Law & Order: Criminal Intent – To the Bone

I’m scared of Whoopi Goldberg.

It’s only temporary. I’ve known she was a fine dramatic actor ever since The Color Purple, but she plays quite possibly the most chilling criminal in the entire Law & Order franchise in an episode called “To the Bone.” The episode also shows women relating to men in ways other than mom, victim or lover, so there’s a lot to talk about. Spoilers below the “more” tag.

Despite the length of this, some elements of the story have been left out: if you want more story details, just ask.

Barek (Annabella Sciorra) and Logan (Chris Noth) are investigating two home invasions in which entire families were slaughtered with machetes, a child was brutally tortured until he gave up his rich friends’ addresses, another child was sodomized with a tennis racket, and small valuable (easily fenced) art pieces were stolen. Whoever’s behind this is clever and vicious, and the clock is ticking.

They get a lead on one of the perpetrators, a young man who turns out to be a former foster child of Goldberg’s character, Chesley Watkins. She a well-respected woman who once ran a foster agency and now raises foster kids – only boys, because “boys listen to their mothers”. Her “boys”, as she constantly calls them, are extremely well-mannered, and one of them even went on to become a cop. But it turns out they’re so under her control that even after they’ve left her care she’s manipulating them into committing these hideous crimes so she can fence the goods to pay for her upkeep. Her source of income was until recently the fostering, which she’d done without taking the usual psychiatric exam (she got a pass on that because she’d run a foster agency). Now the state has demanded that everyone take the exam, and they’ve stopped sending her boys because she hasn’t taken it.

This is bad. It means she’s crazy, she knows she’s crazy, and she doesn’t care.

If it was just about money, she could’ve gotten that through less horrific criminal methods. No, she has a need to destroy others in the course of getting what she wants: the families, her boys (more on this later), and eventually Mike Logan. She’s a pathological narcissist who sees other people as mere things that should serve her or be destroyed – and Logan was raised by a mother who treated him much the same way. Naturally, Watkins and Logan zero in on each other instantly, in that way abusive people and survivors of abuse do in real life. (By the way, if you know the Angela Lansbury version of The Manchurian Candidate, you can let your memory of her character flesh out Ms. Watkins for you – they’re very similar.)

Watkins sets up two of her former foster “boys” – the one the cops have a lead on and the one who became an undercover cop and has nothing to do with the killings – to be beaten to death by the others at a diner (her motive seems to be the mere possibility these two could be turned on her by police). Barek and Logan are staking the place out, so they intervene when the beating begins. In the confusion, the undercover cop – who’s literally been beaten senseless – fails to identify himself as a cop and swings his gun around until it’s pointed at Barek. Logan shoots him.

The shooting is by the book and he’s almost instantly cleared, but the fact remains: Logan has killed a fellow cop. He’s devastated. In shock, he keeps trying to wander off to the hospital to give blood as a symbolic gesture, and Barek has to babysit him until the scene is secured and Internal Affairs has questioned everyone. Eventually, she drives him to the hospital so he can give blood.

Meanwhile, Watkins senses an opportunity. She holds a press conference in which the boy the cops were watching comes forward to cooperate with police so he can be “cleared”. She expresses her hope that the police will take better care of this boy than they did of her other one. Instead of being cleared, of course, he’s arrested. And while he’s in jail but outside his cell, she or someone under her control stabs him to death.

Her boys are just pawns. She makes them commit crimes for her, then disposes of them when she feels like it. Women like this do exist in real life, but on-screen this level of power abuse is usually relegated to men. Why? On TV, women are almost never shown to have complete control over men – our society is in denial that it’s possible. TV women always have to give up something – usually sex – in order to manipulate men. Chesley Watkins controls and destroys grown men without servicing or appealing to them in any way. What the vixen character sugarcoats, Watkins paints starkly: the imbalanced system we have does not just victimize women.

Watkin’s manipulations don’t work on Logan because he’s already survived someone like her. But in the end, the cops’ only witness is one of her boys that they tricked into turning on her. Rather than testify against her, the boy commits suicide and Watkins gets away with her crimes.There is one other very telling and refreshing sequence. The day after the shooting, Logan is still traumatized but functioning. He’s hardly been out of Barek’s sight since this whole nightmare began. That evening they’re at a restaurant talking about the case. When she announces she’s going home, he remarks that she lives all the way in Brooklyn and his place is just down the street – why not stay there? Barek goes stone cold. He plays innocent by assuring her he’ll take the couch (with a smile that’s anything but innocent), but she says “I don’t believe you have a couch that big” and volunteers to forget what he just suggested “on account of you’re not in your right head”. As an aside, this may be the only investigative drama I know of that would use something like this not to hint at potential romance but to show how troubled one of the partners is.

She leaves. Logan goes to the bar to get another drink, and a woman hits on him – by “hits on”, I mean “asks him to take her home about thirty seconds into the encounter”. He’s all for it… until he realizes how intoxicated she is and tells her “another time”. Then he walks out and makes a call on his cell phone.

Next scene: he’s at the home of Dr. Elizabeth Olivet, the police psychiatrist who counseled him way back in the original series’ second season, after his partner was assassinated. She diagnoses post-traumatic stress disorder and recognizes that his come-on to Barek was really an attempt to “provoke her”. Despite his actions having been correct, he wants someone to punish him because, as he says, “I killed a cop”. Olivet tells him it will simply take time for him to accept what happened. And she points out that ten years ago, he wouldn’t have come to her of his own accord – that represents progress on his part.

This sequence is particularly revealing of Logan, who is undoubtedly the focus of the episode (aside from Watkins – the criminal is always the focus on L&O), but it also say ssomething about all those ways women relate to men that TV and film rarely explore. Barek is a colleague, just like Logan’s previous male partners, and this single hint of him sexualizing her throws the non-sexual aspects of their relationship into even more stark relief: he hits on her because it’s the one thing she won’t tolerate in the extremely forgiving relationship police partners have to maintain. The drunk woman at the bar represents Logan’s attempt to use sex as emotional anesthetic. Symbolically, it fails before it even gets started – as that tactic always does, eventually.

Olivet is the one woman he should be seeing on this crazy night. She understands him, and that’s significant because he’s spent a lifetime trying to keep women from doing that. She’s the only woman in the course of the series he’s allowed to get that close – that might not be clear from this single episode, but for those of us who watched the early seasons, we’re seeing a recall not only of her counseling him after his partner’s death, but of him being the cop she called to report her own rape (in an episode I should probably write about sometime, for handling the subject rather well). There’s a powerful level of intimacy between them, even though they’re not friends or anything outside of work and whatever counseling she’s given him. That intimacy is possible largely because she’s none of the three things most TV women are: a mother figure, a potential lover or a victim to rescue (no, not even in the rape episode). Instead of relying on those lazy characterizations, which Logan’s character has well-established rote reactions to, this show knocks them violently off the table then proceeds to dig deeper. The focus may be Logan, but instead of letting his characterization overshadow that of Watkins, Barek or Olivet, the writers wrote women who could challenge him to grow. Everything this episode reveals about him comes not at the expense of female characterization, but through it.


  1. Purtek says

    Intriguing conclusion. I’ve expressed some frustration lately when the female characters never show interesting growth, but rather shed light on the men, but this does strike me as different. It’s important that the way he’s growing is away from rote reactions to categorized women, and it’s happening because not all the women are meeting his expectations. That’s way different from the TV set up of mother figure/potential love interest/potential victim–even Barek is clearly not actually any of these things, and she refuses to play the game of letting him categorize her so that he will get back to knowing how to relate to the world.

    The scary Whoopi Goldberg villain–I was reading an essay this week that suggests quality female (literary) villains are rare because many male writers haven’t been able to write a woman with any kind of depth at all, hero or villain. Evil women have been too caricatured. But we’re searching for “good” women characters, meaning quality writing, and I can appreciate wishing for more quality evil out there from the women.

  2. Jennifer Kesler says

    Very nicely put, the part about how the women in this refuse to fit into archetypes he knows how to deal with, thereby forcing him to grow. Even Watkins turns out to be tougher than he expects – tougher than his mother.

    I do think it’s important that we begin to see as many shows focusing on fascinating women as men. But on those occasions we do see focus on a woman, the male characters around her are rarely short-changed. This proves that the opposite can be true. It’s a model for how episodes focusing on a man should be done

    For full equality, I think we have to have characters that acknowledge both the real evil and the real heroism and goodness women are capable of – just like in male characters.

    Side note: there’s a school of thought in reality which L&O has referenced (meaning, the writers are aware) that a lot of unsolved murders over the past century may have been committed by women, but because investigators were so busy assuming women don’t (or can’t?) do nasty things like that, they never properly checked out potential female suspects. In all its criminal profiling decades ago, the FBI never even thought to profile any women.

  3. Jennifer Kesler says

    Oh, and one thing I didn’t touch on: was the rape of the boy used as a shortcut to alleged characterization, as rapes of women are so often used just to let us know “This guy’s like rilly rilly bad, ‘kay?”

    The scene where they walk in on his corpse laying there glassy eyed with his pants pulled down – having missed the killing by just an hour – is painful. Both Logan and Rodgers (the medical examiner) seem affected, even as they proceed to ignore the corpse and start looking at evidence around it, like it’s one more prop in the scene.

    What it tells us is that one of Watkins’ boys did this, and he didn’t want the rest of her boys to know it (he took the kid into a separate room). There are also indications the other boys came in on him and fought with him. This DOES actually help the cops sort out who one of the suspects is, which leads to the others, and so on. I think the story required something to distinguish one suspect from the others and create a trail for the cops to follow, but did it have to be rape?

    No; but I suspect the symbolism is that this is, in effect, what Watkins is doing to the boys. She’s overpowering them, controlling them, forcing activities on them, and for their service to her, she pays them back by picking them off one at a time, at her whim.

    If you can imagine a world in which rape wasn’t routinely used as a shortcut to characterization (or a cheap thrill), would the use of it in this story be appropriate? I tend to think so… but I’m divided. If we saw raped men and boys all the time, their brutalizations used as shortcuts, would I feel the same way about this? Or is that even the question I should be asking myself?

  4. Purtek says

    If we saw raped men and boys all the time, their brutalizations used as shortcuts, would I feel the same way about this? Or is that even the question I should be asking myself?

    I think it’s at the very least an extremely good question. One of the most frustrating experiences in real life is that many (if not most) of the high-profile child sexual abuse cases involve the abuse of boys–priests, coaches, etc. Even in childhood, girls are more frequently victimized, and we become immune to the reality of their reactions in a way that we aren’t, so much, to boys. I don’t want to derail too much into statistics or news rather than fictional portrayals, but my point is that no, I don’t think you’d feel the same way if male sexual assault was consistently shorthand for “becoming a victim” the way it is for a woman–but that the horrified response to the real life ones, and recognition of the bigger symbolism in the fictional one, is the way we should react regardless.

    So it is at least one of the questions we need to be asking here–when rape is used sparingly/carefully in plots and when it is part of a complex system of power and domination in the plot (rather than a one-off method of categorizing characters–creating a victim, creating a villain) then our reactions are more powerful and we increase understanding of the dynamics involved. So maybe the “it didn’t need to be rape” factor would have made you feel a lot more cynical if it were a woman, even with all else being identical plot-wise, but that says more about the problem with the portrayal when it’s a woman than with this particular example when it’s a man. Because maybe it doesn’t *have* to be rape, but with both men and women, rape is very often at least *part* of it, so we shouldn’t have to take it off the table entirely.

    I hope I’m making sense. I’m feeling like I’m not making sense.

  5. Jennifer Kesler says

    I’m feeling like I’m not making sense.

    Nah, it’s just one of those subjects. 😀

    In this story, the rape scene was clearly reinforced how vulnerable these fostered boys were to this woman: at least one of them had come from an environment where he was abused in the way he’s now abused this victim, and Watkins is all that stood between him and further abuse.

    In a sense, the victim is used as a prop in the story, but not without the other characters being affected and appalled in a way that acknowledges how wronged he was.

    Had it been a girl, I’m unable to convince myself I’d have seen it differently. Maybe. But I don’t think so.

  6. Purtek says

    Had it been a girl, I’m unable to convince myself I’d have seen it differently.

    I can’t say whether you would have or not, but I certainly think it’s worth asking the question, because it lets us get a lot more depth on why we have such problems with the TV portrayal of sexual violence against women. I don’t think my reaction would have been any different either, because I think they did a lot *right* that usually gets missed when it’s a woman.

  7. b says

    It is revealed in a law and order episode that Dr. Olivet had sex with and began relationship with Logan while she was counseling him…

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