According to a message that appeared before Law & Order: SVU last night, the episode that followed – titled “American Tragedy” – “[was] fictional and [did] not depict any actual person or event.” In reality, of course, the hour was clearly ripped from one of the 2013’s biggest headlines: the case of George Zimmerman, on trial for shooting Florida teen Trayvon Martin.
But wait – there’s more! The woman who shot SVU’s Martin facsimile happened to be a celebrity chef with a history of racial prejudice… much like Paula Deen. And the storyline also hinged, partially, on New York City’s controversial stop-and-frisk program. And… actually, you know what? Maybe it would be easier if we just listed every single issue that came up in “American Tragedy” – starting with this year’s indisputable Song of the Summer.
How do you turn Trayvon Martin’s story into a sexually-based offense? By adding in a serial rapist, who’s been attacking single white women on New York’s tony Upper West Side. The perp says the same thing to each of his victims before attacking: “I know you want it.” Sure, the chorus of Robin Thicke’s hit song puts things slightly differently – ”you know you want it” – but after three-plus months of “Blurred Lines” saturation, SVU’s choice of words can’t be a coincidence.
Detective Olivia Benson is still recovering from the events of season 14’s finale and season 15’s premiere – in which she was abducted by an especially heinous sexual predator (played by Orange is the New Black’s Pablo Schreiber). After hearing the stories of two rape victims at the beginning “American Tragedy,” she lashes out at a street harasser – beating the guy to a pulp. She’s also still having horrific flashbacks to her ordeal. Poor Olivia!
Armed only with a vague description of the UWS serial rapist – he’s tall, black, and clad in a hoodie – the NYPD sets off to catch their man. “You know the drill,” Benson announces as they’re leaving headquarters: “250s, 250s 250s. Stop-and-frisk ‘til we get this guy.” We then see a montage of policemen stopping and patting down random indignant black men. Later in the episode, of course, this will come back to bite them.
Suddenly, a shot rings out. The cops run toward its source – and find beloved celebrity chef Jolene Castille (Cybill Shepherd!) standing over the body of 16-year-old Mehcad Carter, whom she says was about to attack her. As we’ll learn later, she got a carry permit for her pistol after moving to new York City; she didn’t feel the need to pack heat back home in Louisiana.
As the police are investigating Carter – who was on the Upper West Side when every rape was committed – they discover the actual rapist: Willie Taylor, another tall, black, hoodie-clad man. Though his victims didn’t see his face, they can identify him because he smells like the cooking oil he likes to recycle – and because oil residue is found both on Taylor and the victims. Okay, then! Taylor also happens to be from Detroit – another city frequently in the news this summer. (Maybe he came to New York after being let out on parole because he couldn’t find a job in Motown.)
Time to learn a little more about Chef Jolene: Turns out that when the toilet in one of her kitchens broke, she wouldn’t let her black employees use the customers’ restroom. Five years ago, she was involved in a civil suit against five black male kitchen employees; according to a deposition, she referred to the men as “field hands.” (The N-word, however, never comes up.) She once told a Southern magazine that taking a New York City subway feels like riding “a jungle train through the Congo.” After being arrested for manslaughter, she even snipes about all the city’s “blacks, Jews, and liberals” – shades of Mel Gibson? – and tries to find common ground with Georgia native Detective Amanda Rollins: “We both know if we were down home, I’d be getting a medal,” Jolene says with a smile. The “S” in SVU does not stand for “subtle.”
And poor Mehcad Carter, it turns out, was walking through the Upper West Side simply because he lost his Metrocard and couldn’t take the
jungle train subway. He’s an honors student, an active member of his church, a young teen who still has a childish sweet tooth. (Here, bubblegum stands in for Martin’s notorious Skittles.) His parents are a fixture in the courtroom, giving emotional testimony about their innocent little boy. The streets are filled with protesters urging the courts to let Jolene fry. If she walks, there could be rioting in the streets.
Ultimately, Jolene Castille’s trial ends much the way George Zimmerman’s did. She’s found not guilty of manslaughter, largely because defense attorney Ben Cohen (a.k.a. George Bluth) seizes upon the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk procedures. After all, how can the prosecution call Jolene racist when the police were also targeting innocent African-Americans?
Considering the way the episode ends, though – on shots of Mehcad’s tearful parents and the SVU team standing solemnly on the steps of the court – it’s clear that Law & Order’s writers aren’t exactly satisfied with that verdict. Maybe they’d feel differently if they had managed to wedge in a reference to the Royal Baby, or something.