Law & Ordocki Season 5 #6 (#40): The Long Arm of the Witless
Can we start off by discussing what the hell is with these titles? Back in the glory days, SVU episodes would have evocative one word titles. “Retro”, “Totem”, “Trials”, those sorts of titles. With Season 13 the titles changed so they were two words–perhaps the new showrunner’s attempt to make a concrete break from the Stabler years. By Season 15 every title was 15 characters long because someone thought it was cute, and now, in Season 22, these fucking things are out of control. “The Long Arm of the Witness” may not be as obtuse as “We Dream of Machine Elves” or “She Paints for Vengeance”, but it’s still a mouthful and raises more questions than answers. Obviously a play on “the long arm of the law” phrase, it seems to be saying Wentworth Miller’s character has a long arm because he’s an assistant district attorney. I was hoping maybe in the third act he’d reveal himself as having Plastic Man powers and some terrible CW-level CGI would occur. Maybe I just miss his snarky nature on Legends of Tomorrow. Wait, no, that can’t be it–I hate that show and don’t watch it. Well, whatever it is, it goes to show how shitty this episode is that I can spend a paragraph talking about titles.
Oh, well, now that you tell me.
“The Long Arm of the Witness” from the outset looks to be a mash-up of two flashpoint moments in our justice system: the slap on the wrist received by Brock Turner and the controversial nomination and confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. The episode opens with Charles Gallagher (Josh Stamberg, making his fifth appearance in the Law & Order universe) as judge before a case of a woman who was raped but filed charges 2 months after the fact. This, coupled with the defendant’s stellar white reputation contrasted against the plaintiff being a Latina of no means makes the case less than a slam dunk. Still, though, it’s unexpected and puzzling that Gallagher grants defense’s motion to dismiss. From there we’ve left a patina of realism and entered toon town, as SVU takes pains to make Gallagher such a transparently one-dimensional scumbag that his appearances may as well be accompanied by sinister music, with the audience encouraged to boo and hiss. To make the Kavanaugh parallel clearer, he’s running for political office, NY attorney general, and he’s saying all the right dog whistles: suburbs, “our way of life”, protecting our boys from #MeToo, etc. It’s at this point SVU decides they need to take him down. It starts with seeing if he made his case dismissal decision because of a bribe, but it quickly turns to something else.
As mentioned before, Wentworth Miller makes a return appearance, and he has a connection to Gallagher: they were contemporaries at Hudson University. Man, Hudson University. After all the scandals and crimes that have occurred at that place, it may be a good idea to burn the place down and salt the earth. It’s like the writers wanted to create an NYU where most students major in rape. Miller’s Isaiah Holmes heard about Gallagher, then known as “Chip” because he wasn’t loathsome enough, raping a fellow undergrad and campus security doing nothing about it. It cannot be forgotten that Wentworth Miller is a terrible actor. That may work on the shows like The Flash where acting talent is an impediment, but this is nominally real television and his weaknesses stick out like a sore thumb. In the midst of viewing the episode I realized he had a Shatnerian cadence to his manner of speaking and once I did I couldn’t get it out of my head. So whenever he talked I thought of, well, not even a Shatner impression. A bad impression of Kevin Pollak doing Shatner is more accurate. “Mr. Benson, set-the-phasers-to-stun. We cannot allow the Klingons-to-get-away.”
SVU continues the fiction that people pay attention to campus protests.
The one campus rape balloons to three with some coercive assault of his students for good measure. One of the rape situations is literally “The Implication” from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and it’s never good for media to remind the viewer of better media. These campus rapes are all beyond the statute of limitations but they speak to his character, bolstering the case of the student he raped through coercion. Thing is, Gallagher is right when he deems it a political witchhunt because SVU investigated him solely because they didn’t like him running for AG. The bribery investigation was a fig leaf. Fuck this guy, but he has a point. Gallagher turns down a deal the DA’s office made that would require he drop out and resign from the bench but no trial, no criminal charges. It’s at this juncture that finally, SVU takes head on the most pressing issue of our time: anti-Italian racism.
Oh sure, it starts with a few jokes, like Gallagher mentioning the garlic smell off Carisi’s cheap suit. Next thing you know the phrase “dirty dago” is thrown out. While he goes on to use more derogatory words against groups with a better claim of marginalization, that the show led with Italian slurs tickled me. Gallagher also threatens that after this Carisi will be lucky to be a cop writing tickets in Staten Island. The greater Law & Order universe has long established that their version of Hell is Staten Island, as shown by Mike Logan’s exile post-Law & Order Season 5 until he joined Criminal Intent. These little things enhance the SVU experience; these are the things I cling to while wading through this dross. Gallagher is represented by Elizabeth Marvel, whose recurring defense attorney is basically thrown out there whenever the show needs someone to rep a truly shitty client. Her backstory includes formerly being a prosecutor so a number of scenes consist of Benson in particular whining that she has no morals ensue. How dare someone perform a Constitutionally mandated duty for someone else! Eventually this fucking show will have defense counsel show up with devil horns, vampire teeth and a fucking cape. “Can we speed this arraignment up, your honor? I have a baby cooling on the window sill that I want to eat.”
Somebody should just make a supercut of Judge Lewis reaction shots and make that the episode.
Because Carisi is a shitty lawyer, the case rests on some Perry Mason bullshit for things to turn out in his favor. Elizabeth Marvel otherwise routs him in court, destroying the credibility of his witnesses and furthering the Left/Right culture war at the heart of this. You know, how the Right dismisses all women who speak out as lying whores who are somehow looking to profit off of their complaint. She does it with the student and she does it with the original rape complaint, who is so torn up by the line of questioning she doesn’t want to continue. My “favorite” cross-examination consists of Marvel noting one of the victims has been married and divorced, each time divorcing because of infidelity on her part. She’s a loose woman, dammit! We also learn “approach the bench” and “night court” are euphemisms for oral sex. Is failure to achieve an erection a “mistrial”? I also find it hard to believe anyone’s thinking of Harry Anderson and sex in the same headspace. Of all the ridiculous things in this episode, that sticks out the most.
Do an episode entirely in courtroom drawings. SVU a la Waking Life. Don’t pretend like they have better ideas.
Isaiah Holmes decides to take the stand and testify that the first woman, April, told him what happened. As he tells it, Gallagher called Holmes a “half-breed” and a “homo” and intimated that his scholarship would be at risk with any further line of inquiry. Now, I understand that Wentworth Miller is half-black, but he “passes” to the extent that a lot of people don’t even know he’s mixed-race, so I find that aspect suspect. Perhaps we’re meant to believe Gallagher is a savant at bigotry and can suss out differences like a trained phrenologist. Better episode if calipers were involved somehow. The Perry Mason bullshit I mentioned before comes in the men’s restroom, when Gallagher and Holmes confront each other and Holmes makes sure to press record on his cell phone before Gallagher is basically goaded into confessing to raping April along with a colorful spectrum of slurs. He later claims “this is out of context men’s room talk” (real “say the line, Bart!” energy to it–why not wheel out all the hits? “Grab ‘em by the pussy”, “I like beer”, “a penny saved is a penny earned”, etc.), but it’s evident his goose is cooked.
It’s like The Thinker statue if it wasn’t thinking!
The plea is one year house arrest…or is it? At sentencing, the judge, not coincidentally a black woman I’m sure, decides the episode has sucked and gives Gallagher a one year jail term. The judge is the best character on the show by far and should be the judge every week. Let her do the job the DA’s office can’t apparently do. Everyone is happy with the verdict even though it’ll probably come up on appeal and he won’t actually spend a day in jail. Because, you know, rich, white, etc. All of his cases are up for review too, so maybe the cops will remember the case that fucking started this shitshow in the first place. Benson confronts Elizabeth Marvel in an elevator and there’s some long thing I didn’t pay attention to about the culture shifting and these men being in power and I really just remember Marvel’s line “lie back and pretend you’re enjoying it”. This is the kind of subtle, smart dialogue I’ve come to expect from Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
Don’t want to testify? Well, you’re gonna get a lot of withering condescending looks!
I do have to applaud SVU for taking on one of 2018’s biggest headlines in 2021. It takes real guts to say to a man who will leave the Supreme Court when he DIES that perhaps everything isn’t on. Maybe next they can cover the 2 Live Crew controversy or interrogate the innate sexualization of the Charleston. That said, I did appreciate the blatant character assassination, taking a guy who once sexually assaulted a woman and turning him into a racist serial rapist who is such a bigot he even hates on Italians. I’m surprised they didn’t make his penis small like they did with the (first) Jeffrey Epstein stand-in. It still comes across as too little too late. We have a new conservative Supreme Court whose lack of qualifications drive liberals insane: her name is Amy Coney Island Barrett and she is a girlboss who will no doubt follow in Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s proud tradition of not hiring black clerks. What’s next, Benson reading the Mueller Report? Get with the fucking times.
Like all Republicans, he wears glasses to make him look smart, and it doesn’t work. See Rick Perry, if you can remember him.
Despite a few notable moments (the Italian slurs, the judge having none of it), my relationship with the program is at its lowest ebb in quite a while. It’s gotten to the point that I want every defendant to get off. Not because I believe they don’t deserve punishment for their often gruesome and despicable crimes; I just dislike the main cast enough that it tickles me to see them fail. Gallagher may be a racist rapist, but he is right that Carisi is woefully underqualified for his job, a first year lawyer who graduated night school from Fordham. Every episode shows how ill-prepared he is. In this episode he succeeded via a surprise witness and then a secretly taped confession. Gallagher only got jail time because the judge called an audible. On his own merits as a prosecutor Carisi is a failure, a dope for the detectives to push around and treat like dirt because he used to be their annoying co-worker. Fuck these self-righteous idiots. Let the crooks run New York City! Maybe it’ll become Escape From New York. John Carpenter’s worst movie is better than the best episode of SVU.
“Mask up, detective, we’re fast traveling.”
MASKWATCH: More of the same, really. I’m not going to reiterate my points made in weeks past and will instead just point to two specific situations that I noticed. Rollins and Benson are walking down the street, having a conversation, no masks. They then decide to go to a specific location and put on masks. Why? Why then? Who knows. In the jury box, most but not all people wear masks. Again, why? Why can’t all of them wear masks? It’s not as though the director is putting a particular focus on the jury reactions. The jury, in fact, plays no role in “The Long Arm of the Witness” ultimately. I swear to Christ they do this shit just to annoy people like me.
The fuck is up with Mariska Hargitay rubbing her hands together like an anti-Semitic cartoon
In the final minutes the judge does use the phrase “the long arm of the law” but not “the long arm of the witness”, so what are we doing here. “What are we doing here?” describes much of Law & Order: SVU in its 22nd year. Pretending #MeToo wasn’t taken out behind a shed and beaten to death when everybody decided to ignore Tara Reade’s accusations against Joe Biden. Doing courtroom episodes despite having no real ability to write courtroom episodes. (Yes, I know they’re doing it because of COVID restrictions, but maybe instead of admitting “we can’t make good television because it’s too hard” they should, I dunno, not make television anymore.) Letting Wentworth Miller act. That I gauge my opinion of an episode on how often it made me laugh is not a good sign for a procedural about sexual assault and crimes against children. I should be, like, judging shit based on how hard I clutch my pearls or something.
Is this social commentary? Ladies wear masks but men don’t? I don’t fucking know anymore.