The “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” episode that aired Wednesday night played partly as wish fulfillment, but then again, that’s one of the functions of a crime procedural: To make sure the audience knows that the bad guys will almost always get what’s coming to them, thanks to law enforcement teams that never waver in their commitment to justice.
That the real world doesn’t always work this way is a given. We often look to our entertainment to supply the storylines we wish existed; we don’t always want TV dramas that reflect the harsh, painful unpredictabilities and routine injustices that reality often provides.
And so in “SVU’s” latest ripped-from-the-headline episode, a powerful man, Harold Coyle (Christopher McDonald) went to jail for the rape of a co-worker. The 18 months he got doesn’t seem like a lot, but the wrap-up to this installment of the long-running procedural noted that the network Coyle ran, the fictional HNT, had paid out multiple settlements — pricey ones at that — to an array of women that Coyle had assaulted and harassed.
Echoes of the appalling stories and settlements coming out of Fox News — events that caused the ousters of the network’s powerful boss, Roger Ailes, and, more recently, its best-known anchor, Bill O’Reilly — can be found in almost every scene in the episode, which was titled “The Newsroom.” Early on, one anchorwoman finally tells her story to Det. Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay), and when the HNT employee’s accusations against Coyle go public, more women come forward, while others defend the executive and say they saw nothing wrong at the network.
In particular, one rising star at the network, Margery Evans (Peyton List), steadfastly asserts in and out of court that Coyle treated her respectfully. The key accuser, Heidi Sorenson (Bonnie Somerville), is depicted by Coyle and his defenders as a bitter woman who was angry about having her career stall out and being let go. As Coyle, McDonald is suitably chilling: He smirks throughout the episode, smiling at the knowledge that he is untouchable. Or so he thinks.
Before Coyle gets his inevitable comeuppance, “The Newsroom” does two things well.
First, it shows how connected men work the levers of power to protect themselves from any accusations of impropriety. Beyond keeping revealing tapes of the women in question — tapes he threatened to produce if they talked — Coyle had a host of strategies that he used effectively. He threatened the police department with revelations about misconduct in their ranks. He offered promotions and raises to women who covered up for him. Perhaps most effectively, he made each woman feel isolated. One got the impression that he had been pitting members of his staff against each other for years, believing that the desire to advance — on the part of both men and women — would outweigh any thoughts of reporting their boss to Human Resources or the authorities.
For years, he was right. An anchor played by Mark Moses knew all about Coyle’s conduct, and had to be prodded into testifying — but even after he accepted the career consequences of testifying about his boss’ behavior, he backed out at the last minute. Coyle’s minions were targeting his daughter, and he became the latest in a long string of HNT employees who found that Coyle’s power over their lives was too pervasive to resist.
Coyle’s case — and other high-profile cases of rape and assault in the news — may involve the rich and famous, but it’s one thing to read about these cases, and it’s another to see the looks of terror play out on the faces of human beings who live in a culture of fear and paranoia. Even if Coyle is a fairly one-dimensional villain, and his comeuppance is neatly delivered (via Margery, who has a change of heart), many of the strategies and denials he employed are common.
What’s quite chilling is how casual Moses’ character is about the widespread harassment he saw around him and how willing he was to just live with the stories he continually heard. He’d accepted that that’s how things just were, and another male employee at the network did too.
“There’s a shelf life” on female talent, the producer said with a shrug. “No matter how much plastic surgery they get.”
This is “SVU” and Benson and crusading D.A. Rafael Barba (Raul Esparza) were always going to get their man. But even if the ending wrapped things up a bit too neatly, there was one more thing the episode did well.
In the middle of “The Newsroom,” as the accusations against Coyle begin to pile up, there was a sequence of depositions, in which women talked about what he did to them. They were embarrassed, ashamed, hesitant, bitter. The director, Jono Oliver, first shot the women from several feet away, at an angle, as if the camera was attempting to quietly gain their trust.
But then this well-edited sequence shifted.
Each woman was filmed looking directly into the camera, talking about the ways in which Coyle had violated them. Nothing about this sequence was melodramatic or overdone, and that was the source of its power. The quietness of each survivor’s story only highlighted the pain they’d been through, not to mention the effects of toxicity of the culture Coyle had created.
Each woman seemed to be re-living those awful memories as she talked. You could hear the bewilderment in several women’s voices. No matter how many years ago their assault had taken place, it was as if they still couldn’t quite believe it had happened at all. The man who’d hired them had been a boss, a colleague, a potential mentor. The way the sequence intercut the voices, building up a portrait of a man who truly enjoyed not just attacking women but controlling and humiliating them, well, it all landed. Seeing the women tell their stories, and and witnessing their ongoing battle to psychologically process that experience, and having the camera not look away from their faces: It was powerful.
The cold, calculating Coyle had the kind of smile that never reached his eyes. But he wasn’t the most memorable part of this episode, this fantasy in which a powerful man went to jail instead of going back to his estate to count his multi-million dollar exit payout.
No, the most memorable character may well have been the anchor from years back who gave a deposition against Coyle. She hadn’t known what was happening to other women, and she was angry.
“I should have known it wasn’t just me,” she mutters.
Update: An earlier version of this post referred to Stabler. I know he hasn’t been on the show for years; in that spot, I meant to refer to Benson. Apologies for the error.