Whenever SVU opens with a party scene where people are drinking, it’s pretty clear that something bad is about to happen.
This episode is no different in that respect. What is different is the storyline that follows – a complicated look at the issue of consent, culture and accountability.
When a passerby calls police saying that he saw a young man raping an unconscious girl on the ground near piles of trash, the SVU squad quickly talks to both parties involved. At the hospital, Rollins learns that the female victim, Janie, has no recollection of having sex, or rather being raped, while in interrogation the young man involved, Ellis, says it was consensual sex.
Complicating matters, Benson finds out that Ellis’ father is her former partner from when she was fresh out of the academy, Patrick.
At first it appears that Ellis will take a plea that involves very little actual punishment – probation and community service — the worst of which will be having to register as a sex offender for life. But then, in the courtroom, as Ellis is supposed to make an apology, he balks and says he’s changed his mind about taking the plea. He says he’s not guilty. The case goes to trial. When things get dicey for Ellis, Patrick quickly reminds Benson that years ago when she was a rookie he covered for her when she made an error during an arrest.
As Janie testifies, she firmly states that she didn’t give consent, that she wouldn’t have sex with someone she just met. The defense in turn plays a drunken phone call Janie made and says that she didn’t remember making that call but she did so she could have consented to sex and just not remember it. At the end of a day of testimony, the defense announces that they have a witness who will testify that Janie was conscious during the encounter.
Benson figures out that the witness was a confidential informant who worked with Patrick. She confronts Patrick, accusing him of witness tampering, and he again reminds her that he covered for her.
On the stand, the new witness says that he saw Janie and Ellis and that she was not only conscious but she made eye contact with him. When Barba contends that this new witness was coerced by Sgt. Griffin to testify, on his son’s behalf, Ellis has had enough. He jumps up, admits that he raped Janie, and he says he’s sorry.
In the judge’s chambers, Ellis confronts Patrick, says he doesn’t want his father’s ‘help’ and says he’s changing his plea to guilty.
In court, just prior to his sentencing, Janie reads a short but powerful statement about how she’s been affected by what’s happened.
As she hands down Ellis’ sentence, the judge cites that he’s plead guilty to rape in t the second degree. She also says that she’s taken his acknowledgement of wrongdoing into account, along with his age and that this is his first arrest. She sentences him to 24 months in prison.
While protestors outside the courthouse chant that two years is not enough. Benson and Patrick have a heated conversation in which he says that the system was rigged against Ellis, that he was going down for a ‘ten seconds of stupidity.’ He says that he failed his son. She tells Patrick to be there for his son while he serves his sentence.
Patrick reminds her again that he went to bat for her to which she responds that she wishes that he hadn’t, that she wishes he’d just told the truth.
This case is clearly based on Stanford swimmer Brock Turner who was given six months jail time for a similar situation – on top of unconscious girl near a trash dumpster when two men stopped him. The beauty of being able to fictionalize a story is that those who craft the narrative can add or subtract statements and facts as needed to make a point.
Several themes were obviously in play here, the first of which is consent.
SVU has had a long history with attempting to explain consent, or lack thereof. The show has explored the issue of impairment in several other episodes, but really not nearly as blatantly as this. This is clearly a time when the real story made the fictional one possible. If SVU writers had come up with a storyline that had guy on top of an unconscious girl on a pile of trash with someone witnessing it and stopping it, it feels as those some viewers wouldn’t have believed that this could actually happen. Now because it really did happen, it’s sickeningly believable, as is what followed at trial, including Turner’s father’s statement how his son was going down for ‘ten seconds of action.’
The SVU writers did clean that statement up a bit with Patrick’s ‘ten seconds of stupidity’ remark to Benson. Patrick’s statement doesn’t have the same bite as Father Turner’s but it still shows both elders lack of understanding the seriousness of the crime.
While this episode did touch just a bit on the societal issue of white male privilege when it comes to rape accusations that was sort of all it did. Ellis is from the onset portrayed as a ‘good’ guy – he just got a promotion at a prestigious company, his parents are proud of him, he even wears a white collared shirt to a Halloween party, not some weird or sleazy costume.
This episode could have gone a completely different direction if someone had said, “what if this were a black guy?” The comparison as to how a man of a different race would be seen/treated in this situation could have made for an even deeper narrative.
But as it is, at the end when Patrick says he failed his son, most viewers probably thought, “Yeah, you did. You obviously failed to teach him right from wrong. You failed to teach him what rape is.”
That’s a good statement about our culture right there. Women are always told, ‘be safe.’ What isn’t anyone telling men, ‘don’t rape women.’ It’s sad to say, but you just have to look at the rape numbers and there seems to be a disconnect. Parents tell their kids, ‘don’t steal, don’t do drugs.’ It may seem crass but maybe they need to just say it right out, ‘don’t rape.’ And, this begs the question, if parents aren’t doing it, what can society do? Right now, all of the action involving rape comes in the aftermath, where’s the prevention?
In most SVU episodes there’s a twist near the end, something that unexpectedly turns the case (and anyone who’s seen the show sort of knows to just wait for it). In this installment the twist wasn’t some eleventh hour piece of evidence, it was actually Ellis’ ability to accept responsibibilty for what he did, ironically, against the advice of his father.
This is where adding a fact not present in the real-life case makes for a more interesting story. Brock Turner never acknowledged his wrongdoing and that seems to have angered people almost as much as the fact that he only got a six month jail time.
By having Ellis acknowledge that he knows he raped Janie the judge imposing a lighter sentence seems more acceptable (although not completely), but more than that it was quite interesting to see someone accused actually admit that they had raped someone. Ellis didn’t say the words, ‘I am a rapist,’ but he did admit that he committed the crime. This isn’t something often seen in real-life or on a narrative drama. It might have been nice to see this earlier and witness more of the aftermath of this declaration, but none-the-less, in an age when very few people accept responsibility for anything, it was an interesting, and unexpected, twist to this story.
As for the Benson and Patrick’s relationship, it’s worth mentioning that, yes, he covered for her all those years ago and now she’s covered for him with his witness tampering — does this make them even?
Sadly, Olivia skirting the law for a partner she hasn’t seen in years seems a little out of character for her, as does her letting him lie for her all those years ago, but she is human and although viewers might not like to see it, she makes mistakes too.
But, this does keep with one of the themes of this episode – accountability.
Both parties have to take responsibility for past and present actions, even if it’s unpleasant and/or inconvenient. Did they do that here? That’s up for debate, but isn’t debate what SVU is pretty much all about?
As usual, this episode of SVU presented an intriguing examination of something that’s extremely unsettling no matter how you look at it — and whether you agree with the way the story is told onscreen, you have to admit that just chronicling this the story is an important undertaking. The plus to that is that now this episode will have a permanent piece in television history, and will be seen by many people.
Maybe, just maybe, this narrative will kickstart some sort of path to prevention, a lofty goal for an hour drama, but one not out of the realm of possibility and that makes this episode, however you feel about it, all the more worthwhile.