In October, NBC announced Law and Order: SVU would tackle the Duggar family scandal. In spite of almost never watching SVU, I immediately knew this episode would capture my attention. (Gee, I wonder why?)
No other reality TV family has broadcast as many lies, secrets and falsehoods as the Duggars. They are the perfect public figures to build a standard, ripped-from-the-headlines, whodunit narrative around. But this episode of SVU presents an elaborate fantasy. The path the fictional patriarch and matriarch take to healing and redemption is unlikely to ever unfold in the real world space the Duggars occupy.
The episode “Patrimonial Burden” follows the fallout after the 13-year-old daughter of an Evangelical reality TV family falls pregnant. We meet the Baker family, stars of Baker’s Dozen (someone at TLC wishes they had pitched this show) as they gather in New York City for daughter Lane’s Virtue Ball.
The Bakers are eerily similar to the Duggars. Shots of the family exiting a bus echoes 19 Kids and Counting’s constantly expanding opening sequence.
There’s an older, married daughter happily displaying how the family’s beliefs have been perfect for her. There’s a kind of a creepy teenage brother and too many younger kids whose names you’ll never bother to learn. Most importantly, the Baker daughters crave patriarchal approval because as Frank Baker says in voiceover: “it is important for girl to feel love and acceptance. If she’s not getting that from her father, she seeks it from other men.”
The Virtue Ball is reminiscent of the many ceremonies featured on 19 Kids and Counting. Tons of people (seriously, where do all these Evangelicals come from?) gather in a church room and proclaim their religious beliefs for everyone to see. Interestingly enough, the Duggar daughters were never subjected to a Virtue Ball. The key element that made the Duggars relatable and maintained their show’s longevity was the masking of the most extreme aspects of their Evangelicalism. Instead, Quiverfull beliefs about a woman’s purity and place are relegated to the many episodes focused on courtship, marriage and pregnancy. (See episodes: “Duggar Dating Rules,” “Duggar Daughter Dates”.)
Now for the scandal. Lane collapses at the Virtue Ball and is rushed to the hospital. Doctors discover she is three months pregnant, which brings the SVU team in to investigate. Just like that, SVU finds themselves embroiled in a cray cray situation with more turns than anyone saw coming.
Unsurprisingly the Bakers refuse to comply with the police investigation, preferring to keep Lane’s pregnancy under wrap. Their spiritual advisor Pastor Eldon arrives and assures SVU that the family and their local law enforcement will handle the situation. Privately.
Back at SVU HQ, Detective Benson (Mariska Hargitay) wonders why the Bakers are afraid of outsiders investigating Lane’s statutory rape. Are they just protecting the kids? As Detective Rollins (Kellie Giddish) wisely points out, the Bakers are more likely protecting their brand because: “Look at what happened to the Duggars. Word gets out that one of those virgin Baker daughters is knocked up, there goes the TV show, the book deal, the multi-million dollar chastity empire.”
The interplay between insular religious communities and reality television is fascinating. Without their religion, families like the Duggars would not be subjects of a reality show empire and would not have built a “family like a company“. In turn, they can’t support the megasized families Evangelism eagerly encourages. (Most Quiverfull families live in poverty.) The public Evangelical-family brand – consisting of tv shows, blogs, and books – functions as both subtle and extreme Evangelical messaging. Once any cracks in the facade are revealed, then the brand becomes unsustainable.
Detective Rollins digs through the Baker family’s website to find the necessary clues for solving the case. The detectives focus on people in the Baker family’s inner circle, including the reality show’s cameraman. The investigation takes SVU to the family’s close-knit town in Catskills, where the presence of patriarchal figures loom. But is the sketchy cameraman the actual culprit?
After all, this is Law and Order. The show is a master at crafting the perfect whodunit and there will always be several plot twists throughout an episode. When the cameraman’s alibi checks out (thanks vasectomy!), the detectives begin finding many disturbing secrets about the Bakers. Did the teenage Baker son father his sister’s secret baby? Eek. (Now that’s one way to one up Josh Duggar.) Still the Bakers, under the guidance of their pastor/lawyer, won’t reveal information that could harm their family.
Then Detective Benson makes the ultimate power move: she appeals to matriarch Pam.
Benson uses this tactic quietly throughout the investigation. She is empowering Pam to take the initiative she’s not allowed to have. It is the only way Benson vis-a-vis Pam can help and protect the Baker daughters. But will this tactic work?
DNA evidence reveals Pastor Eldon to be the father and the detectives race to upstate New York and find this scene.
Creepy Pastor Eldon, the rapist of two Baker daughters, has agreed to marry Lane and protect her. The previously clueless parents are filled in on the good pastor’s lies and they flip out. Especially Mama Baker. She ignores Pastor Eldon’s command that she obey her husband and declares that she and her daughters will testify. However, the best moment comes after Pastor Eldon says the Bakers will want to protect their reality show. Pam Baker is having none of it.
With this moment, the Baker family begins to heal and their brand (probably) gets to stay in tact.
Yet how Law and Order: SVU used the Duggar scandal to address abuse in Evangelical churches is a complete fantasy. In fact, Pastor Eldon being revealed as Lane Baker’s rapist is hardly a major plot twist. In Evangelical churches, the psychological and sexual abuse of women is rampant. The community goes to great lengths to protect abusers like Josh Duggar. The only way to change this, as evidenced by the many heartbreaking victim testimonies, is to leave the church and speak out. As the SVU episode concludes, we never get a sense if the Bakers are leaving their church.
“Patrimonial Burden” demonstrates what Evangelical churches fear the most. By giving women agency, the most powerful abusers will go to jail and a church built on keeping women in their place falls into disarray. No practicing Evangelical will probably see this episode of Law and Order.
What happens to these Evangelical circles after scandal is more interesting than the scandal itself. For the Duggars, the public show is still going on. Jill and Jessa: Counting On premieres in December. Believe me, I’ll be watching.