The first few minutes of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit are always guaranteed to be equal parts insane, hilarious, and chilling. You know Olivia Benson and Co. are in for a rollercoaster ride filled with twists and turns if, say, instead of your run-of-the-mill exsanguinated corpse (ligature marks optional), you’re treated to a dialogue-free musical montage or something even vaguer.
And the seventh episode of the 17th season (!) of Dick Wolf’s SVU, “Patrimonial Burden,” opens with a truly eerie sequence: a purity ball, with a 13-year-old girl making a virginity pledge to her father (and Jesus) to remain as pure as the driven snow until marriage.
“I make this solemn vow to you and my Creator to keep my thoughts virtuous, and to abstain from all sexual activity, until the day you give me to my husband,” she says.
It’s a particularly incestuous clip from the particularly incestuous reality series 13aker’s Dozen, depicting young, tiara-sporting Lane Baker, the fourth of 10 children in the Baker brood, celebrating in a hotel ballroom with her condom-despising patriarch, Frank Baker. But, while the daddy-daughter duo are making eyes at each other and slow dancing to An American Tail’s “Somewhere Out There,” the poor little girl collapses. When she’s taken in to the hospital, they learn that she’s three months’ pregnant.
Now, when Lt. Benson and Dets. Tutuola and Carisi arrive on the scene, the squad’s alarm bells go off when the Baker parents aren’t willing to let them speak to their probably-raped child, and are adamant that they’re “good parents” and she’s never dated anyone in the past.
Cue sick Benson Burn: “With all due respect, this wasn’t an Immaculate Conception.”
“Patrimonial Burden” was inspired by the real-life controversy surrounding Josh Duggar—the eldest child on the kid-collecting reality TV series 19 Kids and Counting who was forced to resign from his position at the conservative Family Research Council this past May when it was revealed that he’d molested five girls as a teenager, including four of his own sisters. After being enrolled in a Christian labor camp, Duggar’s father, Jim-Bob, reportedly took his troubled son to meet with Jim Hutchens, an Arkansas State trooper and friend of the family, where Josh confessed to his crimes, but was just given a stern warning (Hutchens was later sentenced to a 56-year prison sentence on child pornography charges). An official investigation into Duggar’s molestation cases opened in 2006, but by that point, the State of Arkansas’ three-year statue of limitations for filing charges after reporting the incident to a police officer had expired.If that weren’t enough, the Ashley Madison hack revealed that Josh Duggar, a married father of four, had two subscriptions on the infidelity site from 2013-2015, which he used to cheat on his wife. “I have been the biggest hypocrite ever. While espousing faith and family values, I have secretly over the last several years been viewing pornography on the Internet and this became a secret addiction and I became unfaithful to my wife,” he admitted.
Now back to SVU.
Every SVU episode is a bit like a game of Clue, and early on we’re presented with four possible suspects: the creepy uber-religious father, Frank; the family’s pastor/lawyer, who wants Lane to only speak to the family’s local precinct; Chris Elliott (!), playing 13aker’s Dozen’s cameraman; and Graham Baker, 17, the eldest son (and Josh Duggar stand-in).
It’s all about their “brand,” claims Det. Rollins, herself heavily pregnant. “Look at what happened to the Duggars. Word gets out that one of those virgin Baker daughters is knocked up? There goes the TV show, the book deal, the multimillion-dollar chastity empire.”
Since the incident happened while Lane was in New York on a mission painting over graffiti, this gives the SVU team jurisdiction to investigate. And since Frank and Graham accompanied her on said mission, that makes them the primary suspects.
When Benson questions Lane, using her disarming voice and bedside manner, the girl admits to engaging in “sexual activity” while she was on her mission in New York. Since she “promised not to say” who her assailant was, Benson gets her to write it down. And the girl fingers Pete Matthews, the aforementioned 13aker’s Dozen cameraman played by Elliott. Making matters worse, the SVU team discovers footage Lane filmed of two of the underage Baker girls changing on his laptop.
Only Matthews had a vasectomy a decade ago, so he couldn’t possibly be the culprit. To further exonerate himself, he shares footage he shot of Graham feeling up his sister. Apparently Graham copped to it, took a leave of absence from the show, and was sent to Camp Righteous Path—an Evangelical Christian labor camp in Canada. Turns out he was sent there by Elias J. Barnes, a powerful local priest/judge, who had Graham’s records sealed. But a rogue cop gifts Dets. Tutuola and Carisi with the kid’s juvie records, which includes three complaints of forcible touching and one complaint of assault on a minor.
Before Benson can haul Graham into the precinct, however, his family sends him down to Ecuador on a mission. Complicating matters is the fact that Pam, the Baker mom, probably faked one of her pregnancies, leading the SVU team to believe that Graham may have also impregnated one of his other sisters—now 15-year-old Summer, who mysteriously disappeared during the show’s season finale three years back.
“If this is indeed incest, then Frank is the grandfather on both sides,” says Benson.
Now all of this, of course, could be solved if Pam agreed to have Lane undergo an amniotic fluid test, but since it’s against their Evangelical beliefs, she declines.
When they test the DNA of Tate, the 2-year-old suspected of being Graham’s rape/incest-baby, it comes back showing that the paternal side is not related to Frank, so the father couldn’t be Frank or Graham.
Meanwhile the 8½ months’ pregnant Det. Rollins has to go the E.R. after feeling chest pains, and is placed on bed rest (Kelly Giddish, who plays Rollins, was actually pregnant and gave birth just four days after the episode was filmed). When she questions why she’s having a child solo—the child is her former superior officer Declan’s, who’s deep undercover investigating a sex trafficking ring in Romania—Carisi comforts her at her bedside, saying, “Amanda, listen to me: I’ve been working for you for over a year now, and there is nothing you can’t handle.”Rollins has reason to be skeptical, of course, because she can barely handle her crippling gambling addiction (which got her beaten by a scar-faced bookie and almost fired from SVU), her prostitute-sister who’s in prison on multiple charges, and her domineering mother, played by Virginia Madsen, who will never forgive her for arresting her own sister. But deep down, Rollins is a good person, and Carisi, in his very New Yawk accent, speaks the truth.
Turns out Pastor Elden, the Baker family’s pastor/lawyer played by Ryan Devlin of Veronica Mars fame, was also with Lane during her mission—as well as another New York mission with Summer three years ago.And, it turns out Pastor Elden is a DNA match for both Lane’s baby and Summer’s. Except the pastor has gone missing. When SVU tracks him down, he’s in the family’s local courthouse about to marry Lane—with the Baker family’s approval, as well as the aforementioned judge/priest’s who had Graham’s juvenile records sealed—presumably so that she can’t testify against him. The Baker family believes Graham is the culprit, but when they’re told that Pastor Elden is the father, their faces drop.
It seems the pastor had told the family that Graham had confessed to him, and they took the man of the cloth at his word.
“I’ll testify. And so will Frank. I don’t care about the damn show, we want him put away!” shrieks Pam.
As an SVU obsessive, I mourned the loss of rugged and beloved Det. Stabler (Christopher Meloni), the bad cop to Olivia’s good cop. But the brilliant 16th season of the show—with its exaggerated ripped-from-the-headlines episodes tackling GamerGate, Ray Rice, Rolling Stone’s UVa rape story, a Trayvon Martin/Paula Deen crossover, and the fabulous James Franco/Shia LaBeouf crossover, with Shiloh Fernandez as a sitar-playing Franco/LaBeouf—made me see the light.While Meloni was fantastic on the show, and they were oh-so-wrong to shade him in last year’s season finale, SVU is as addictive as ever.
Rachel Dolezal next, please.