Brow Beat

Last Night’s Law and Order: SVU Was the Perfect Dramatization of the Duggars Mess

Still from Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.
Law and Order: SVU takes on the Duggars.

Michael Parmelee/NBC

This post contains spoilers for Law and Order: Special Victims Unit Season 17, Episode 7, “Patrimonial Burden.”

Law and Order: Special Victims Unit fans have awaited a Duggar-inspired episode for months, and on Wednesday night, the show finally delivered a ripped-from-headlines story that followed “the Bakers,” an uber-religious family made famous by a wildly popular reality show called 13aker’s Dozen. (In the Duggars’ case, it was TLC’s 19 Kids and Counting.) The episode was classic Law and Order—a ripped-from-headlines, hyperdramatized story that benefitted from a clever use of plot misdirection.

The episode opens on a “virtue ball” for 13-year-old Baker daughter Lane—through the lens of her family’s show. We meet several family members, including her parents (Frank and Pam), her 15-year-old sister Summer, and her 17-year-old brother Graham. What’s supposed to be a joyful ceremony in which Lane promises to stay a virgin until she marries goes awry when Lane passes out—after which it’s revealed she’s pregnant. The SVU detectives know that getting the family to cooperate won’t be easy. “Look what happened with the Duggars,” junior detective Amanda Rollins notes. “Word gets out that one of those virgin Baker daughters is knocked up, there goes the TV show, the book deal.” It’s the only time the episode name-checks its inspiration.

A creepy cameraman quickly becomes the first suspect, but Law and Order fans—or anyone who read about the Duggar family’s story—knows the real one to watch is her brother Graham. Josh Duggar, after all, was the one who his parents confirmed molested four of his younger sisters—two of whom have come forward as victims.

But the writers weren’t going to give up the story that easily. And in a surprising twist, after Graham becomes the second suspect, accused of impregnating both Lane and Summer, it turns out he was just another red herring. (To be clear, Josh Duggar has not been accused of intercourse with his sisters.) The real perp is the family’s priest—a complete departure from reality.

To be clear, Graham is no saint—in a Duggar-ish subplot, he was sent away to a religious reform camp for inappropriately touching his sister. But Law and Order knows that its fans know the formula by now—so they exploited that formula, along with our real-life knowledge of the story, to take the story in a more surprising and equally creepy direction. And by making the guilty party the family’s priest, the show subtly shifted blame from the family or one individual human to a staunch and dogmatic religious system instead. It was a clever move that perhaps reflects how we should think about Josh Duggar himself—certainly a monstrous perpetrator, but, as some have argued, a victim in his own right.