TW: discussion of sexual assault, ableism, brief mention of police violence
I didn’t even get the reference. I saw the episode title, “Making a Rapist,” and I didn’t realize the connection with the now infamous Steven Avery case. Now, I wish I still didn’t know the reference. For those of you who have not seen the Netflix documentary series Making a Murderer, or the SVU episode in question, beware the spoilers that lie ahead.
The episode began with a promising scene featuring Vice President Joe Biden discussing our country’s issue of backlogged sexual assault cases. It promised an enlightening, albeit somewhat fad-inspired, story about the failings of the criminal justice system (a topic that may be popular at the moment but is in desperate need of discussion and reform). SVU has not shied away from these tough subjects in the past, taking on storylines that involve the Black Lives Matter movement and our country’s police violence. The show tends to favor the police, at least the leads, but it often leaves things ambiguous. What is clear, however, is the message that appears in the opening frame of every episode: “The following story is fictional and does not depict any actual person, entity or event.”
Now, pretty much everyone who is familiar with the Law & Order franchise knows that there is a major caveat to this claim; the specifics might be fictional, but the plots come from the headlines we read each and every day. In other words, more often than not, the story unfolding in the episode is eerily familiar. I want to appreciate this aspect of SVU – it means the show is tackling relevant subjects and attempting to offer insight. Many studies claim that SVU has had a positive effect on its viewers, especially when it comes to discussions about consent and sexual assault. But when an episode starts to resemble the original case a little too closely, it runs the risk of belittling the real life crime. I’ve always been a little peeved that SVU doesn’t acknowledge its obvious plagiarism of the truth – if the show’s going to borrow from reality, then it should own it and not change major details in an attempt to “cover up” the original story. The writing might be good, but it isn’t fooling anyone.
“Making a Rapist” is so clearly “inspired” by the Steven Avery case that anyone who even slightly knows about it will recognize it in the episode. Yes, this time the second victim is the first victim’s daughter. Yes, the girl doesn’t go missing first, and yes, the mother partially witnesses the assault, but Sean Roberts* is clearly Steven Avery. Which means the hapless Charlie Dobkins, the victim’s ne’er-do-well stoner neighbor, is supposed to be Avery’s nephew and supposed partner in crime, Brendan Dassey. And this is where I’ve lost it with SVU.
Charlie Dobkins, played by Cody Kostro, is described as “not the brightest bulb.” His mom and girlfriend run to his defense and explain that he will “just say whatever [the police] want” even if he’s innocent. These quick asides are so understated that they appear to just be excuses – Dobkins is just an irresponsible teenager who has smoked too much weed to be able to function properly. THIS is their representation of Dassey? This is their interpretation of an intellectually disabled teenager who was likely coerced and caught up with a horrific crime? A stoner who stalks his neighbor?? As far as I’m concerned, Dassey, along with photographer Teresa Halbach, is a victim in the Steven Avery case, and SVU practically dismisses him. That is no way to shed light on recent events.
All that said, the episode does uphold the show’s traditional commentary on the criminal justice system. It’s definitely on the side of the police, especially when Ice-T’s Detective Tutuola is wrongly accused of planting evidence. In a way, this is actually an important stand to take given the (somewhat) clear bias of the Making a Murderer series. Directors Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos have insisted that they didn’t take sides, but it is evident that they didn’t think Avery had a fair trial.
I’m gonna be honest – I love and respect SVU. It’s a show that I think has actually done many good things, at least in the early seasons. I think Mariska Hargitay’s Detective Olivia Benson is an admirable character, one that I will definitely find time to talk about at a later date. Television (including shows online) are so pervasive in our lives and we need to recognize the power they have, the good and the bad. That’s why I’m gonna attempt to satisfy my inner critic with recapping/reviewing the show every week. You have been sufficiently warned.
*Had a mini freak-out on IMDb.com when I found out Sean Roberts is played by Henry Thomas, the actor who played Elliott in E.T. Oddly enough, he didn’t look as wise as he did when he was younger.