Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Law & Order SVU “Witness” Recap & Review

All Photos from NBC

What I thought was going to be an interesting special victims case, Law & Order SVU “Witness” turned into a completely different case covering a very serious issue, but one that does not fall within the purview of the New York City Special Victims Unit. The central story involves a girl who, at first, seemed to be claiming rape to get attention as her normal “drama queen” behavior was her way of getting that attention. The rape really happened, but things take a turn when the victim later dies from a cut on her hand – a cut she received while being raped - that became infected with MRSA. MRSA is an acronym for “Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus” and it is a bacterial infection that is highly resistant to antibiotics and can spread quickly throughout the body, and even cause death. I have a young family member who had MRSA a few months ago and I can confirm this can be a very serious, and potentially deadly, infection. With that in mind, I found it highly unlikely that Olivia would have been holding the girl’s hand with her own bare hand as the girl lay dying, as MRSA can be highly contagious.

But all that aside, that case alone would have made for a fine story. But in order to get the rapist for his crime PLUS charge him with the victim's murder (as the girl’s death was a result of the cut which later became infected), they needed the testimony of a very special witness. And it just so happened that this witness herself was a victim of multiple rapes while she was living in the Congo. She describes in detail the extent of the horrific environment there for women of all ages. The actress in that role, Saidah Arrika Ekulona, did an excellent job in conveying the fear and hopelessness that these people must face. Again, this in itself would have been an excellent stand alone story line. But, the combination of the two stories together made the episode seemed forced and shoehorned together, as if to shout out that someone was getting on their soapbox to make a statement about their pet project under the guise of a rape case. Mind you, the situation in the Congo is a very serious one, and there are many more horrors in this world to choose from just from the continent of Africa alone. I can’t fault the writers for wanting to broaden the scope of a case in order to make a statement, but I have never liked it when any of the Law & Order brand shows get heavy handed and beat me over the head with their special message. It seems to be getting hard for the writers to stick with the common every day special victims, but I can’t for the life of me figure out why, as it’s hard to pick up a newspaper or watch the local news without some story involving a crime that could easily be classified as a special victims case. (By the way, you can get more information about the crimes in the Congo from this editorial in the Huffington Post that is attributed to Mariska Hargitay and John Prendergast titled How We Can All Help Women in the Congo.)

The whole story line was also a vehicle to explain the upcoming absence for Alex Cabot (Stephanie March), setting up the whole Sharon Stone guest star stunt, I mean stint. I am sure that Benson/Cabot shippers were tickled silly with Alex and Olivia chatting over drinks in the local pub. It looks like it may have to last them a while.

Here is the recap:
Detectives Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and Stabler (Chris Meloni) are called to the hospital where Lainey McCallum (Diora Baird)is being treated for rape and a large cut on her hand. But her account of the incident is vague. Detectives Munch (Richard Belzer) and Fin (Ice-T) check out the building security video, and the super tells them Lainey has been nothing but trouble. Later, Stabler, Benson, Munch and Fin go over photos from these security tapes and after making off hand comments about each person, Lainey picks out a black woman as the witness. Fin says the super did not know her and she came into the building and never left. The detectives decide to re-canvas the building. They find the woman who is a home health aide for one of the tenants, who is wheelchair bound. When they ask her about the rape, she tells them they have the wrong person and shuts the door.

Back at the SVU squad, they all wonder if a rape really did occur. The alleged witness was Nardalee Ula, and they wonder why she won’t talk about it. They also confirm there is no evidence in the stairwell that a rape occurred, and they wonder if Lainey made it up. Dr. Huang (B.D.Wong) goes into his psychobabble, and Stabler cuts to the chase, saying she is a “drama queen,” to which Huang adds, “to the extreme.” Benson gets a call saying that Lainey was caught by police trying to break into Jason's - her alleged boyfriend’s - apartment. When they get there, Lainey is screaming and Jason says Lainey has been stalking her.

Back in her apartment, she says she has known Jason all her life, saying he has been chasing her for years. Benson tells her she needs to move on, and Stabler asks if she said she was raped to get attention. She gets a little crazed at this comment, but Benson tries to calmly ask her questions. Lainey says the eyewitness was lying, it was her. Meanwhile, Stabler is looking out the window and sees a telescope trained on Lainey’s apartment from a building across the street.

Benson and Stabler head over to that apartment and when the man answers the door they can see he has a black eye. They enter the apartment and he says he got the black eye walking into a door. Stabler asks to look at the telescope and it is trained on Lainey’s place. They ask him to come down to the precinct.

At the SVU squad, peeping Tom guy Bryce Kelton (Eric Lange) is in the interrogation room and the detectives tell Captain Cragen (Dann Florek) that the man matches Lainey’s description. Cragen comments that a confession would be nice. Munch tells them that the rape kit shows pre-ejaculate but no sperm but they can still get DNA. Cragen tells Benson to try to sweet talk the suspect and tells Munch that he hopes his date with Wendy was not tonight as he wants Munch to back up Benson. When Bryce takes a sip of the water Benson brought into the room, she holds up the cup and asks how is that for sweet talk, and she tells Munch to take it to the lab and give her regards to Wendy. After Munch leaves, Benson continues to question Bryce about the rape, and he denies being in the stairwell. When she tells him they will get his prints off the banister, he says he was in the stairwell a few weeks ago. But when she says that black eye was from yesterday, Bryce says that the “black bitch” misinterpreted everything. He says Lainey has been teasing her, putting on a show, and she wanted it so she gave it to her. He said the woman pulled of his mask and he doesn’t want his wife to know he has a cute girl on the side. He says that Lainey wanted her to wear the mask to act out her fantasy. Benson arrests him for rape and assault – and tapering with witness.

Sometime later, ADA Cabot (Stephanie March) gets all over Cragen’s case for not having the witness yet. Cabot tells him she needs Nardalee in her grand jury by the end of business Friday, and she met with Lainey last night and she needs all the help she can get. Cragen tells her that Munch and Fin are on it. When Munch and Fin get to the apartment, they find Nardalee does not work there anymore. Fin later tells Cabot that Nardalee is in the wind and he will need a subpoena. While she talks with Fin, Bryce and his attorney approach Cabot and while they talk, Lainey walks out of another room, complaining about the wait. When Bryce makes a comment to her, she asks if that is the man that raped her as he is being led off. Cabot is apoplectic over Lainey’s provocative attire. Lainey continues to complain about her hand hurting. Fin says he will give her a ride home when this is over, and Cabot borrows a coat form “Monica” who is walking by to use to cover Lainey.

Lainey is on the stand, and she seems to be getting sick as she is being sworn in saying she thinks she is having a heart attack. She collapses.

At the hospital, Cabot, along with Benson, find that Lainey’s hand wound is infected with MRSA, a drug resistant form of flesh eating bacteria, which has crept up her arm. The infection has also invaded her chest and she is in very serious condition, and her liver and kidneys have shut down. While Benson holds Lainey’s hand and Cabot wants to get her on tape, she tells Benson her parents are in India and asks if Jason is coming. Benson says she is sure he will be there soon. Cabot asks her to speak for herself so the jury can hear her story, but Lainey wonders what is the point, she’s going to be dead. Cabot says the man who did this needs to be punished, Benson adding her voice will be heard long after. Cabot tells her she needs to make a dying declaration, and she says she is dying because some low life loser cut her hand while he was raping her.

Back at the squad, Cabot says she is amending the charge to felony murder, but Munch says she likely got the staph from the hospital. Cabot says ultimately Bryce is responsible because he was the one who cut her hand. She needs Nardalee to tie him to the rape so she can tie him to the murder.

Later, Munch tells Cragen that Nardalee is a ghost and she is living off the grid. But Stabler managed to get a cell phone number from the old man she used to care for. It is her daughter’s phone and Stabler got her OK to track the cell’s GPS. Later, Fin is tracking the phone and finds Nardalee (Saidah Arrika Ekulona) working a stand selling African wares. She tries to run but Stabler stops her and tells her they know Bryce threatened her and they need her help.

Cabot speaks to Nardalee at the morgue, looking at Lainey's body, and says they need her to tell the grand jury what she saw. But she is resistant. Cabot tells her Lainey died from the injury form the rape and begs her to help. Nardalee is worried about being deported and asks Cabot if she knows what is happening in the Congo. Hundreds of thousands of women have been raped, in some areas it is a weapon of war, and is so common it is expected. Nardalee recounts her own experience with being raped in the Congo, along with her 5 year old daughter. It took her daughter six days to die afterwards, and her husband also ran off. He later returned and cast her out of their home because he could not bear the shame of her being raped. She made it to a refugee camp and later she was accused of helping rebels attack a mine they were guarding and she was dragged back to the camp, and she is overcome and she tries to finish.

Later, at Dogan’s Pub, Cabot and Benson, over drinks, talk about Nardalee going to testify for the grand jury and said Nardalee said she will come back tomorrow. Cabot says Nardalee lives in a constant state of fear and she has to help her. Benson thinks that Nardalee should get asylum but Cabot says rape is not covered. Benson suggests a U-Visa because Nardalee fought off an attacker and Cabot thinks this could work.

After the grand jury, Cabot finds Nardalee waiting and she asks how it went, and Cabot tells her they got a true bill and they will go to trial and she will have to testify. But as they talk, Nardalee is arrested by Immigrations and Cabot protests.

Later, Cabot is angry with the ICU rep and serves him a subpoena personally as Nardalee is a material witness in a trial, but he blows her off. He then tells her that they took Nardalee to New Jersey and that she has connections to a terrorist group, some of the people who committed the Rwandan genocide. Cabot says she was held by those people, and ICU guy tells Cabot that Nardalee married one of them.

At the Elizabeth Detention Facility, Cabot speaks with Nardalee, who says she was forced to marry and that they could have been killed at any time. She never stopped trying to escape. She was afraid to apply for asylum in the US because of the risks. She points out a woman who has been locked up there waiting for her case to be heard for two years. An officer enters, hands her a file, and tells Cabot she has friends in high places, and she says Jack McCoy called the US Attorney. Nardalee is free to go.

Back in Supreme Court at Bryce’s trial, they see Lainey’s dying declaration, and says she only had sex with three men in her entire life and was in love with all three of them. She can’t stand that the last man that touched her did it by force. But this inflames Bruce, who stands up and screams this is total bull. Judge Andrews (Lindsay Crouse) tries to silence him, and his attorney Mr. Kressler (Ned Eisenberg) objects to the tape. Judge Andrews says she already ruled it was admissible. Cabot calls Nardalee to the stand, and Nardalee describes the rape and how she intervened. She identifies Bryce as the rapist. Under cross, Kressler tries to establish it was not rape, and Nardalee goes off on her own rape and other rapes she saw. He asks about whether she is in the country illegally, and the fact that she was just in a detention center, and is testifying only because Cabot is going to get her out. He questions her about her marriage to a terrorist, and her rapes, and says now she sees rape everywhere. Cabot re-directs, and Nardalee explains why she came into the country - to flee the sexual violence taking place in the Congo. She says that the women in her village and in the camps were raped, she was raped by so many men she lost count, someone put a gun up her and pulled the trigger and she was hospitalized for a year and left incontinent. She says she has seen rape everywhere, and that is how she knows that girl was raped.

The jury found Bryce not guilty of witness tampering, not guilty of murder, but guilty of rape. Cabot thanks Nardalee and she is happy she helped put a rapist in jail.

Elsewhere, Benson talks with Nardalee and tells her that last year a prosecutor with the UN got convictions for the first time in history making sexual slavery and forced marriage as a crime against humanity in the Sierra Leone. She tells Nardalee she will never have to go back, they got a U-Visa for her allowing her permanent residency, “A small token of our thanks.” Nardalee is thrilled, and says now she realizes she needs to go back to do what she can to help the women there. Benson worries she is risking her life, and Nardalee says she told Alex and Alex understands. Nardalee says he is touched by the sacrifice Alex is making, and when Benson asks what she is talking about, Nardalee questions that Alex did not tell her?

Later, we hear Benson calling out to Cabot as Cabot is walking down the courthouse steps. Benson asks her if it is true, and Cabot says she put in her papers and is taking a leave of absence. Stabler comments that she is leaving them again. She says she is taking a job with the international criminal court, and joining a newly formed task force prosecuting crimes of sexual violence in areas of conflict. Benson comments that Nardalee really got to her, and Cabot says she inspired her. As Cabot walks away from the detectives, we fade to black.

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Esaul said...

First off, wow. That's the fastest recap ever. Second, I hate how they keep making Cabot leave. I just want her to stay for good. I already miss her. :(

CastlesMadeOfSand said...

Great episode. Particularly strong performance by Stephanie March, really got to see her in action, just as...she's leaving again. Oh well. The actress who played Nardalee was fantastic as well.

Anonymous said...

I actually liked this episode. We live in a eurocentric society, and an episode about rape being used as a weapon in the Congo, and the true realities of such(using the similarity) of a case, where violent rape, helped cause a girl's death in the United States, is a way to get people to watch an episode of SVU, if it were more straight forward, or had featured the African women only as the main victim, likely would have never been made.

daniel said...

This was an excellent episode. Im also going to miss cabot, i hope she returns by the end of the season. thanks for recap.

Anonymous said...

This was a little too heavy handed for my tastes. I think this show went overboard. I agree that the situation in the Congo is awful and I don't want to take away form that, but I think that they really stretched the storyline to get it in there.

Joe S. Walker said...

A good episode, but it turned into pure sermonising for a while.

Joe S. Walker said...

An episode with a lot of good things about it, but it really did turn into a sermon for a while.

Shelly said...

This episode did hold my attention, but you all are right, it tried to cram a lot of stuff into 42-44 minutes, and they did get on their soapboxes for a good deal of it. I guess I didn't realize Stephanie March was leaving the show again. Is this for good, or could she possibly be back next season, or for the end of this one?

On the plus side, the actress who played Nardelee did a fantastic job. For my money, they could give her the best guest star Emmy now, and be done with it.

Thanks All Things for the recap.

John K. said...

As for all the personal observations, I agree, as it is a good look in current "Law & Order" writing. Yes, the topic of Congo sexual violence should be addressed, but it can definitely be shown outright. No need to do plot shift to get there or have two mutually exclusive plots. It's still bait-and-switch, if you haven't been following the publicity. (I have, but not as much as I normally do.)

As a side note, Heavy-handed ness can work, but today's generation of writers would prefer anvils than the usual hammer. Oh, well.

John K. said...

"Law & Order" franchise writing, I mean. Since someone else double posted on here, I don't feel as bad now. Heh.

One of the anonymous commenters had an interesting point about "Witness"' bait-and-switch being necessary, or the episode wouldn't be made. 10 years ago, I would agree, but television has changed much in 10 years. And topics that should have been discussed long ago, like, yes, rape, finally are. Either way, it's a fair question, I think.

Tina said...

Really good episode..the lady playing the Witness delivered an excellent performance. As well as Stephanie March.

This topic is a heavy topic but I think it needs to be discussed. When I hear about what is happening around the world I am THANKFUL I live in Canada and am not subject to a government like in the Congo. Just because we don't discuss it doesn't mean its not happening. This episode is bringing people aware of what is happening around the world and this topic does not get old. We need to be reminded every now and then.

Alex leaving is sad...I really enjoy her on the show (AND NO I am not a shipper of any kind). I am hoping they can bring her back next season. She is such a believable lawyer its not even funny!

Sharon Stone's stunt/stint...whatever it is only lasts for four episode...I think I can handle that....not a huge fan of hers but I will play along. HA!!

Nice to see the entire squad working on the case.

Anonymous said...

I don't care for these "bait and switch" storyline tactics either. Its like the writers think that viewers are too dumb that they have to be reeled in with a regular rape in order to be able to comprehend the horrors in Africa. The more I think about it the more I think I'm insulted at how they handled it.

Here's a question to ask them - when they produced this episode, did they use ANY equipment that was made from conflict materials? Now THAT would have been something that would have added to the story if they could say that they took pains to avoid using equipment - like computers and cell phones - that they knew were not made from conflict materials. Nut I bet they didn't, because they only used this story lines to get some publicity.

I also don't recall seeing a PSA after the episde talking about the issue. Did I miss one or did they avoid that too? CBS does stuff like that all the tinme when they feature a storyline with special topics, and I think that really adds to the point they make. But NBC probably doesn't know the first thing about how to do this stuff right.

Anonymous said...

I think this episode was pretty good, if judged by the standards of the rest of this season. They included a case that the Special Victims Unit could investigate, and the second part of the episode (which I agree was incredibly awkward) was successful due to a brilliant guest star and a fairly decent effort to staple the two plots together at a trial.

This episode remind me of "Hell" from the previous season, a case that I recall affected the Alex Cabot character too.

Jojo said...

Thanks for the recap.

I didn't know Stephanie March was leaving again...she'll be back, right? I just realised the other day that not only do I simply like her as ADA, she's the one who has always left the deepest impression on me. Novak was around for a long time, and Diane Neal was great and all, but I was trying to think of the names of the ADA's and I couldn't for the life of me remember Casey Novak. Or err the other one. Just kept thinking Alex Cabot.

And surely the writers throw in Alex/Liv scenes like that just to mess with the 'shippers heads...

It was an alright episode, but I've been going through my DVDs gradually (I still have yet to watch all of the Season 6/7/8 episodes - for shame!) and I'm suddenly not used to the current episodes because they're so heavy handed and...slow. The older episodes were so much more, "springy"?

Melvin Gaines said...

I agree that there was a lot crammed into the episode here. I don't mind the message being conveyed here, but I think it would have been better served as a two-parter, especially if the Alex Cabot character is leaving again.

John K. said...

The penultimate anonymous poster had a really good point about using materials from the Congo, knowing where they came from. And yet, the episode didn't quite explore the thought further, which is a shame.

(If it assuages, Nora Lewin at least felt something toward that toward her diamonds in that one Sierra Leone-based episode in her final season. I know the title, but can't recall it, at the moment.)

And, yes, Jojo, the current fare seems more clunkier in comparison to the early fare, doesn't it?

Anonymous said...

I think the diamond episode from Sierra Leone was Soldier of Fortune.

And, yes, Jojo, the current fare seems more clunkier in comparison to the early fare, doesn't it?

Which is weird because they used to have such a huge cast. They had Jeffries, Briscoe, Cassidy, those rotating ADAs, Alex Cabot used to have a partner, etc. I would have thought with every episode focusing on just two characters it would have been easier to make it flow better, but apparently not.

Jachelle said...

I usually don't like it when they start out with one story and go off on what I call bunny trails into another story. However, I thought this was the one of best episodes of SVU in a long time. The stories were related and I was very emotionally affected by Nardalie Youla's story. Episodes like this one are why I haven't given up on SVU entirely.

Stuart said...

I agree with Shelly. Saidah Arrika Ekulona deserves an Emmy for the role of Nardalee.

Keir said...

I agree with your assessment of an episode which again made me shake my head at the contrived plot, where an unsympathetic rape victim suddenly falls dead of the flesh-eating disease. I ended up researching the disease itself, Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, it does appear that it can spread quickly throughout the body before causing death. Despite the contagious nature of the disease, little precaution seemed to be in place to prevent infection; Olivia in fact held her hand as she lay dying without any protection. I too decided to research the issue of rape in the Congo which is involved in the story; again a witness is presented in SVU who comes from darkest Africa whose past seems tainted by terrorist paramilitary groups. I thought how I would feel as a Congolese to have my country (the largest in Africa after Algeria) reduced to a line about how rape is commonplace. Again, I learned something important. But I fear in doing so, the plots are becoming less than public service announcements and Law and Order being reduced to a soap box.

Anonymous said...

I didn't think the first victim was unsympathetic at all- to me it was very sad to think that having something like Histrionic Personality Disorder made her vulnerable, just like the woman with multiple sclerosis in the next episode. It can be devastating to a rape victim not to be taken seriously, yet even the SVU staff doubted her story to her face. Lucky thing that Stabler spotted that telescope, huh?!

The Thunder Child said...

Rape is used as a weapon in more than the Congo. I believe they did it in Bosnia as well.

So funny (not in an amusing way). Genocide by rape. It's used in a lot of Muslim countries, I believe. Since it's the woman's fault that she's been raped, she's now unclean and should just commit suicide, while her attackers go on to live happily ever after.

nygma619 said...

I thought this episode was quite good.

And considering how Novak was so poorly written out of the show, it's a miracle that they've managed to give Alex Cabot a proper send off this many times.

For those who keep whining about the bunny trails, Law and Order SVU is not the first to do this. Hell The Simpsons have been doing it since their third season. Personally I don't mind the bunny trail concept when done properly, plus it gives us a break from the writers relying on a lazy formula.

Also I'm not sure where people are getting the two plots being patched together lazily. The stuff about Congo served its purpose in inspiring Alex Cabot to take on a bigger role. Plus I'm sure they already did an illegal immigrant being raped plot before, so this was at least a different enough spin on that.

Esaul said...

I honestly enjoyed how they wrote off Novak. I mean, it showed what lengths she would go to for a case...even though what she did was illegal and could've gotten her disbarred. It just shows her passion and determination. I'm still a huge Cabot fan and wish she would stay on the show. I'm tired of all these new ADAs...makes me wish Conviction wasn't cancelled just so I could see more of Stephanie March. I think Cabot has the most character than most in the L&O universe. But hey that's just me.

EchoInTheSilence said...

Personally, I was just glad they finally did a "dubious claim" episode in which the dubious claim turned out to be true. Anyone who watches this show would think that every case of rape that isn't clear-cut or involving a child is a victim making it up. Real-life rape reports can be shaky or unclear or, yes, given by someone who sometimes likes to get attention but is still telling the truth.

Eavgrainger said...

I am late to the conversation, but I just watched a rerun of this episode and was really struck by how well (to me) they handled the problem of a difficult victim, who was set back by a personality disorder.

I also thought the treatment of systematic rape and sexual violence as a means of genocide and as a war crime was very smart. What's happening in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is appalling but most unfortunately it's nothing new; Cicero wrote about rape as a crime of war. (And no, this war crime is not more prevalent in Muslim countries, and in the Bosnian War it was Muslim women and girls who were targeted.)

But anyway, I thought this was a very well-done episode with a great balance of entertainment, drama, education, suspense, and politics. In other words, Law and Order: SVU!