'Law & Order: SVU' - 'Criminal Stories': Alec Baldwin nails it in Mariska Hargitay's directorial debut

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That Alec Baldwin can play a cocky, know-it-all New Yorker should not be a surprise. 

That he can do so as a newspaper columnist with an innate sense of decency and play him quietly -- against type -- is.

In "Criminal Stories," Wednesday's (March 19) episode of "Law & Order: SVU," Mariska Hargitay makes her directorial debut and the episode is flawless. Baldwin is Jimmy MacArthur of the New York Ledger and is modeled after great tabloid columnists like Pete Hamill, Jimmy Breslin and Mike McAlary.

Mac visits the squad room to do a profile of Benson (Hargitay). She is not pleased and becomes even less so when she learns that 1 Police Plaza has given him full clearance. He can go on ridealongs and into meetings and isn't to be shut out of anything.

Though she puts him off, Mac is persistent and they finally meet for a late dinner. 

"I have spent 15 years counseling women to testify, but until you go through it yourself," she tells him, and pauses, referring to when she was kidnapped and terrorized.

Mac does something important here: He listens. With his tie askew, and in a delightful nod to old-school reporters, he actually takes notes with a pen and reporter's pad. As they're talking, she gets texted about a crime. Mac tags along.

The rape is of a young Indian Muslim woman who had been helping out at an auction for the real estate firm where her brother works. It was at the Plaza, and she tells the detectives that when she left the hotel, two men dragged her over the stone wall into Central Park.

The men ripped off her hijab, threw her on the ground and took turns raping her. Then they called her racial slurs.

A medical exam confirms that had been a virgin and was raped by two men. The slurs boost the incident to a hate crime. Just as the cops are beginning to realize the young woman's story does not hold together, Mac runs with a column saying it was a hoax.

The young woman's father had been a victim of a hate crime after 9/11. Mac's theory is that she conflated that incident with what really happened. Reared in a strict Muslim home, she went wild the night of the auction, had rough sex -- which would explain rug burns found on her body -- but became frightened so she screamed rape.

Benson knows that most rape victims do not tell the whole story the first time they can talk about it. She confronts Mac and demands to know his source.

The guy's a great reporter and has leaks all over the city. Mac offers to spell his source to Benson, and the name is what she can do to herself.

"Maybe you should read the First Amendment again," the columnist tells the detective. "People don't speak to me because I carry a badge. They speak to me because I keep my word."

The case gets more muddied as a minister holds a rally about the hate crime. Mac, not known for diplomacy, says at the rally that this is another Tawana Brawley case, referring to the infamous late 1980s media circus surrounding a teenage girl who claimed six white men had raped her (a grand jury concluded the allegations were unfounded).

But this young woman was raped, and there is physical evidence. It's just that her story doesn't add up. Footage turns up of her leaving the auction, but rather than waiting for a taxi and being dragged into the park, she returned to the offices where her brother works.

There, the entitled scion of the firm and his friend raped her. But because she had gone to his office of her own volition and because her brother works for him, she lied.

Mac goes on TV, where Katie Couric plays herself on a fake morning news show. Hs calls the victim a "Tawana-be."

The cops figure out that the son and his friend did it. In the courtroom, the young woman takes the stand, but the lawyer for the accused reminds the jury how she lied before.

Ultimately, a deal is cut, the rich family spreads money around and their son gets the proverbial slap on the wrist, though his co-defendant will do time.

Since the developer twice bailed out the paper where Mac works, Mac knows what's going to happen.
 
In a perfectly executed final scene, Benson and Mac are at a bar. He tells her he's done his last piece for the Ledger, and already posted it online.

In it, he talks about the son being a rapist, and how the developer called the publisher to pull the piece.

Benson asks what he'll do now, given that the city isn't exactly ripe with newspapers wanting to hire columnists.

"I always land on my feet," Mac says. "I am 55 years old. My profession is dying. My ex-wives all hate me. My credit cards are maxed out because I've got three kids in college."

He lets loose with a cough that sounds tubercular. "And I never felt better in my life," Mac says. "And the whole world knows I've got b***s the size of Jupiter again."

Side note: Wednesday's episode featured "Tonight Show" bandleader Questlove's cameo as a dead body. He appeared a little more than halfway through the episode in a scene when Fin and Rollins check with M.E. Warner about some carpet-fiber evidence.

What did you think of "SVU" this week, and of Hargitay as a director and Baldwin's performance?
Photo/Video credit: NBC