It’s been nearly nine months since the Empire actor and singer Jussie Smollett first told Chicago police that two strange men had slipped a noose around his neck while calling him racist and homophobic slurs. The incident was quickly revealed to be a hoax, reportedly staged by Smollett himself, with the help of two men he knew. The reversal caused an uproar: Smollett was arrested and indicted on multiple counts of disorderly conduct (the charges were later controversially dropped); celebrities (including those who had initially supported him) condemned him; President Donald Trump tweeted about it.
And now the saga has taken on new life, loosely inspiring a ripped-from-the-headlines episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit—albeit one that was far more nuanced on the subject of false reporting than viewers might have expected. “Down Low in Hell’s Kitchen,” which aired last night, begins with Detective Olivia Benson (played by Mariska Hargitay) finding out that several black men have been assaulted while leaving gay bars in the New York City neighborhood. The men aren’t reporting the grievous crimes because they have wives and children—or, as Detective Fin Tutuola (Ice-T) regressively phrases it, “They’re on the low.”
The tide turns when a high-profile singer named Mathis Brooks (L. Steven Taylor) comes forward to police as the fourth victim. He eventually agrees to testify and speaks publicly about being gay for the first time on social media, as well as in press conferences. His cooperation helps the police catch their suspect, but Mathis isn’t able to identify his assailant, despite having previously said he’d seen the man’s face. Other holes appear in his story, and it soon becomes clear that he staged the encounter after learning of the serial attacker’s M.O. Benson angrily remarks that Mathis has “poisoned the well” for the real victims, and the singer is roundly denounced by the public. (Among other things, the hashtag #MathisMadeItUp trends on Twitter.)
“Down Low in Hell’s Kitchen” concludes far more neatly than the story that inspired it. Law & Order: SVU directly addresses the phenomenon of staged attacks through Benson, who tells Detective Carisi (Peter Scanavino), “False reporting is extremely rare. We keep this in the news, and survivors are going to be afraid that they won’t be believed.” It’s worth noting that SVU has a long history of portraying law enforcement in an overwhelmingly, and often unrealistically, positive light. But it’s still refreshing to hear Benson say this outright, and to see the series take on such a polarizing real-world case without leaning into its most sensational elements or suggesting that stories like Mathis’s (and, by extension, Smollett’s) are by any means common. The detectives and the district attorney’s office work together to maintain the trust of those who came forward.
In a surprising move, the episode extends some empathy to Mathis, despite the fact that he almost jeopardized the investigation and that his deception might deter other victims of sexual assault from coming forward. In the episode’s final scene, Fin (who has had a complicated relationship with his gay son) speaks to the troubled singer not with anger, but with the tone of a disappointed father. “Look, I don’t know why you did what you did, but it’s coming from a bad place … ” Fin says. “See, I know something was done to you. It ain’t about this time, it ain’t about this thing, but you gotta deal with whatever happened to you in your past that brought you here. That’s on you.” And with that exchange, SVU ties up a thread it had woven throughout the episode: All the gay men caught up in this web had wrestled in some way with intense shame—or direct victimization—because of their sexuality.
The threat of being outed looms over the men involved in the case. The attacker, who doesn’t identify as gay, takes a plea deal rather than submitting to an open trial that would publicize a photo of him with one of his victims (during an earlier, consensual encounter). That same victim hadn’t initially shared the photo, or the accompanying story, with police because he was fearful of speaking candidly about his sexual liaisons with men. Another victim, who also presents as heterosexual, tells the detectives he can’t speak up about his experience because his “two worlds must run on separate tracks.” Mathis, for his part, apparently concocted his elaborate scheme in part because he received word that TMZ would soon be outing him anyway, potentially hurting his career and his relationships with his family.
The “down low” is a dated concept, which connotes a sense of deception that can stigmatize the actions of gay (and bisexual) men, especially those who are black. And SVU is still, well, SVU: The episode has no shortage of familiar zingers and lurid crime descriptions, and culminates with a relatively simple resolution to a complex problem. Even so, the show maintains a remarkable level of compassion for the victims in question, and viewers can find some comfort in that.