Special Victims Unit

Illustration by Dienstelle 75Photo: Adam Larkey/courtesy of ABC

I had my doubts when I heard that Private Practice was planning a story arc in which a major character would be raped. In publicity for the episode, it was pitched as something like a PSA: important, educational. Instead, it sounded like a familiar TV phenomenon—the titillating gimmick wrapped in do-gooderism.

And yet, by the time the credits rolled, I’d changed my mind, mostly. Like Grey’s Anatomy, the spinoff Private Practice fits into a curious TV genre: the auteurist melodrama. It’s a medical soap opera, structured like any procedural, but each line is stamped with the voice of its creator, Shonda Rhimes—who returns, almost musically, to certain obsessions, from workaholism to mistress psychology, and who has built a distinct ensemble of spiky, intimacy-averse heroines. Before last week, I’d never been a fan of her shows. But I found myself wondering if there are some stories for which melodrama makes sense, if sometimes there’s more truth in opera than haiku.

Still, the opening sequence made me nervous—tinkly classical piano, a shaky camera stalking a beaten woman, her bloody hands wiping on a glass door. In quick, bold strokes, we learned that Charlotte (the classic Rhimes heroine: a self-reliant, sharp-tongued Southerner, played by KaDee Strickland) had been raped by a stranger. She insisted it was only a mugging. She refused a rape kit. She told one other doctor, Addison (Kate Walsh), but insisted Addison tell no one, including Charlotte’s fiancé.

In the tradition of Grey’s Anatomy, every element was over-the-top: a vicious beating, a psychotic stranger, and a woman so tough she took 50 stitches without medication. And yet, in the scenes that followed, there was power, even nuance, amid the heightened dialogue. When Charlotte’s fiancé showed up, drunk and confused (he’d been at a bar), Charlotte ended up comforting him. There was subtle peripheral drama, particularly among the women, who shot one another glances, suspecting what had happened. There was the question of whether she’d been wearing underpants. There was the painful pelvic exam.

In the episode’s climactic sequence, Charlotte confronts Addison, who wants her to file charges. In what felt like Rhimes’s own mission statement, Charlotte contrasted her rape with those in “made-for-TV movies.” In these gauzy victim narratives, she says, the woman rocks in the shower crying; during the rape, her eyes go blank and she dissociates. “It’s nothing like that,” she tells Addison bitterly. “It’s dirty and sweaty and he licks your face and he wipes himself off in your hair and when you try to scream he punches you so hard you see God.”

Of course, this was a made-for-TV narrative. Despite Strickland’s remarkable performance, you could feel plot gears turning—the rapist would be set free, he might threaten another woman, there could be a trial by the season finale. But there was also, in Charlotte’s angry testimony, an attempt at making the story truly explicit, and not only in the prurient sense. Because for all the publicity this particular episode has generated, it’s not as if there’s a shortage of raped women on network television. They’re the silent fodder that fuels CSI and Law & Order, although on these shows (with some exceptions, like Law & Order: SVU), the victims have mere cameos, often as half-naked corpses.

Charlotte’s speech was affecting, but it also had a chiding quality, suggesting her drama was the only authentic one. In this sense, her timing was off. In the past decade, cable dramas—The Sopranos, Mad Men, Sons of Anarchy, and Dexter among them—have featured multiple plots in which central characters have been raped. On The Sopranos, David Chase buried Dr. Melfi’s rape under the surface of the show, leaving the audience pulsing for years with a never-answered desire for revenge. On Sons of Anarchy, Gemma was deliberately raped by her motorcycle gang’s enemies—and when she refused to tell for strategic reasons, she suffered the psychological consequences. On Mad Men, Joan didn’t consider what happened to her a rape at all, then went on to marry her rapist.

This season’s Dexter plot also features a rape survivor, the fifth in the show’s series of symbolic “partners” for the eponymous serial killer. Like Private Practice, Dexter only looks like a procedural. Beneath its sleek surfaces, it’s a brilliant, unnerving allegory about male violence, and the new character, Lumen (played by Julia Stiles), operates on several levels. She’s poised to be a rebound relationship for Dexter, who is now a widower; she’s also a younger, female mirror of him, a woman made violent by violence. Most notably, she’s an iconic victim—the pretty, vulnerable blonde. In the season’s most unsettling scene, Dexter was forced to kidnap Lumen just as her rapists had, leaving her gasping at the side of the road in terror. It was a queasy relief when she became a vigilante instead, insisting on destroying the men who’d hurt her.

These stories vary dramatically. But it’s peculiar that each shares with Private Practice this motif of a tough woman who tries to power through her trauma, a notion by now as fetishized as any notion of fragility. It’s a plot twist with a prismatic ambiguity: You can view it as realistic (because it’s true that few women report their rapes), as perversely affirming (there’s a Wild West stoicism to these women, like cowboys who shrug off a beating), or as troubling—however great these series are, there’s something punitive about seeing a succession of strong women who are ravaged and then go silent.

Private Practice wasn’t perfect. The police scenes felt like melodrama of the greasier kind. (It didn’t help that Charlotte’s rapist was played by Nicholas Brendon, a.k.a. Xander from Buffy—what’s up with the sweet nerds as rapists? It wasn’t so long ago that Brian Krakow date-raped Felicity’s friend.) By the time he broke under interrogation—spilling excuses like “she had it coming”—it was clear the guy was mentally ill, and thus not responsible for his actions, which gave the episode significantly less weight and realism.

The other part that made me twitch with discomfort was the final sequence, in which Charlotte—fragile, furious, exposed—walked the gauntlet of the hospital staff. As that classical piano played, the present was intercut with flashbacks to the rape, some in close-up (Charlotte’s screaming face), some from a distance. You could feel the producers struggling to find a visual vocabulary to break through the clichés. But no matter how well-intentioned the people behind the camera are, a rape scene is also a sex scene. And TV shows are, by their nature, fantasies. This scene wasn’t sexy, but there was a part of me that thought the bolder move would be not to show it at all.

Private Practice
Thursdays at 10 p.m.

Special Victims Unit