In the fictional criminal-justice system in which real-world events are “ripped from the headlines” to make for scintillating television, it was probably inevitable that “Pizzagate,” the false conspiracy theory that claims DC’s Comet Ping Pong is the nexus of a child-trafficking ring run by Hillary Clinton‘s top advisers, would be mined for an hour of police-procedural drama. This is one of those stories.
Because that’s exactly what happened on Wednesday night’s episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. The long-running NBC spinoff delivered its takes on the fake-news websites that promoted bogus stories about Comet, the impacts on the restaurant and its employees, and the incident last December in which a gunman claiming to “self-investigate” Pizzagate entered the restaurant and fired a rifle.
This being the Law & Order universe, enough elements are different to let the show claim that the “story is fictional and does not depict any actual person, entity, or event.” But SVU‘s story beats probably rang familiar to anyone familiar with what’s happened to Comet Ping Pong in the last six months: Instead of a pizzeria, it’s a Chinese restaurant. Instead of a presidential candidate, the story opens with a member of Congress telling Lt. Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) that his emails have been hacked and that a fringe website is framing him as a pedophile. The fringe site, EndlessTruth.com, is an InfoWars lookalike run by a blogger who appears to be a mashup of Alex Jones—who recently issued a public apology for his role in promoting Pizzagate—and Mike Cernovich, another online writer who promoted the false story.
The episode even kicks off with a scene clearly inspired the December 4 shooting carried out by 28-year-old North Carolina resident Edgar Maddison Welch. SVU, not known for subtlety, dresses its young, grizzled shooter in head-to-toe camouflage. “Where are they? The girls in the basement?” the SVU shooter shouts before firing a round into the ceiling. (Just just as Comet Ping Pong has no basement, Sgt. Odafin Tutuola, played by Ice-T, points out the Chinese restaurant has no basement.)
Like Pizzagate’s promoters did with Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta‘s emails, the fake-news blogger is obsessed with finding code words and secret symbols in the congressman’s emails, all while claiming he’s just writing stories that “people can choose to believe.”
But the episode quickly spirals away from what Washingtonians remember from what Comet Ping Pong went through. After his first brush with the police, the blogger starts targeting Benson, Detective Rollins (Kelli Giddish), and their children. The congressman’s hard drive is found to be full of child porn because he was, in fact, being framed by a hacker being paid by an unknown party that’s never really resolved. Because it’s SVU, Benson does wind up busting up a real child-trafficking ring after finding out one of the Chinese restaurant’s former suppliers is a repeat-offender pedophile. Benson gets a retraction from the blogger on the stories about her, but he continues to go after the congressman and the restaurant.
And just when things seem resolved, the episode ends with the congressman shot dead at the restaurant by a second “self-investigating” gunman, leaving Benson to grimace over his dead body while the restaurant owner pleads “Is this ever going to stop?”
In real life, in the wake of all the online nonsense and Welch’s shooting, Comet has enjoyed steady business from its longtime patrons and neighbors, Jones has issued a public apology, and the restaurant’s owner, James Alefantis, has been on 60 Minutes as the face of innocent bystanders who get swept up in fake-news hysteria. Still, the SVU episode was unsettling. Alefantis tells Washingtonian he did not watch it, but that he got messages from people who were “freaked out.”