Law and Order: Special Victims Unit is the longest running scripted, non-animated, prime-time show on TV. A lot of qualifiers to be sure, but it’s still pretty impressive. With its tendency to derive inspiration from real events, and to put forward alternate reality versions of them, the show often manages to hit home a lot harder than some of its contemporaries. Since the show focuses almost entirely on sexual-based offenses, which, as the show points out, are considered especially heinous, the episodes can be particularly unnerving.
While the show, focused on an NYPD special crime division, had a solid core cast (Mariska Hargitay, Christopher Meloni, Ice-T, Richard Belzer, Diane Neal, Adam Beach, B.D. Wong, Tamara Tunie, and Dann Florek, to name a few), it also had enough clout to get some good guest stars, and this episode is one of them.
Robin Williams can do dark. One-hour Photo showed that he knows how to do creepy. This episode shows him doing borderline insanely dark. This episode features Robin Williams as Merritt Rook, a sound engineer who is brought in after convincing people to do increasingly illegal or immoral or questionable things by pretending to be a police officer over the phone. This is also one of the “ripped from the headlines” episodes of SVU. Someone in real life actually convinced managers of restaurants and other businesses to conduct strip-searches of female employees, or similar humiliating acts, just by claiming to be a cop over the phone. This happened more than 70 times, which makes the point of this episode a bit more pressing.
The best part of the set-up is that the cops call several people who they suspect in connection with the telephone scam, and run into a large number of different voices… who “Mrs. Doubtfire” fans will recognize as all being Robin Williams playing wildly different personas. They actually incorporated that aspect of Williams into his character in the episode, and it lends a lot of credibility to the idea that he could pull off this scam. By constantly pretending to be other people, Rook was able to keep providing his own alibis. When it falls apart and he’s brought to court, Rook represents himself as an agent against the mindless following of authority… and wins in a fairly accurate manner (namely, by exploiting the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard).
Rook claims that the point of his acts is to get people to question authority, because believing things like “experts” or “police officers” is just part of society dictating your actions. But, it turns out that the origin of his hatred of authority is from when his wife died because he trusted a doctor’s decision on her care over his own instincts. Seeking revenge, he killed the doctor. The team discovers this and confront Rook as being not a noble leader of alternative perspectives, but a man trying to justify his own bad actions.
After turning his arrest into a spectacle to distract the NYPD, he abducts Det. Olivia Benson (Hargitay), and forces her partner Det. Elliot Stabler (Meloni) to engage in a modified version of the Milgram Experiment, the famous psychology study that supposedly proved that people would almost always cave to authority figures. It didn’t actually prove that, but that’s what it’s known for. The episode ends with Elliot passing the test, and Robin Williams delivering an excellent monologue on how allowing authority to cause us to do things that we know we shouldn’t is what leads to so many unethical actions. He points out that deference to authority also creates people who fail to understand the nature of personal repercussions. Of course, the episode itself points out that, while it is good for some people to defy authority, specifically people who are willing to take responsibility for being wrong when resisting, most people who just “fight the power” are doing it irrationally to justify their own bad impulses. It’s a compact discussion of a bigger issue packaged well within a police procedural, and Williams’ final escape left it open to being retread.
In the saddest addenda to these episodes, so far, when I wrote this entry in 2012, I was hoping to see a follow-up to this episode at some point. As I’m sure everyone remembers, Robin Williams passed away in 2014. He was a brilliant man who brought a lot of people great joy with his performances, both as a comic and an actor. As I write this, I know I’m about to put Good Will Hunting on, and probably follow it up with Aladdin.
Update: I did get a request to do The Fisher King, which was wonderful to analyze. Thank you again, sir.
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Here’s a teaser for the episode:
And here’s one of my favorite scenes he ever did: