Post Mortems

Law & Order: SVU's Mariska Hargitay on Directing Sexual Consent Ep: 'Lines Aren't Yet Drawn in Our Culture'

This week’s installment of Law & Order: SVU took an unflinching look at a “He Said/She Said” case involving a high-school senior and a virginal freshman — with no happy ending to be found.

Series star Mariska Hargitay directed the installment — her third for the NBC procedural — in which Abby (Charlie Ray) never said “No” to a sexual encounter with Chris (Sean Grandillo) during a high-school dance, but never offered her consent, either.

“A Misunderstanding” explored shy Abby’s feeling of near paralysis during the encounter, Chris’ failure to read her cues, Abby’s continuing text and in-person relationship with Chris in the days following the assault, and Chris’ participation in a senior-class competition attempting to deflower the biggest number of virgins.

Both sides of the case raised uncomfortable questions — “he had no idea you’d had a bad evening until the police arrived at his door,” insisted the defense attorney; “did you ever hear a yes?” asked ADA Barba. But the hour ended with Chris getting convicted of sexual misconduct in the first degree, winding up on the sexual-offender registry and losing his spot at Stanford, and Abby regretting her decision to report the rape in the first place, seeing how she ended up ostracized by her friends and classmates.

TVLine caught up with Hargitay to discuss how she approached the episode from behind the camera and how she viewed the characters’ journeys.

TVLINE | You’ve directed one episode each of the past two seasons. Did you enter Season 17 knowing you wanted to get behind the camera again?
I certainly knew I wanted to direct again. It’s great to have a few under my belt now; the other side of the camera is starting to feel more familiar. I went into the season knowing I didn’t just want to direct one [installment] like the previous seasons, but that I’d challenge myself and try to direct two. “A Misunderstanding” is the first of the season. I love directing, and feel the same way I did when I first fell in love with acting. Much the same way, it felt very natural and organic to me.

TVLINE | How did you approach the central he said/she said arc of the episode as a director? Did you “take a side” in your mind, or is it easy to see both perspectives?
My job was to allow the characters to tell the story. They all feel justified in their points of view, so we all committed to getting and giving the fullest, most truthful performances. I think the episode gives us a strong perspective of [whichever] character [is] in front of us in the scene. When we hear the girl’s side of it, we feel her pain and want justice for her. When we hear his side of it, we understand that he is so misguided and dominated by the macho culture he’s in, he is genuinely caught off guard. He has no idea he even did something wrong until it escalates to the police. So we didn’t need to draw a line, per se, but more relevantly it brought up how the lines aren’t yet drawn in our culture — and the very crucial need to draw them for all parties involved.

TVLINE | Tackling the idea of sexual consent — the evolving case law in various states, the fact that some teenagers may not even be aware of what it means — seems like a heavy and complicated jumping-off point for an hour of TV. What was the most daunting part of directing this episode? Which scene was toughest for you to shoot?
For the show, the most daunting part is always recreating the scenes where someone is sexually assaulted. Not just because it asks a lot of the performers — and in the episode, Charlie Ray and Sean Grandillo, were immensely brave and giving — but because for the story we’re telling, we needed to maintain the ambiguity of what happened. To her, it is manifestly rape, and [it is important] that we understand that she was raped. And for him, [it is important to realize] that he has no awareness of that fact. If that scene didn’t exactly show both those sides, the entire remainder of the episode’s thesis falls apart. But even on set and even watching the cut of the episode, there were debates between the creative team about what we just saw. That’s what we’re hoping to spark, so I think it was effective.

TVLINE | What kind of preparation/research did you do to prepare for the episode — or do you rely solely on the script and your own creative energy to guide you?
I use research on SVU. But when I direct, I study it like someone might for a test. It helps, too, that I’ve been working on this show for 17 years and have the Joyful Heart Foundation [which helps survivors of sexual assualt], so I have an intimate knowledge of the subject matter.

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  1. I love whenever she gives interviews. She talks so eloquently & you can feel her passion with the subject matter. She’s had this job as long as most people have their normal ones, which is not something you can say for most actors. I also do quite love the approach she took with this episode, that it wasn’t a straight down the side of one pov, but you got to see both.

  2. Tori says:

    This show needs to bow out. Terrible.

  3. Mark says:

    These consent laws are out of control.

  4. Meghan says:

    Love reading interviews with Mariska. She is an amazing actress and now director.

  5. Randi Ruffin says:

    So was this case based “loosely” on a case in Daphne, AL???? I’m so sad to see this type of media/SVU episode exposing and exploitation of this story when the case is still pending without factual evidence ???? There is so much unanswered questions ……

    • CoCoMo says:

      I would have thought it was loosely based on the similar case at the Concors NH prep school St Pauls. The case concluded last year in a slightly amiguous way as well. Perhaps there are more examples of regional cases like this than we thought.

    • K says:

      From what I recall of the alleged facts of the case in Daphne, that’s a much clearer case of rape. There can’t be consent without consciousness. This seems much more likely to be the St. Paul’s case.

    • Upset says:

      As the mother of both boys and girls, I found this episode really disturbing. I think there were big mistakes made by both teens. There was no clear no said by Abby but Chris was so wrong to pursue membership in this disgusting club. I don’t think his misjudgment warrants ruining his very promising and previously unblemished life. I think we can safely conclude that he would never do this sort of thing again. So sad for both!

      • AngieD says:

        I think that’s part of the point of the episode. at least 2 young lives ruined because society still says it’s rape only if she says no and where boys aren’t taught that sleeping with any girl is not a game. When I read about the boys charged with pursuing girls solely for a notch on the bedpost, I often wonder if they have sisters and think about how they would feel if their sister or a close friend was treated to the same disrespect they are conducting. I’ve heard that a lot of college campuses have conducted seminars for freshman about defining ‘rape’ and many are instituting polices that state that consent must be given knowingly and without undue pressure.

        For the TV character, his life is ruined for a misjudgement, that’s what leads to most youthful errors. Why did he think it was ok to be part of a club that deliberately sought out the virginities of underaged girls? That’s the tragedy IMHO. We talk to kids about not driving drunk, but kids still do – that’s a misjudgement because they have the knowledge that drunk driving is bad. To not know that ‘hunting’ a girl’s virginity , that’s more than a misjudgement by the boy – it’s also in indictment of his society.

  6. Zoe says:

    This was honestly one of my favorite episodes of the season. It was subtle, thought-provoking and engaging. Well-acted, too.

  7. CBNT says:

    Episode excellent. I find it interesting that some people who say they do not like SVU, whenever they can insist on denigrating show. If I do not like a show, I do not see it. The angry fans Meloni, whenever they can, ask for the cancellation of the show. And put a thousand defects Mariska, as if she were guilty of the output of Meloni. By the way, the show now has a beautiful actor, Peter Scanavino (Carisi). The stories are now deeper and realistic. Kelly Gidish is also great and Mariska is like wine: the more time passes, the better it is. She continues beautiful.

  8. Tim says:

    Really enjoyed tonight’s episode. My wife and I had a great discussion about the complexity of the situation. This is why we love SVU.

  9. Gillian Gardner says:

    I found the episode powerful, yet sad that teens are not made aware and not taught by parents and teachers, that it doesn’t matter what your peer group says, only you are responsible for your actions. The lines do need to be drawn and the episode highlighted how two lives were ruined through lack of knowledge, understanding and peer group pressure. Marvellous job even though it is a disturbing topic.