I have to start this by saying two words, Kelli Williams. SVU, over the years, and still now, is known for its deeply talented, and famous guest-stars. These guest stars oftentimes inhabit characters so bad, and villainous that the audiences never forget them but there are also the ones that affect us in a different way. They play the victim or a relative of the victim, we empathize with them, we feel their pain, and they move us beyond belief. Well on the latest SVU, that is what Kelli Williams did. But hang on, that’s not all; in the first few minutes of the episode, titled “Making a Rapist”, Joe Biden (Vice President of the United States) makes a guest appearance. He’s there to talk about the back log of rape kits, and how they’ve started to slowly decrease the number of untested ones with the help of Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and her team. Olivia is next to speak, where she introduces Sean Roberts, a man, wrongly convicted of a rape he did not commit being released after 16 years behind bars.
Sean is seen and heard thanking everyone, accompanied by his victim, Melanie, at the time (Kelli Williams) who still holds some guilt over sending an innocent man to jail. Both Fin (Ice T) and Liv assure her that it was an honest mistake. It looks, anyway, as Sean and Melanie have built bridges and are getting along, leaving the precinct to go celebrate Sean’s birthday. Sadly, they don’t last very long. When Liv and the team are called to Melanie’s residence, and are informed that a young girl has been raped, stabbed and doused in fuel. They enter to find Melanie inconsolable and her daughter, Ashley barely alive. Liv attempts to question Melanie, but too preoccupied with the state of her daughter, all Melanie is able to say is, “I think it was Sean”. At the hospital, with Rollins (Kelli Giddish) speechless at the possibility it could be Sean, Liv breaks the team up and instructs them on who to question. Fin and Rollins are told to talk to Sean, Carisi (Peter Scanavino) instructed to find the fiancée and Liv stays close to the mother. Kelli Williams begins her heartbreaking SVU outing right here; as she sits waiting for news on her daughter, attempting to give Benson somewhat helpful information, her chest heaves, her nose runs and she fumbles. She is able to note however, that Ashley’s engagement ring was missing. This piece of information is helpful, but in the next breath made soul-crushing by the news that Ashley didn’t make it. Kelli Williams delivers Melanie’s response viscerally and horrifically pained, as the grief sets in.
Meanwhile, Fin and Rollins have arrived at Sean’s apartment and he’s understandably taken aback when they start questioning him. He’s equal parts concerned about Melanie as he is annoyed that they would even think he could hurt Ashley. Either way, it’s hard to tell really what role he played in her death especially when he gives them an alibi and supporting witness. Taking this lead and rolling with it, Rollins and Fin track down Sean’s buddy Jeff Nichols who confirms that they were at a strip club together. He however goes on to say that Sean called him, freaking out, needing Jeff to vouch for him. Fin and Rollins both aren’t playing around, the seriousness of this case taking hold of the entire team, and when pressed for the truth, Jeff gives it up, stating that Sean did in fact show up late to the strip club. You know what that means? He very well could have been the one to murder Ashley. At the precinct, Ashley’s fiancée is in the interrogation with Carisi and Rollins; he’s grief-stricken but not enough for Rollins and Carisi to buy it. They make reference to the text conversation he had with Zack had with Ashley, how irritated he was at her relationship with Sean and how he demanded she give the engagement ring back. This all seems to point to him as the number one suspect but when Zack’s weak alibi actually checks out, it is back to the drawing board to figure out if Sean, after everything, is the real killer.
Rollins (who is becoming quite the tech wiz), tracks down another potential suspect – Charlie Dobkins. He lives in the apartment building, or should I say roof of the apartment building, that is next to Ashley’s. Rollins and Carisi arrive to find his “campsite” empty but the interesting thing about it is, it looks right in Ashley’s bedroom. As they continue their search, Charlie arrives home and immediately bolts. Catching him, they question why it is he has the knife used during the attack of Ashley, what he saw that night and his relationship to Ashley. He’s a perve, admitting to watching Ashley through her window, but upon further questioning (and a little flirtation on Rollins’ part), Charlie admits to having a girlfriend and having found the knife after seeing some guy leave. Speaking of girlfriend, she, along with Charlie’s mother show up at the precinct giving evidence that Charlie didn’t hurt Ashley, that he was with Siobhan all night (and there is video to prove it). Regardless, this still makes him a potential witness to the events, with the detectives urged to find out what he knows. They take Charlie back to his residence, where he tries to remember exactly what he saw. It seems young Charlie has developed a crush on Amanda, and noticing this, she somewhat uses it to her advantage. Charlie is reluctant to identify Sean – distracted by his attraction to Rollins – but eventually identifies Sean as the man seen leaving Melanie’s apartment the night Ashley was murdered.
The team have enough at this point to get a search warrant, and much to Sean’s frustration execute it immediately. Searching his apartment, Fin finds Ashley’s engagement ring in the sink, implicating Sean in the murder. Back at the precinct, he accuses Fin of framing him before the stress and trauma of his ordeal become too much. He loses his cool, lashing out, yelling about how he was raped in jail, so there is no way he would ever do that to sometime. It’s convincing, so much so Mrs. Harper is beginning to doubt her recollection of the night in question. She’s misidentified him once before, could she be doing it again? Kelli Williams, throughout the episode, is unrecognisable, as she full transforms into a grieving, guilt stricken mother. But with the support and reassurance of Fin and Liv, Melanie remains stoic and hopeful that justice will be served. With justice the goal, the court hearing gets underway and with Jeff (Sean’s friend) testifying first, the fight between Barba (Raul Esparza) and the defense is tit for tat. Not to mention, how strong a cross the defense attorney does when debunking the professional opinion of Sean’s history. And he was right in doing so; the expert opinions doesn’t necessarily apply to Sean specifically.
With the first line of testimony not going so well for Barba, he feels it is time to call Charlie to the stand. Rollins and company assure Barba that he is ready and that he is solid, are they right? Meanwhile, Fin questions why Barba isn’t calling him as a witness, does he think Fin was in fact involved in framing Sean. It doesn’t matter, because Fin already feels like Barba doesn’t trust him. I have to say, I’m very much enjoying the tension the writers have developed this season between the ADA’s office and the SVU team; last week is was Benson and Barba, this week its Fin and Barba, not to mention total sass and fire from Carisi and Rollins. Charlie does an okay job when questioned by Barba, but when Sean’s defense attorney has his turn, the entire case turns to shambles. Charlie admits to having done pot the night he witnessed Sean leaving the apartment, but worse, he pretty much admits to Rollins making him identify Sean. He implies that she helped him develop his testimony, and that he really just wanted her to like him. The faces of everyone involved are a combination of disappointment, shock and frustration. Barba most of all. Back in his office he gives Rollins are passionate talking to, reprimanding her for how she behaved. Really? She can’t help it if he had a crush on her, a statement that both Liv and Barba roll their eyes at. Carisi, however, is not standing for Rollins being blamed. Talk about standing up for your own; it is one of my favourite scenes to date with Peter Scanavino bringing the protective nature out in Carisi like we’ve never seen before. To make it even better, the way Liv ends the argument is like a mother breaking up an argument between her children. Bravo, writers, for that little parallel although I’m sure Noah hasn’t even begun to act like that.
Having realised that putting Fin on the stand may be what they need to win the case, Barba gives in. And like the entire hearing has gone, positive then completely spun the other way by the defense attorney. This theme continues to plague Melanie, who even begins to doubt Fin, questioning whether he really did plant the ring? He reassures Melanie that he didn’t, and that she can trust him. But she’s not sure, what if she’s wrong again? With this, she solidly refuses to testify. And so begins Barba vs. SVU Team round “something higher than 5”. Barba insists she needs to testify if they have any chance of convicting Sean, even if she refuses to cooperate. Treating Melanie as a hostile witness, Barba continues with a line of questioning what I would believe to be quite shocking to audiences. He’s obviously got a strategy but it is nothing short of painful to watch as Barba rips into her. Melanie doesn’t have to say much, her face and its reaction to what Barba says enough to say a thousand words. She blames herself for her daughters’ death because when she really thinks about it, if she hadn’t sent Sean to prison all those years ago, maybe he wouldn’t have become such a monster. Kelli Williams is powerful, and broken, and gut-wrenching in this scene. Listening to Barba berate Melanie, to force her walls down and for the truth to come out. She blames herself. She feels deeply and crushingly guilty for everything that has happened. This confrontation with Barba is enough to make Kelli strongly state that is was Sean’s voice that she heard that night Ashley was killed.
With the worst part over, Barba feels fairly confident that the jury will vote his way and so does the defense. They want to talk plea; manslaughter. Barba laughs the suggestion off, saying he’d rather roll the dice with the jury. His confidence is perfectly placed, with the defense settling for Murder 2, with a minimum of 15 years with the stipulation that he must admit to the crime so this time around the jury gets to hear that law enforcement were correct in prosecuting him. Sean rises in court, he begins his statement with an apology. He goes on to say that he was drunk and that he wasn’t used to how it made him feel. That he told Ashley how much he liked her and she laughed at him. It’s haunting to hear him recount the events, that Ashley laughing was all it took for him to be pushed over the edge. He associates such a behaviour to prison, that you can’t let people laugh at you. His apology is as sincere as you expect, but after hearing well and truly enough, Melanie runs from the courtroom. Liv, following her, offers one last apology, with Kelli Williams leaving us again feeling the deep, undeniable pain a parent feels when they lose a child. She was captivating and heartbreaking, a stand-out; one of those guest star appearances that won’t soon be forgotten. And as Melanie leaves, Liv checks in with Fin; he’s happy that the bad guy went down, and when Liv offers an ear to listen, he simply states, “Talking is overrated”.