How ‘Unbelievable,’ ‘Unorthodox’ Writers Push Through Characters’ Pasts

When crafting the narrative for “Unbelievable,” which tells the true story of rape survivor Marie (Kaitlyn Dever) and her “second assault” at the hands of the police, showrunner Susannah Grant says she thought of Marie as a drowning person drifting off to sea.

The Netflix limited series intertwines Marie’s story with that of two detectives (Merritt Wever and supporting limited series/TV movie actress nominee Toni Collette) investigating a separate case that turns out to be the attacker, before having the stories meet in a final episode that provides some catharsis.

Of the large pool of writing nominees at this year’s Emmys, quite a few focus on their central character’s past and present traumas, while also looking to what a better future might hold. For Catherine (Elle Fanning) in Hulu’s “The Great” and Laszlo (Matt Berry) in FX’s “What We Do in the Shadows,” the future is far clearer than it is for Marie or Esty (lead limited series/TV movie nominee Shira Haas) in Netflix’s “Unorthodox.”

Grant says she always wanted to begin “Unbelievable” with the attack on Marie, before making viewers “emotionally understand” how the sexual-assault investigation process can be an attack in and of itself.

“We were always telling two stories,” she says. “On the one hand, we were telling a story of a woman who was fighting as hard as she can against increasingly turbulent seas to not drown, to keep her head above water. And on the other hand, we were telling a story of two women who, without realizing what they were doing, were building a lifeboat.”

In the final episode, Marie moves out to California and rents an open-top car with her newly acquired driver’s license. As she whizzes her way down the coast and looks out over the ocean, there’s a clear sense that the rest of her life could be different.

“There was something that the real woman said, which was a line I actually took and used in the first episode, which was, ‘I just try to be as happy as I can be.’ That seemed so fundamental to her character,” Grant says. “Obviously what happened to her is something she will carry forever, [so] it’s not a traditional happy ending, but there was a sense throughout the first seven episodes that the walls are just closing in on her. I think that feeling that they start expanding and leaving room for more, felt right to end on.”

Much like Marie, Esty Shapiro, the character at the heart of the four-part “Unorthodox,” feels trapped by her past, says showrunner Anna Winger.

“It’s a non-traditional thriller — there’s no dead body or anything — but in a funny way the dead body is the marriage and the question is why? The whodunit is about why it ended,” Winger says. “The original pitch was to tell the story of a young woman and her flight to reinvention, finding herself and searching [for] herself in a way that was constructed like a thriller.”

Esty’s past literally catches up with her narratively and structurally, lending the few moments of release in the series, such as the scene in the premiere when she swims in a lake in Berlin, all the more significant.

“The idea that she walks into the water with all her clothes on, but then takes off her wig [when] you’d expect her to take off her clothes,” Winger says. “Water is very symbolic in Jewish religion and the process of cleansing — the mikveh — is very important. In that moment it felt like the appropriate place for her to cleanse herself and begin the process of rebirth.”

After years of seclusion in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Esty enters this new world with no idea of what to expect, whereas Catherine in “The Great” has very clear preconceptions of what to expect from her new Russian home.

She comes to the Russian court to marry Peter III of Russia (Nicholas Hoult), but is swiftly disabused of the notion that this will be a civilized, queenly affair.

“She was a young woman coming in with an incredibly romantic idea about a place and a person, and then when she got there it was a nightmare,” says showrunner Tony McNamara. “It was important that she took the audience in; everything is from her perspective in the pilot. It had to be completely Catherine-centric and all about her trying to grapple with the layers of disillusionment and understanding.”

Pretty quickly, after being repeatedly physically and verbally abused by Peter, Catherine sets her sights on dethroning him and ruling Russia herself. That push to define her own future drives her for the first of the season, McNamara says.

“One of the main things about the character, which Elle and I talked about all the time, is her resilience: she just bounces back and she has this ability to be light and to think everything’s going to be great,” he says. “But I think the pilot is one of the episodes where she really hits the bottom. It takes her more effort to get back then probably any other episode.”

Another character whose past catches up to him is Laszlo from “What We Do in the Shadows.”

In the second season episode “On the Run,” for which writer and executive producer Stefani Robinson is now Emmy-nominated, Laszlo is forced to flee his home and his vampire family when an old foe (Mark Hamill) comes calling to claim his debts.

Laszlo runs away to Pennsylvania (because it sounds like Transylvania), where he transforms himself into a local barman named Jackie Daytona, and comes to an uncharacteristic realization about what he wants from his life, from his future.

“When he becomes Jackie Daytona, he realizes that he’s having emotions and feeling invested in something in a way that he hasn’t really been invested in before,” Robinson says. “There’s a scene where he kind of chokes up in front of the camera crew and he says, ‘I promised to never cry in front of you guys.’ To me, that shows him breaking down and his Grinch heart growing a little larger.”