We knew this day would come. Law & Order: SVU has done a Making a Murderer-inspired episode. Titled "Making a Rapist," the ripped-from-the-headlines episode kicks off with the soothing sounds of... Vice President Joe Biden?!
It was previously reported that Mariska Hargitay's longtime friend would be making a cameo in SVU this season, but I was so not prepared to see him pop up in the "Making a Rapist" episode. But that's what makes SVU so great: it gets millions of people to watch the VP talk about an extremely important issue - the national backlog of untested rape kits - which could bore viewers under different circumstances, but is instead incorporated into a fictionalized version of one of the most sensationalized true crime narratives in recent years.
We learn, we laugh, we love, we get horrified at how faulty the criminal justice system truly is. That's SVU in a nutshell.
But back to the episode. Biden appears at a press conference at the SVU precinct to congratulate Benson (Hargitay) on her work to clear the rape kit backlog -- a process that revealed that Sean Roberts (Henry Thomas, aka Elliott from E.T.) was wrongfully convicted of a sexual assault 16 years ago.
With a month of freedom under his belt, Sean has grown close with Melanie Harper (The Practice's Kelli Williams), the woman who accused him of raping her, as well as her daughter Ashley, who is so determined to make amends with Sean that she invites him to her wedding the following month. In order to cement their unexpected friendship, the trio goes out to celebrate Sean's birthday that night (and to celebrate the fact that it's the first night he can legally drink).
But before you can say "bad idea," Fin (Ice-T) is called to the Harpers' house, where Ashley has been fatally raped, strangled, stabbed, doused in bleach and burned. As Melanie races out the door to accompany Ashley in the ambulance, she casually mentions to Fin that she thinks she heard Sean's voice prior to discovering Ashley's body.
Seeing as he was the officer who arrested Sean in the original case, Fin checks with Benson before pursuing this lead any further. Ultimately, Benson decides she can't pull Fin off the case since she doesn't want to give credibility to the notion that Fin has a vendetta against Sean, so she tells Rollins (Kelli Giddish) to take point and investigate all possibilities.
At first, it seems as though the potential conflict of interest between Sean and Fin won't even matter, since two other prime suspects quickly pop up. Prior to her death, Ashley had been fighting with her fiancé Zach, who wasn't happy with her relationship with Sean, and she also had a stalker named Charlie, who was convinced that Ashley only changed clothes in front of her bedroom window because she "wanted him to see." (Gross.)
However, witnesses place Zach at a bar all night, and Charlie is promptly exonerated because he had spent the night videotaping himself having sex with his girlfriend. But tracking down Charlie isn't a complete waste of the detectives' time. The night of Ashley's murder, Charlie saw a man leave the Harpers' apartment building and drop something in the trash. Because he's a total weirdo, he wanted to go see what it was. And as it turns out, it was the murder weapon!
Rollins then asks Charlie to look at photos to see if he recognizes the man he saw that night. Upon seeing the first picture (which just so happens to be of Sean Roberts), Charlie asks Rollins if saying yes will help her in any way. Rollins insists that she only wants the truth, and Charlie tells her he's sure he had seen Sean.
Although it's unclear if Charlie is telling the truth or just crushing on Rollins, it's enough for a warrant and the detectives storm Sean's apartment. There, Fin almost immediately discovers (off-screen) Ashley's missing engagement ring in the sink drain.
I get that questions about planting evidence are a key aspect of the Making a Murderer story, but does SVU really think for a minute that we would suspect Fin -- who has behaved completely professionally this entire episode, and basically this entire series -- would plant evidence? He's no Stabler. Fin is a by-the-books detective, which means this twist doesn't muddy the waters of the SVU's credibility enough for my tastes.
Anywho, during his interrogation, Sean maintains his innocence, insisting he would never rape Ashley because he knows what it's like to be raped. "I went in when I was 18, 140 pounds. What do you think happened to me?" he screams, before being dragged off. But as one of Barba's (Raul Esparza) court experts later reveals on the stand, the repeated assaults Sean suffered actually make him more likely to commit violent acts, since exonerees who were raped in prison tend to lash out at others when they feel rejected or humiliated.
But while Sean's trial starts off strong for the prosecution, the case falls apart once Charlie is called to the stand. Under questioning, Charlie admits he only said what he thought Rollins wanted him to say, and the defense attorney even goes so far as to imply that Rollins purposefully flirted with Charlie to get him to ID Sean. This is not a good look for the NYPD, to say the least.
Things only get worse when Melanie tells Fin that, after wrongfully accusing Sean 16 years ago, she can't trust herself anymore and therefore, doesn't want to testify. That doesn't fly with Barba though, who calls Melanie as a hostile witness.
Once she's on the stand, Barba doesn't hold back, telling Melanie that she blames herself for Ashley's death since she's the one who sent Sean to prison, where he was abused and ultimately learned to become a killer and a rapist. Somehow, this cruel strategy works and Melanie finally admits she knows she heard Sean's voice in her house that night.
Reading the room, Sean's attorney approaches Barba with a deal: he'll plead guilty to manslaughter and serve five years. But, being the ever-vigilant hardass we love, Barba negotiates up to murder 2 and a minimum of 15 years, with the agreement that Sean allocutes.
In his formal statement to the court, Sean apologizes to Melanie, explaining he, too, cared deeply for Ashley, who was the one person who gave him hope he could start his life over. But when Sean went to the Harpers' house that night, he drunkenly confessed his feelings to Ashley, who laughed in his face. This was enough to set Sean off, prompting him to reenact the abuse he suffered in prison on Ashley.
Hearing this, Melanie runs out of the courtroom crying, unable to bear the burden of her own guilt in Ashley's death. Meanwhile, Fin strolls out like it's just a regular day in the office. Benson says she's there if Fin ever wants to talk about the ordeal with Sean, but Fin shuts her down. "Talking's overrated," he quips and walks off.
"Making a Rapist" was a mess of an episode that was all the best parts of SVU and all the worst combined. It had actors you hadn't seen in a while. It had so many twists and turns. It had serious commentary about real-life issues plaguing the criminal justice system right now. But it lacked any and all narrative suspense since the episode made it so clear that not only did Sean kill Ashley, but the police didn't frame Sean for killing herbecause there was such strong evidence against him.
But overall it was a whole lot of fun, and not every episode can be on the same level as the genius ripped-from-The Bachelor episode "Assaulting Reality." (Although one can hope.)
Law & Order: SVU airs Wednesdays at 10/9c on NBC.