The latest episode is completely honest about how complicated sexual assault cases are and how women are constantly forced to choose between ourselves, our careers, our livelihoods, and justice.
This essay contains spoilers for Brooklyn Nine-Nine episode 6.8, as well as descriptions of sexual assault and harassment
“Brooklyn Nine-Nine” is my favorite copaganda machine. It’s a running joke among fans that the most unbelievable thing about the show is that it’s full of genuinely good cops. The most recent episode, directed by Stephanie Beatriz who portrays Detective Rosa Diaz, perfectly demonstrates why we love it so much (but still, ACAB). Not only is it hilarious, but it is also able to tackle difficult subject matters in smart and sensitive ways while remaining true to itself. In “He Said, She Said,” a 38 year-old investment banker named Seth Haggerty is admitted to a local hospital with a broken penis, the result of a co-worker striking him with a golf club when he tried to sexually assault her in his office. Detectives Amy Santiago and Jake Peralta are put on the case.
None of the characters are presented in the ways that we are used to seeing from people in these scenarios in shows like “Law & Order: SVU.” Haggerty is a pathetic embarrassment from the moment we see him and the narrative does not treat him as someone deserving of our respect or sympathy at all. His version of the story is that he was offering his help to Keri Brennan, giving her some “pointers on her trades” because he just didn’t want her to “chump it,” of course. Then, out of nowhere, Keri “just flipped out” and hit him. When the Detectives ask him why she did it, he tells them, “Because she’s crazy… I know we’re not supposed to say that about women, and I usually wouldn’t go there because I’m a huge advocate. I mean, I’m the kind of guy who thinks Katherine Bigelow should direct the next “Star Wars.” I’ve said that out loud. To other men.”
When we meet Keri Brennan, she is the antithesis of what Haggerty would like us to believe. Dressed in a well-tailored suit, she looks high-powered and confident. Her business acumen is apparent, with her having garnered the firm $168 million dollars the previous year. Keri is damn good at her job and certainly didn’t require any help from Haggerty. She is articulate and straightforward in her answers to questions throughout her entire interview, relaying what transpired with conviction. Haggerty called her into his office, evidently drunk, pushed her onto his desk and tried to take off her clothes, and she defended herself.
Santiago encourages her to file charges and warns that it will be a difficult process, but Keri receives an offer from the firm and no longer wants to pursue the case. If she signs a non-disclosure agreement, the firm will pay her $2.5 million. It’s hush money, and everyone in the room knows it. From this point, the episode paints a clear picture of how misogyny, capitalism, and the cult of protecting and enabling serial sexual predators all contribute to the complexity of sexual assault cases. Keri knows what the road ahead looks like if she decides to press charges, especially in a “he said, she said” situation with no physical evidence. A conviction is extremely unlikely. “The system is as broken as Seth’s dong,” she laments. And she’s right. But Santiago is relentlessly optimistic and convinces her to give them a chance to find evidence.
Diaz offers yet another perspective. Since they have no physical evidence of the sexual assault, if Keri does press charges, it’s likely that nothing will ever come of it. If she takes the $2.5 million offer from the firm, at least then she won’t walk away empty-handed. “I am a feminist, but I’m also a realist,” she says. “Let’s just say, best case scenario, you do find evidence. She’s still gonna have to go through a very public trial where they drag her name through the mud. Even if she wins, she still loses. It’s two steps forward, one step back.” And she’s right.
“But when one person comes forward, it inspires others to speak up,” Santiago responds. “And that’s a hell of a lot better than taking a deal that let’s sexual predators walk free.” And she’s right. Keri’s career, her life, her public reputation, her mental and emotional well-being will all be impacted by this situation. Not only does she now have to live with the trauma of having experienced a sexual assault and defending herself from it, but she now has to deal with other people’s responses to the assault, and how she is treated will depend on whether or not she decides to pursue charges.
Santiago and Peralta visit the firm to question her co-workers, but everyone repeats the same rehearsed line: “Seth is a great guy and this is an extremely professional workplace.” When the firm’s lawyer finds out that she spoke to the police, the offer of $2.5 million is nullified and they instead move to fire Keri for violent behavior. Santiago is devastated by this and, of course, feels guilty. If she hadn’t pushed Keri to let them investigate, she would still have the job she loves.
In a moment of vulnerability, she reveals to Peralta that she was sexually harassed by her former captain at her previous precinct, and that the incident had made her insecure about her own capabilities as a detective. “When I finally made detective, he took me to dinner and tried to kiss me. He said he felt like he deserved something in return for my career.” Throughout the episode, Peralta embodies the “male ally” who, even though he is aware of and acknowledges sexism and misogyny, is continually shocked and bewildered to learn of the many ways these systems impact women’s daily lives. “Every time I think I understand how bad it is, it’s just way worse than I imagined,” he tells her. Santiago admits that she spent a long time wondering whether or not she truly deserved the promotion or if she had only been given it because her boss was plotting to sleep with her. Even worse, she feared that she might not receive any further promotions if she spoke up about it to anyone, so she just remained silent years. “This kind of stuff has happened to literally every woman I know,” she tells him. “I just wanted to help make it better for this one woman.” This case with Keri and Haggerty feels personal, because every sexual assault case feels personal.
Eventually, one of Keri’s co-workers comes forward with evidence as Santiago and Peralta continue to work the case. A man named Steve shows them a long group text chain with some of the men in the office, in which Haggerty confesses to the assault in exactly the way Keri described it. But Steve doesn’t do this because he wants to bring a sexual predator to justice, he does it because he is next in line for Haggerty’s job. Had it not been beneficial to him and his career, he never would have come forward with the evidence, continuing to protect a dangerous and dishonest man.
Nevertheless, it’s a win for Santiago, and Keri, and all the women they represent. A man committed a sexual assault then tried to discredit a woman by relying on misogynistic tropes about victims who come forward being “crazy” and unhinged, but he won’t get away with it. A happy ending is coming, or so it would seem. When Peralta and Santiago visit Keri at her office to check in and let her know that the DA will be pressing charges, they are surprised to find her packing up to leave. She had to quit. “The whole atmosphere here has changed. Everyone looks at me like I’m either a victim or a traitor.” She’s being intentionally left out of non-working related functions and communications with her co-workers because everyone is uncomfortable with her presence, and she understands this means that she will also be isolated from work-related functions and communications. Even though she was assaulted and was able to prove it, her career at this firm will still suffer. So, she had to quit.
Even though Keri makes it clear that she does not regret pressing charges, or breaking Haggerty’s penis, Santiago is still displeased with how things turned out. It’s not fair that Keri had to quit the job that she loved and was phenomenal at, all because a man decided to assault her and she stood up for herself. Back at the precinct, Diaz offers her congratulations, but Santiago refuses it. She doesn’t feel that she deserves it, but Diaz insists otherwise. One of the co-workers they previously interviewed has now come forward to report a sexual assault because she was inspired by Keri’s boldness. “Two steps forward, one step back is still one step forward,” Diaz says. And she’s right.
This episode is one of the only times I’ve seen sexual assault and serial harassment addressed in this way. It’s completely honest about how complicated sexual assault cases are and how women are constantly forced to choose between ourselves, our careers, our livelihoods, and justice. Keri Brennan’s story is far too common, as is Santiago’s, and even though neither of them came away from their ordeals with everything set right, these are still two best case scenarios. Santiago got to keep her job and transfer to a better precinct where she felt safer and more valued, but her former captain was never exposed for his predatory behavior. Keri had to quit her job, but her assaulter had charges brought against him. Some of us come out on the other side with no win at all. “He Said, She Said” lays out why that is in a simplistic way and answers the question that inevitably arises when these cases go public: “Why didn’t she come forward sooner?”
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