Law & Order Special Celebrities Unit Casefile No. 4: William H. Macy
Nobody plays a slightly creepy milquetoast like William H. Macy. I have no doubt that he's a lovely person in real life, but, even while playing a decent, upstanding citizen, there’s something a little unsettling hiding just behind it. Perhaps it’s his big, sad eyes, or the nervous smile that suggests he’s concealing some secret that’s about to be revealed. Whatever the case, it served Macy well when he played his most famous role, Jerry Lundegaard, the world’s most incompetent criminal mastermind, in Fargo.
Four years before Fargo, Macy appeared in “Sisters of Mercy,” a season two episode of Law & Order. It’s not entirely accurate to say this was an early screen appearance for Macy, as it was for the other subjects of this series. He had actually been acting since the 70s, mostly in minor, one-off roles and billed as “W.H. Macy.” In fact, he appeared in the pilot episode of Law & Order a year earlier, in a small, unremarkable role as an attorney. Deciding to go by William instead must have done the trick, though, as he’s given a far meatier part in this episode, paving the way for his breakout roles in David Mamet’s Oleanna, and a car salesman whom Steve Buscemi is not going to debate.
The episode opens with Maggie Corson (Kelli Williams), a drug addicted teenage runaway, firing a gun inside a restaurant. Maggie has escaped from Haven House, a group home for troubled teens, and when Sister Bettina (Kate Burton), the tough but loving nun in charge of the residents, comes to see her at the hospital, Maggie flies into a rage. She tells Cerreta (Paul Sorvino) that Sister Bettina got handsy with her in the shower while helping her clean up after a bout with the flu, and refuses to return to Haven House. Backing up Maggie's story is her roommate at the home, Maria (Judy Reyes, later known for playing Donald Faison's long-suffering partner on Scrubs), who not only claims that she saw Sister Bettina molesting Maggie, but that Sister B. once made a pass at her too.
Though early Law & Order could get somewhat cringey when it came to gender politics, there's surprisingly little shock and disbelief expressed at the idea that a woman could sexually assault another woman. On the other hand, Logan (Chris Noth) seems dubious that a member of the clergy could do such a thing, which, given the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal that would begin to unfold a mere year or two after this episode originally aired, is almost laughably quaint. Nevertheless, the "female on female" aspect of the case is refreshingly not played for shock value--which, of course, means that the real shocker comes during the second act twist.
As part of the investigation, Cerreta and Logan interview Jack Powell (William H. Macy), the soft-spoken, oatmeal colored sweater wearing director of Haven House. Now, the fact that a man is running a home for wayward teenage girls should be raising flags of every color immediately, but the detectives don't seem to make much of it. Powell doesn't think Sister Bettina did anything wrong, but he doesn't not think so either, and seems a little squirrelly about it either way. Given Macy's second place billing in the "guest starring" credits, it's likely that he ultimately has more to do with the plot than it first seems, but let's pretend we don't know how these things work and move on.
Sister B. fails a lie detector test, showing dishonesty not when it comes to denying assaulting Maggie, but the circumstances that led to her putting Maggie in a shower in the middle of the night. As it turns out, Maggie didn't have the flu, she was drunk, and Sister Bettina covered for her so that she wouldn't be expelled from Haven House and left to fend for herself in the streets. When A.D.A. Robinette pushes her, Maggie concedes that she doesn't remember what happened in the shower, but rather was convinced by her roommate Maria that she had been molested.
Now hang on, here's where it gets a bit complicated. When Maria is brought in for questioning, she folds like a beach chair and admits that she made up the story about Sister Bettina molesting Maggie so that Sister B. would be forced to leave Haven House. It's nothing personal, though, she was just worried that Sister B. had found out about Maria's own secret--that she's been sleeping with, yep, you guessed it, Haven House executive director and aficionado of oversized sweaters Jack Powell. Megacreep Powell offered Maria and his past victims (including one who possibly had his baby) "special privileges" as a reward for sex with him, but also threatened to turn them out on the street if they didn't comply. Because this was early 90s New York City, being a homeless teenager meant almost certain death by either drugs or murder, so a desperate Maria had no choice but to risk ruining an innocent person's life to protect her own.
Powell readily admits to having a sexual relationship with Maria, but claims it was consensual. Because Maria is over the age of consent, and there's no law against being a total fucking scumbag, technically no crime has been committed. Nevertheless, Ben Stone (Michael Moriarty) thinks a case could be made for Maria believing that physical harm would be imminent if she didn't do what Powell told her to do, even if he himself wasn't going to hurt her, and he pushes for a rape charge.
Adam "Mr. Sunshine" Schiff, as usual, tells Stone he has no case, and all the other district attorneys in New York will pants him and stuff him in a locker if he pursues it. Powell's attorney, from the law firm of Smirk, Shifty, and Slimeball, puts in a motion for an immediate dismissal. Surprising everyone, the judge allows the trial to take place, tabling his decision on the motion until after a verdict has been reached.
On the witness stand, Powell is all "gee whiz, guys, I don't understand how we got to this point" innocence, claiming that Maria was the aggressor and that she demanded special favors in exchange for sex. "It's certainly not because I have some magnetic effect on women!" he protests. Stone comes at him hard with a list of names of former Haven Home residents who met tragic ends after being kicked out, thus proving that Maria had a real and valid fear that she would meet the same fate if she didn't cooperate with Powell. Though no one expects Stone to win, not only does the jury come back with a guilty verdict, the judge throw out the motion to dismiss.
Naturally, Ol' Rainbows & Lemondrops Schiff tells Stone that he'll probably lose on appeal.
Though he has an interesting everyman persona that stands out in a sea of handsome but emotionally void faces, William H. Macy has never been the most physically intimidating actor. Here, however, his mild-mannered middle-aged dad image plays to chilling effect. He's rarely since played a character so malevolent in his calm demeanor, without the unexpected pitifulness of Jerry Lundegaard, his most famous role. Even in Oleanna, playing a college professor who might have sexually harassed one of his students, Macy is less villainous than conflicted, and the play itself is ambiguous in whether the student is telling the truth (because, y'know, Mamet). As Jack Powell, his meekness is its own kind of menacing, the kind that comes with a nice cup of tea laced with arsenic. Macy is getting close to 70 now, but one hopes he still has it in him to play a true bad guy, just one more time.