Law & Order: SVU is always at its best when it examines the nuances of trying to get justice for rape victims in a broken legal system.
Law & Order: SVU Season 18 Episode 2 tries to do just that. "Making a Rapist" does a good job of showing how the penal system doesn't work, especially when cops get it wrong.
However, it is as problematic as it is enlightening.
The opening scene was a nice nod to Mariska Hargitay's real-life advocacy work. She has, among other things, led the charge to reduce the backlog of rape kits so that victims can seek justice faster. Joe Biden's cameo was so true to her real-life work that I expected him to slip up and call Olivia by the actress' name.
It was all downhill from there, both for the characters and the themes of the episode.
Unpleasant and tragic, but well-done.Olivia
Olivia's comment as the ending credits rolled pretty much summed up the hour. The whole thing was tragic. Shawn Roberts was both a victim and a perpetrator, and if the expert who testified was correct, his unfair incarceration caused him unspeakable trauma.
However, blaming other people for Shawn's actions post-release is very problematic.
Blaming Melanie Harper, who was a rape victim who thought she knew who raped her, puts an unfair burden on her and sends a message to real life victims that they'd better be 100% sure because they could be turning someone into a rapist if they make a mistake.
Melanie: At least I know he did it this time.
Olivia: It's not your fault.
Melanie: Then whose is it?
This is surely not the message this show, which serves as much as a vehicle for social justice for sexual assault victims as it does entertainment, wants to send.
There is no doubt that there are serious problems with the prison system, and one of the worst is that inmates – both guilty and innocent – often re-enter society ill prepared to deal with the transition to the outside and end up in trouble again.
But that is hardly the fault of one rape victim who accused the wrong man, and blaming her for it is just as irrational as blaming Fin.
Buchanan: You must be embarrassed about sending an innocent man to prison for 16 years.
Fin: I didn't convict anyone. I just arrested him. And no, I'm not embarrassed.
Fin pointed out about a dozen times that he is merely the cop who made the arrest. He's not the DA, judge, or jury. His job was to take the person into custody who he had probable cause to believe committed the rape.
Had there been any evidence that Fin acted improperly, that he was biased against Shawn for reasons that had nothing to do with the evidence, or that he coerced a confession from him, the vitriol and blame heaped on him all episode long would have been justified.
But as it is, this seemed like an attempt to find someone to blame.
The prison system contributed to what happened, but since it's impossible to blame a faceless system, people in the SVU universe kept looking for someone else to blame, and it was annoying.
Now you're parsing degrees of deceit.Barba
The way Buchanan twisted the words of a witness who probably had an intellectual disability to make it appear Rollins coerced him was too inappropriate for words.
While Rollins' behavior isn't always ethical, she's not known for doing that sort of thing, and it would have been nice if she'd been given the benefit of the doubt for once.
Barba's behavior throughout the case toed the line. He seemed more interested in winning than anything else, and it was uncomfortable to watch.
He accused Rollins of using sex appeal to coerce an ID, practically accused Fin of planting evidence and treated Melanie Harper as a hostile witness.
In the end, it turned out Shawn was guilty, but does that really justify Barba's actions?
Similarly, the cops seemed to violate Charlie Dawkins' rights in a million different ways.
Whether it was because of drugs, autism, mental retardation or some other condition, Charlie clearly was not fully competent. He asked for his mother right away and was told he had to answer the cops' questions first.
He also didn't seem to have the understanding needed to properly make an ID.
If I say yes, would that be helping Ashley and you?Charlie
At the very least, the way he was treated was highly unethical. Yet nobody seemed nearly as concerned about that as they were about raking Rollins over the coals because Charlie found her attractive.
In short, while this episode presented some interesting legal dilemmas, it took quite a bit of poetic license with the way those who are supposed to be officers of the court behaved, which undercut its message.
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Jack Ori is a senior staff writer for TV Fanatic. Follow him on Twitter.