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.