Screen: Universal

Defending Lauren Ambrose's Dignity

An eighth-season episode of Law & Order is submitted for The Canon because it blends trenchant procedural drama with emotionally resonant personal intrigue.

Having spent almost 40% of my waking life watching original-flavor Law & Order, I am full of opinions on the best episodes from the show's twenty seasons, and if you'd ever like to debate the all-time top ten, then please cancel your evening plans and join me at a place that serves hard cider.

Meanwhile, let's discuss my submission for this week's Canon. I've chosen "Damaged," which is Episode 22 from Season 8. I'd argue that this episode shows us the best of what the series has to offer.

To begin, there's the case itself, which opens with a shooting in a school parking lot but quickly evolves into the prosecution of a group of teenage douchebags who sleep with girls and then call them sluts all over town. But that's just the beginning. Over and over, we keep thinking we know what the moral and legal issues are, only to learn that things are more complex than we thought.

For instance, when the cops find the young girl who shot at the boys in the parking lot, they assume she's punishing them for ruining her reputation. However, she's actually trying to avenge her older sister Valerie (played with devastating emotional complexity by Lauren Ambrose). Valerie, you see, is mentally retarded, and her sister says the boys raped her.
But here's the next wrinkle: Valerie insists she gave consent, which leaves McCoy and Co. to prosecute rapists on the theory that a retarded girl can't give consent, no matter what she says.

So what do we do with that? Where do we draw an internal line between supporting a woman's autonomy and supporting the state's right to define her life for her?

Frankly, I do think Valerie was raped, and that seems like the obvious moral stance when a hideous judge overturns McCoy's conviction by claiming that Valerie "had the time of her life." That enrages McCoy (and me, and probably you), so he uses shrewd tactics to make the boys admit they knew Valerie was retarded before they slept with her (and stuck a bottle inside her). Case closed, right? They did it. They ought go to jail.

Only the judge still resists, and then in the most startling twist, so does Valerie's father. He's heard his daughter insist that she had sex because she wanted to, and he wants her to keep some of her dignity. Even though it's clear that the boys are terrible, her father insists that dropping the case will actually be best for his daughter. That's some damn fine writing that wrings deep emotion from the process of law.

Meanwhile, the episode gives us the right amount of personal information about the characters. There's some debate, I realize, about whether we need to know anything at all about the cops and lawyers, but I personally like a little biography now and then. To me, this episode is even more satisfying because it makes the personal story echo so beautifully with the primary case.

To wit: as Valerie's trial unfolds, Lennie's daughter also testifies against a drug dealer she helped supply. Her case implodes, and before she can testify again, she's murdered. The last scene of the episode shows Lennie collapsing at the sight of her body, and we're left with two fathers and two daughters to consider: Valerie and her dad exited the legal process and arguably walked away with a little dignity. Lennie pushed his daughter to stay in the system and keep testifying, and she ended up dead. So what do we do with that? We stew on it, that's what, and maybe consider why we do or don't have faith in "the process."

Because it marries in-the-moment entertainment with a lingering moral dilemma, "Damaged" deserves a place in the canonical hall.

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