“What would Peter have done?” Last night’s episode revolved around the question of whether the most beloved Democrat in the world (the fictional, unseen Joe Kent) had been attacking female masseuses in hotel rooms on his way to winning a Nobel Peace Prize for work with his women in Africa. But what really resonated was the question of whether Peter would have tried to make Alicia drop her case representing one of the victims in order to secure Kent’s endorsement. Or, later, having secured the endorsement, ordered her to call off the case to avoid being dragged down in the muck of a man who’d be labeled a sexual deviant if Alicia went forward. Peter never had to make the hard choice, but that he even saw the decision before him, between his wife and his career, represents a truly remarkable character progression. How in one season did this guy go from being a dude who slept with prostitutes and left his wife a life of public humiliation and jail visits to someone we’re actually rooting for? Credit Chris Noth, we guess. He got us to like Mr. Big, somehow, didn’t he?
Structurally, this episode was a nice change of pace, taking place over an intense four hours while Peter, Eli, and most of the firm were still at the Cook County Bar Association fund-raiser from the previous episode. But didn’t it feel like watching your favorite show get hijacked by Law and Order: SVU? (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!) The case was straight-up ripped from the headlines of the Al Gore masseuse-attacking scandal. Was Lara, the VIP masseuse who said Kent attacked her, telling the truth or just a young girl desperate for money? The mere act of taking the case required absolute certainty that Kent was guilty, because going after a “secular saint” like that and being wrong would be self-immolation.
And while we respected the drama of the situation and the accruing of little details — particularly from Kent’s efforts to squash the suit, which left little doubt that he had attacked Lara that night and attacked other masseuses many times before — there was something about the episode that just fell flat. That something was likely the large amount of screen time given over to Natalie Knepp as Lara. She was on the right track in trying to separate Lara from your typical crying, sympathetic sexual-assault victim. But her interpretation of Lara as a hardened college dropout scraping away in the kill-or-be-killed world of VIP masseurs seemed to run counter to the script, which required her also to be the kind of girl who says, “ … and I was like … ” or “ … and I was all … ” as a matter of course in her conversation. One can’t be that precise and deliberate of a speaker and still have speech cluttered with “likes” and other colloquialisms. It’s just not believable, and since the Kings have rarely led us wrong with their scripting, we can only point to Knepp. You could see her acting. And once you feel like you’re watching an actor instead of a character, it becomes really hard to care what happens to Lara, whether or not Joe Kent did it, which he most certainly did.
Not liking or believing Lara as a person also undercut the most interesting element of the case, which was not Kent’s actions (asking for a massage of the inside thigh, exposing his penis, throwing her on the bed, ripping her sweater, inserting his finger where it shouldn’t go), but that the people most ready to believe Lara was a liar were all women. She’s come to Alicia looking for sympathy, and Alicia’s first reaction is to believe she’s a scam artist. Diane, too, is certain Lara is out to make a quick buck or has some tie to the Republican party, until evidence starts piling up: a towel Kent ejaculated on, another masseuse whom Kent attacked but who never pressed charges. Most devastating is Mrs. Kent’s eleventh-hour woman-to-woman phone call to Diane. (BTW, was that Emily Gilmore’s voice on the line?) Bring this suit and you destroy the lives of the thousands of women Joe Kent is saving in Congo, is the implication. “This woman, what is she? Who is she? … The world needs my husband,” Mrs. Kent says, effectively admitting that she doesn’t care whether her husband is guilty. Should a great man’s personal actions matter if he’s doing great work? And it’s this atmosphere of assured vilification that ultimately leads Lara not to pursue the case. “Everything you went through, all the press, all the people talking about you. Was it hard?” she asks Alicia, who, in one of her few self-reflective moments admits that, yes, it was. It’s powerful stuff, women bullying one of their own, but would it have been more powerful if the actress playing Lara had seemed the kind of woman who actually might have female friends? Or was that a calculated move by the Kings, to make us as viewers experience the same instinctual distrust that Diane and Alicia feel?
Also disappointing on the acting front was Scott Porter’s Blake, whom Diane conscripted to look into Lara and her motives and then report back to Diane and Diane alone. His investigative style is rudimentary and thuggish. Whereas Kalinda tricks a hotel housekeeper into providing her with Kent’s garbage, Blake just breaks into Lara’s apartment with a crowbar. Finding a giant envelope of money in a drawer, he pockets it, seemingly for himself. And when he gets a massage from Lara’s roommate in order to find out if Lara is the kind of masseur who gives out happy endings, it seems perfectly plausible that he would take a happy ending if the roommate had offered. Up till now, Blake has been a nimble, intriguingly devious foil to Kalinda, but what happened last night felt like watching someone beat a timpani with a sledgehammer. It was so distracting we nearly forgot that Blake was working on the case owing to the very neat development of Diane exploiting Derrick’s slow erosion in trust for Blake, and sending Blake on a secret mission, just like she’d sent Kalinda on a secret mission to investigate Will’s ties to Derrick. It’s marvelous to see Diane’s calculating mind and power-jockeying at work, but we’re worried about how Blake’s character is going from mysterious and sexy to simply amateur-sleuth asshole.
There were redeeming moments, though. Foremost was the hilariously pretentious stage show at the fund-raiser. It started off with a poetry reading and ended with Chinese opera, but the pièce de résistance was the Steppenwolf Theatre Company performing scenes from their hit show, The Cow With No Country, seemingly about a cow who enlists in the Army. To the sound of grenades dropping and helicopters flying overhead, a naïve farmer to an abstract cow costume, “Moo cow, you’re not just a cow. You’re my friend, moo cow.” It was awesome. And the intercutting between the stage show — and various characters making fun of it — and Alicia’s meetings with Lara back at the office was what saved this from indeed becoming an episode of SVU.
Also reliably great was Eli plotting out Peter’s campaign throughout the gala. When he closed out the last week’s episode with the harried question, “Who is Wendy Scott-Carr?!” he gave us a fright: How could the mighty Eli not know who this woman was? Wouldn’t he have wiretapped her home the second she got on staff in Glenn Childs’s office? Thankfully, he quickly rectifies that assumption. He knows who she is. But who IS she? is what he wants to know. She’s a formidable foe, running on an anti-legacy, bring-back-integrity campaign, as we soon learn. “Her granddad was at Selma,” Eli tells Peter with a roll of his eyes, and then continues to be masterfully astute. When Vernon Jordan (playing himself) pretends to have forgotten about a lunch date he has with Peter, Eli knows exactly what happened: “You’ve got endorsement issues,” he tells Peter. “Vernon Jordan might be in play.” So Eli attempts a back-door deal to sign Scott-Carr onto Peter’s ticket as his deputy state’s attorney. She shoots him down. The whole point of running was to rid the department of corrupt incumbency, she says. “I want to be able to look my daughters in the face.” We want to make a poster of Eli’s look of derision and tack it up to our cubicle wall.
It’s also particularly satisfying to see Peter shoot down Kent’s bastard of a lawyer (who’s just gotten in a fistfight with Will) when he offers Kent’s endorsement in exchange for Peter getting Alicia to drop the case. A Kent endorsement solves Peter’s problems with women voters (owing to that whole hooker thing) in one move, so it’s huge when he tells the guy, “You can tell him that I hope my wife rips him apart. I think she will, because she’s a good lawyer.” But when Kent endorses him anyway as a way of forcing Peter’s hand, it’s not entirely clear that he’ll be able to choose Alicia over his political aspirations again, particularly since he’s been sitting at this event all night holding Alicia’s phone, struggling not to listen to Will’s “let’s drop it” voice mail from the season premiere. Will’s new lady love, Tammy, tells Peter that Will won’t fall in love with her because he’s already in love with someone else. “People fall out of love all the time. Then they fall in love with somebody else,” Peter replies. Ah, so he knows. And it’s pretty clear he’s ready to fight for Alicia if he has to.
Meanwhile, we like where this Tammy character is going. She loves the Bulls, she’s a terrific liar, and she sexily rips off Will’s bow tie and publicly makes out with him in a manner entirely inappropriate for a work function while telling him she’ll leave him the second he falls in love with her. (We see right through your little games, missy.) And Cary gets a thankful reprieve from his wounded-rat revenge mode by sending Lara to Alicia after Childs turns down the case for no other motive than because it’s a good case. He even clues her into the other assaulted masseuse. But we think our favorite character moment had to be watching Diane going from Kent’s staunch defender to understanding that all men are scum. “The goal is not to have heroes,” she says, downing scotch after hanging up on a pleading Mrs. Kent. “I thought the goal was to die with the most money,” Will replies. Or maybe it’s just to get through a misstep of an episode like this one without turning your back on your favorite show. It was a tough one, but we all made it, even if Diane doesn’t have heroes anymore.