Aired December 4, 1990 IMDB
Another episode bucks the cliche by not opening with the discovery of a dead sex worker. This time it’s a controversial artist named Victor Moore (loosely modeled on Robert Mapplethorpe, who died in 1989), found strangled to death with a noose around his neck, inside his workspace/dungeon. The investigation delves into the sexual fringe and its intersection with the city’s elite.
Law & Order is usually more thoughtful and less sensational than other procedural shows, and this story does engage with the issues of sadomasochism.
Greevey, one of the two detectives on the case, is the most prejudiced against Moore and his art. “Some work. If I did stuff like this, I wouldn’t advertise either.”
The detectives question a man who knew the victim casually, but wouldn’t date him.
Logan: “Let me get this straight. You’re asked out on a date by a guy who published pictures of people hanging upside down in chains. And you’re tempted, but there’s something about him you don’t trust?”
While it’s entirely possible that Moore was coming on creepy to the guy, the Implication is that a person who makes sexually violent art must be dangerous.
Greevey privately asks his superior to be taken off the case, as he’s Catholic.
Greevey: “This thing disgusts me. This guy’s pictures: porn. If that’s art, Hugh Hefner’s Michaelangelo. […] Chances are, living that life, he’ll be dead in a couple of years anyway. As far as I’m concerned he’s going to the same place. […] I still believe in sin. […] These freaks aren’t going to the same place you and I are. […] Yesterday, we walk into this leather bar, high noon. The place still reeks of stale sex. We’re not talking about beautiful people here.”
The chief says it’s about the crime, not the people involved in the crime, and sends him back to work.
Later on, Greevey reconsiders when he discovers that Moore was a Catholic who gave to charities and supported his parents in retirement.
The episode sometimes takes a “hate the sin, love the sinner” view, in that Moore is worthy of justice in spite of his works and his lifestyle, which don’t have value on their own. There is a line drawn between “us regular people” and “them freaks.”
The investigation leads to Henry Rothman, the city’s commissioner of artistic affairs, and then to the wealthy and domineering Elizabeth Hendrick. Logan notices that Hendrick owns a leather glove identical to one custom-made by a leatherworker who knew the victim.
The detectives arrest Rothman, but it becomes increasingly clear that Hendrick was involved at the least.
Much of the middle of the episode focuses on the question of whether Moore died because of suicide, an accident, negligence or intent.
ADA Stone: “Erica [Rothman’s attorney] will argue that Moore consented to being tortured. She can just about prove that he liked being beaten up, but I can work around that.”
DA Schiff: “You can consent to being tortured but you can’t consent to being murdered. You still have to prove intent. Do we know that Rothman wanted to hurt him?” […] “I don’t care what consenting adults do in their bedrooms or elsewhere. That’s their business. But Rothman’s a public figure. He’s a role model. He has an obligation not to behave like this.”
Again, this is tolerance, not acceptance, of sadomasochism and bisexuality. It’s also debatable whether Rothman’s status as a public figure matters. Are they required to police their personal lives?
Rothman’s attorney says, “My client is not compelled to rescue someone who is risking his own life. […] No matter what you think my client was doing with Victor Moore, this was a guy who begged to be hurt as part of the game. He was a masochist.” I.e. framing Moore’s death as an accident and/or suicide.
The last third of the episode revolves around the wealthy, domineering Elizabeth Hendrick and her role in the death of Moore.
Schiff: “If she’s into this scene, if she is the dominant one, what was going on that night?”
Stone visits a psychiatrist to get insight into the real villain of the piece.
Psychiatrist: “Every relationship, Mr. Stone, work, at home with your wife and kids, every relationship is about power.”
Stone: “But I don’t beat people up for kicks. A dominatrix, a woman who plays a dominant role in a sexual relationship, would she play the same role in another situation, not a sexual one, but one that was emotionally charged?”
Psychiatrist: “It’s learned behavior, operant conditioning. Press the right button, you get the right response. The question is finding the button.”
After a search of Hendrick’s home turns up black market drugs and bondage gear in her hope chest, the district attorneys discuss what to do.
Stone: “You have three consenting adults, consenting to certain activities and games, and one of them dies. Who’s responsible?”
Schiff: “No law against owning a leather jacket.”
Stone: “There might be against what you do when you’re wearing it.”
The leather crafter admits she sold Hendrick the leather gloves. “I don’t get close to the customers. They’re all playing with fifty-one cards. […] There’s a couple of clubs. One where a lot of rich people go. It’s Club X.”
The brief scene at Club X, in mid play-party is the most sensational part of the episode. The venue is said to function like an actual club, with members playing dues.
Club owner: “She liked to have slaves. […] She liked to watch things get a little out of control. […] Last month, she had this slave and it got crazy. Damn near killed a kid.”
Eventually, before a grand jury, Rothman testifies that he was present when Moore set up a noose for himself, but when Moore accidentally knocked over the chair he was standing on, Hendrick forbid him to help. “You have to understand. I had to do what she told me. […] It was part of our game.”
Hendrick tells a different story to the grand jury.
Hendrick: “Mr. Moore invited me to join him in what he called a performance artwork. We were rehearsing it with Mr. Rothman. We’d done this before but the men were never very good at it. So I was doing my best to help them. I left the men alone for just a few minutes. When I returned, I found Mr. Moore dead and the chair several feet away. Mr. Rothman was sobbing on the floor, and he kept saying over and over again, ‘I let him die.’ It was a tragic mistake made by incompetent men. I know I should never have left them alone.”
Stone: “You knew you should never have left them alone? Does that mean you knew Mr. Moore would be hurt if you did?”
Hendrick: “I mean… I know now I shouldn’t have left them alone.”
In between court sessions, Stone sees Hendrick yelling at Rothman.
Rothman returns to the grand jury and changes his testimony to say that he was solely responsible for Moore’s death, and Hendrick wasn’t in the room.
Rothman later hangs himself, leaving behind a Polaroid of Hendrick letting Moore die. The detectives arrest her.
While “Prisoner of Love” post-humously humanizes the victim as a complex character, the perpetrator is not developed in the same way. She’s a one-dimensional sadist, fitting the stereotype of the masculinized decadent female aristocrat.
The rest of the people involved in the kink world encountered in this story either squirm with shame or distance themselves from it. This was a glimpse into another time, just at the beginning of the 1990s before alternative sexualities were more visible.