Lately, Law & Order: SVU has been far better than its previews.
I wasn't really sure that Law & Order: SVU Season 18 Episode 9 was going to be great television. The preview made it look like it was going to be another story about a wealthy family that gets away with everything because they have money.
Those kinds of stories can be powerful, but lately there's been so many of them that I'm just tired of it. Luckily, SVU decided to go in a different direction with "Decline and Fall".
This story was really about how misogyny and entitlement contribute to sexual assault as well as about consent issues and the fact that in some cases, ignorance is not a defense against rape.
SVU does multilayered, complex stories well and this was no exception. I was thrilled that at the top of the hour, the issue of consent while drunk was addressed.
Did you have anything to drink, Sara? Not that it matters.Benson
When one person is blacked out drunk, which is what appeared to have happened before more information was revealed, he or she cannot give consent, and that's a problem. While drinking can be a problem, a drunk person still has a right not to be violated and shouldn't be blamed for being sexually assaulted.
SVU took pains to make sure that viewers knew that by having the victim tell Benson that she couldn't remember having sex but was sure she had been raped and having Benson later imply that if she had been drinking, it wouldn't change the fact that she had been raped.
I applauded their effort at incorporating advocacy and appropriate social messaging in "Decline and Fall".
One of the best things about SVU is that it does this effortlessly by having Benson be the spokeswoman for public service announcements about sexual assault. The PSA's on this show are never jarring and never pull me out of the story because they are done so naturally, and this one was no exception.
I had mixed feelings about Sara turning out to have drugs in her system. For one thing, that's also done a lot on crime dramas and soap operas, and half the time the victim gets blamed because a defense attorney can make it seem like he or she is a habitual drug user.
For another, I didn't want the message about alcohol and consent issues to get diluted.
However, SVU handled the drugging issue much better than I expected.
Rollins: Do you recognize this woman? Bartended at the party last night?
Hendricks: Pleasant looking woman.
Cynthia: May have ordered a drink from her. Why?
Rollins: Well, she may have been assaulted.
Cynthia: At my father's party? In front of 100 people?
Carisi: We're still investigating. Were there any young male guests at the party?
Cynthia: It was mostly friends. Company executives. Older crowd.
Hendricks: There was Eric. My grandson. I'm sure he didn't assault anyone. Fine boy, an up and comer. He lives with me.
From the beginning of the hour up until when Lawrence was revealed to be the rapist, it seemed like "Decline and Fall" was setting up a story where a favorite grandson rapes a young woman and his elders use their considerable resources to protect him.
Sara initially didn't remember having sex with Eric, his grandfather claimed he was a good boy, and his father was angry that he was being questioned.
Girl: I think I've been raped.
Benson: I'm so sorry. Can you tell me what happened?
Girl: I can't. I don't remember anything.
This set-up was so obvious that when Sara later claimed to remember having sex with Eric, I thought someone had paid her off to claim it was consensual.
Then it turned out that Lawrence was a serial predator who thought nothing of putting drugs in a woman's drink and some seemingly innocuous remarks he'd made to his grandson earlier on suddenly made perfect sense.
That was excellent storytelling. The writers carefully led viewers down one path and pulled the rug out from under them, but it didn't seem at all contrived because seemingly irrelevant bits of dialogue were actually clues to the truth.
In the second half of the hour, the story shifted to proving that Lawrence had actually raped Sara. Here, again, SVU could have gone down the well-worn path of having a wealthy perpetrator who is untouchable because of his resources. But instead, the show went for a more original, and therefore more interesting, storyline.
Cynthia: This is harassment. Ambushing my father in front of his associates?
Rollins: We can step outside.
Lawrence: There's no need for that.
Rollins: Okay. Fine. Open up.
Lawrence: I'll save you a q-tip. I had sex with that girl.
Rollins: You did? You didn't mention that before.
Lawrence: Why should I? My sex life is no one else's business.
Lawrence himself was a complicated character. Most of the time he was utterly disgusting, yet when his daughter declared him mentally incompetent in order to protect him from trial and he insisted she was trying to steal the company from him, I found myself temporarily sympathizing with him.
That didn't last long, as Lawrence then mounted a defense that involved pretending to be incompetent and then expressed some obnoxious attitudes when he didn't get his way.
The sequence where Barba questioned Lawrence on the stand was one of the best SVU courtroom scenes I've seen recently. Barba effectively poked holes in Lawrence's incompetency claim, getting him to talk knowledgeably about business and even to reminisce about the non-cellular phones he used to use in the 1970s.
The only question was whether the 12 people responsible for delivering a verdict would see what Barba wanted them to see rather than thinking he was an arrogant younger man who was harassing an elderly guy who no longer had all his faculties.
When Lawrence's testimony wasn't enough to hang himself with, Benson turned to questionable techniques to get his girlfriend to testify about his casual use of Quaaludes before sex with her. I wasn't sure I felt comfortable with the technique Benson and Barba used.
Benson made a false claim that they could prove Sue Anne had planted the drugs in Eric's room and threatened to arrest her if she didn't testify against her boyfriend. This seemed coercive. If a person is only testifying to avoid being arrested, it seems like that would bring the accuracy of that testimony into question, and I'm surprised the defense attorney didn't go there.
In any case, it was no surprise that Lawrence Hendricks was a serial rapist who had done the same thing to numerous women, including his current girlfriend and even to his daughter-in-law.
That was believable, but Erics quick turn-around upon hearing this truth wasn't.
Eric was insistent his grandfather was a good guy and even said nasty, slut-shaming things about his own mother becauase Grandpa said them first. Yet when he heard his grandfather had raped his mother soon after she became pregnant with him, he immediately turned against him.
There's a finite amount of time in the hour and the story needed to be wrapped up, but this seemed rushed. There was no real other way to do it, barring a two-part episode or some other twist at the end in which Eric realized too late that his father was telling the truth, but nevertheless it was too pat.
This was a minor flaw in an episode that was otherwise close to perfect, however.
The final scene, in which SVU had an endless supply of other rape cases to investigate while Rollins wondered if the younger generation could possibly be better about making sure sexual encounters are consensual, underscored the fact that rape is a societal problem and that until cultural attitudes change, it will continue to be a major problem.
In addition, the performances were excellent.
Sara: Yeah, I definitely talked to him.
Benson: Okay well we spoke to him as well and he said that you two had consensual sex.
Sara: We did? Well, I don't remember that, or anything else for that matter. Okay, is that it?
Benson: No, there's one more thing. Sara, the lab results came back and it showed two separate semen samples.
Sara: Two samples. Are you saying two men raped me?
I found Sara's distress particularly moving and believable. Ariane Rinehart conveyed Sara's shock, disbelief, sense of violation, and confusion well while keeping viewers guessing about what really happened that night.
Bob Gunton also did a great job of giving Lawrence Sr layers so that he wasn't a completely detestable character even though what he did and believed was horrifying.
Who was your favorite guest star on "Decline and Fall"? Were you surprised that Lawrence turned out to be the rapist? What did you think of the courtroom scenes?
Weigh in below, and don't forget you can watch Law & Order: SVU online to catch up if you missed anything.
Jack Ori is a staff writer for TV Fanatic. Follow him on Twitter.