[27 September 2005]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
LAW & ORDER
Regular airtime: Wednesdays, 10pm ET (NBC)
Cast: Dennis Farina, Jesse L. Martin, Sam Waterston, S. Epatha Merkerson, Fred Dalton Thompson, Annie Parisse
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Caution: Plot spoilers ahead.
Bullet to the chest at close range. No exit wounds.
Betcha a bagel it’s a hollow-point.
—Crime scene examiner, “Flaw”
Crises call for experts, professionals with proper experience and grace. This would seem to be the point of the opening moments of the 27 September episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. The camera pulls out and up, slowly panning from a pair of blue-jeansed legs in blurry foreground, showing they’re standing at the edge of a rooftop. In the background, an inept, earnest, uniformed security guard reads from an official playbook. “My name’s Ed,” he monotones urgently, “And I’m hear to listen to your problems with empathy, without judgment or advice.” The girl—her face now revealed in blobby close-up, sobs. “Go away!” the camera offers a harrowing lurch to show the distant city streets below. “Leave me alone!” Poor Ed’s inexperience with “jumpers” shows again when he tries to soothe April (Estella Warren), who, as it turns out, is pregnant as well as suicidal. “What about the baby’s father?” Ed asks. April wails, “I was raped!”
Enter Olivia (Mariska Hargitay), just a minute and a half into the episode. After seven seasons, she’s quite the professional when it comes to sex crimes and victims. She brings cocoa (quite thoughtfully, for, as mom-to-be April observes, she can’t drink coffee) and a familiar warmth, the sort of empathy for which Olivia is infamous (and for which Hargitay won a 2005 Golden Globe Award). “I promise to help you,” she tells the distraught girl gently. “We’re gonna work this out together.” And now comes the weeping, the embracing, and the SVU theme music.
So begins “Design,” the first half of NBC’s “Two-Night Crossover Event,” with the second part, “Flaw,” on Wednesday’s Law & Order. Though Olivia and agonizingly earnest partner Elliot (Christopher Meloni) instantly take up April’s case, assuming that her rapist is who she says he is—namely, wealthy Barclay Pallister (scarily smooth Julian Sands)—and that her pain in subsequent, brief trial scenes is real. (The fact that she gets to court within minutes, that is, her pregnancy barely advanced from her first moment on screen, seems a miracle within the NY legal system, but okay.) Barclay immediately looks sinister, as Fin (Ice T) and Munch (Richard Belzer) meet him at his lab: when Fin notices the place is filled with “stiffs,” Barclay explains, “They’re my goldmine. I invented an eco-friendly method of turning these cadavers into dust without ever lighting a match.” The copyright made him a millionaire. Who knew?
When April disappears, apparently burned into non-existence in a terrible car wreck, the cops think this dusting business is a factor (you have to love Elliot’s outrage: “Son of a bitch! He used his technology to vaporize her!”). But before the cops can charge Barclay with homicide, a series of other one-night stands pop up, including a baseball star, a restaurateur, and Mark McGrath as a “rock star,” who tells Fin that he can’t even remember having sex with this chick, following an apparently brutal drink: “Dude, I remember porcelain, man, up close and personal!”
It turns out the rock star isn’t lying: the girl regularly steals sperm from famous and wealthy men by slipping them roofies and using a device that produces “electro-ejaculation.” When Dr. Huang (B.D. Wong) explains the procedure, Munch provides typical dryly comic commentary: “I thought I heard of every kind of sex crime.” And yet the definition of this crime is precisely the episode’s problem—or at least it underlines the ineffectiveness of rules and playbooks to deal with extraordinary situations (stealing sperm is apparently not defined legally, the insinuation being that boys have long considered their seed-source inviolable). And that’s not all: as April embodies stormy chaos, with her “off the charts” IQ of 170 and perfect performances: she cries on cue, toys with experts Huang and Liv, and looks stunning throughout. For once, Warren’s supermodel looks serve the story—everyone is seduced by this “perfect” girl.
Or maybe not everyone. As is the wont of SVU plots, this one only gets freakier with each dun-dun. Such shifting perspectives on a guest star—April is a victim, a deviant, and a victim again—are standard within the Law & Order franchise. No surprise, her difficulties stem from childhood (the pathologizing of parents/backgrounds comes up repeatedly in SVU). Indeed, April has been produced by a pair of “experts”: her father, one Dr. McManus (Ronnie Cox), runs a sperm bank, selling super-sperm, donated (or maybe not) by stars. The cops find him just as a client is complaining that her child—for whose guaranteed musical genius she paid $20,000—just “bangs on the keys.” After looking suitably aghast, Olivia arrests McManus on the spot.
But Liv, bless her, wants more, and demands that suddenly hapless-looking ADA Casey Novak (Diane Neal) find a way to prosecute her because, “She’s a walking crime spree!” It appears that what’s at stake here (again, as this dilemma is a favorite for the franchise, not just SVU) is the tarnishing of Liv’s self-image. She’s a pro and she’s been duped, and she wants justice (or payback, depending on how you read it). She’s up against it too, not only because, as April puts it, “I’m too beautiful for prison,” but also because the crisis is not even beginning to be resolved.
This thanks to April’s mom, Lorraine (the awesome Lynda Carter). At first showing understandable if prima donna-like concern that her daughter’s been raped, Wonder Woman brings it full force by episode’s end, headed into the next night, on L&O. When April’s momentary lawyer argues that she’s nutty because her mother “brainwashed” her, the episode’s psycho-politics break wide open. April, says the lawyer, “is like a suicide bomber, indoctrinated from birth.” Mom as Osama Bin Laden. It’s Cold War momism refitted for the war on terror. The conflagration is inspired. And dire.
Indeed, Lorraine is as pathological as any mom who’s appeared on SVU (and there have been plenty). And her reappearance in L&O‘s “Flaw” exposes (not for the first time) that procedural’s tendency to mix sensational (“ripped from the headlines”) plots with melodrama. This is no easy trick when the formula, on its face, calls for solving crimes and no personal lives for cops and lawyers (the only time the regulars get backstories is when they leave: see especially, Serena’s self-outing last year as she was fired by the DA [Fred Dalton Thompson]). Looked at another way, the formula grants all kinds of room for personal mess among the crooks, and that’s usually the way it falls out, with the designated experts (the recurring cast) passing judgments by exchanged glances and smart remarks.
This time the detectives—gnarly Fontana (Dennis Farina) and increasingly weary Green (Jesse L. Martin)—speed through the crime-solving part. This includes a couple of bodies lead to April and Lorraine and, perhaps most importantly, to Liv, whom one of the corpses appears to have been calling as he was blasted through the chest at close range. Lorraine makes an entrance all bruised and black-eyed, by way of indicating a struggle with one of those bodies—self-defense, don’t you know. It’s not long before, per usual, Jack (Sam Waterston) and Alex (Annie Parisse) are looking worried in court as jurors look enraptured by April on the witness stand, her gushy tears stunning in close-up.
The Law & Order franchise has often demonstrated systemic imperfections. As the episode titles—“Design” and “Flaw”—suggest, this is precisely the focus here. No matter the efforts to bring expertise and logic to calamity, it appears that training, good intentions, and even acumen, can’t help but fail—or maybe just erupt in the form of furious women (unsurprisingly, the episodes’ resolution aligns Alex and Liv as frustrated, professional women). The question is whether, in orders designed by men—particularly those involving imagery and ideology—this end exposes no flaw at all.