that question, but what we do get is an exploration of unconditional love and the importance of truth.
Throughout the series, the audience has the same information as Andy. His uncertainty is our uncertainty. Any evidence that is brought forward can be rationalised and is so by Andy. He has the ability to compartmentalise this information. So much of his identity is tied up in being a father and escaping the trauma of having a dysfunctional family growing up, due to his father being a convicted murderer. He needs to define the truth in a particular way to preserve the perfect family unit that he’s created.
However, this isn’t the case for Laurie. The uncertainty infects her every thought. She isn’t able to manipulate her belief system to dismiss each finger that points towards Jacob’s guilt. She needs the truth. The guilt that her son could be a murderer and therefore the cause of much pain for Ben’s family is too great a weight to carry. She begins to examine Jacob’s behaviour, she takes him to a therapist, she does everything she can throughout the series to discover the truth even at the expense of her son’s well-being.
After the discovery that the confession and suicide of a known sex offender, Leonard Patz, that exonerated Jacob, was an orchestrated event by Andy’s father ‘Blood Bill’, Laurie begins to shut down. She, now more than ever, believes that Jacob is guilty and that she’s responsible for the crimes he may have committed. The uncertainty drives a wedge through the family. Laurie becomes distant, even though they are all free from any legal consequences. The home they once lived in begins to feel like a prison.
In an effort to break out of this prison, Laurie tries to pressure Jacob into admitting the truth. She comes to the realisation that she will never know the truth. She can never really be one hundred percent sure that her son isn’t a murderer and, out of desperation, she intentionally crashes the car, putting Jacob’s life and that of her own in danger. Following this, Andy shamelessly defends his wife’s actions, but this time we know Laurie’s guilty, making Andy’s defence seem like a desperate attempt to maintain the integrity of his family. Andy was fully aware of Laurie's mental state prior to the crash; she insisted on driving Jacob that day and he found a photo album of Jacob’s baby pictures in the bin the day of the crash. It’s strongly implied that Andy knows that Laurie intentionally crashed the car, but, as before, we can never be certain.
"Because I have to know with absolute certainty."
- Andy Barber
William Landay, the author of the book on which the series is based, uses the story to explore the concept of unconditional love by challenging it head-on with uncertainty. The series doesn’t boil down to one clear cut message like most stories do nowadays, rather it invites the audience to think; to think about uncertainty, to think about what justice means, to think about the truth, and the power it has. The whole show lives in the grey area surrounding unconditional love and morality. There are events in the story that are clearly unethical - such as allowing a man to be killed and framed so your child can go free. Does it matter that Andy already believed that Leonard, the convicted sex offender, was guilty?
The show asks complex moral questions and allows the audience to come up with their own answers. There’s room for the audience to debate internally about the problems the characters face. An amazing asset. However, the lack of definitive answers didn’t resonate with some viewers. The pace of the show and the lack of a strong climax were questioned.
Granted, there are moments where the pace of the show can drag a little and, though the show is presented much like a procedural drama, it doesn’t function solely as one. There are elements of courtroom drama, psychological thriller, and, of course, a murder mystery. Using the climax to present a plot twist is a trick that, if used correctly, can enhance the story and its message. That’s what the show has done, only it does so by telling us a different story all along. Defending Jacob was never about defending Jacob’s innocence, it was about defending him from his own mother’s uncertainty.
This is a risky move; not answering the question that captivated the audience first day. However, without withholding that information, you can’t truly put the audience in Andy and Laurie's position. You can’t truly explore the nature of unconditional love and the power of the truth. In this respect, the show is truly character-driven. It takes two seemingly normal people and puts them in an impossible, complicated situation and watches as everything unfolds. It then turns to us, the audience, and asks, what would you do? After all, family is unconditional.