Thursday, February 9, 2017

Law and Order: Special Victims Unit — The 400th Episode (Dick Wolf Productions, Universal, NBC, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I switched on NBC for the much-ballyhooed 400th series episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, written by Rick Eid and Julie Martin (two old Law and Order hands) and directed by series star Mariska Hargitay. The story was virtually a compendium of Law and Order: SVU’s greatest hits: a 15-year-old teenager, Luke Keller (Aaron Sanders), product of a marriage between two psychiatrists who have long since divorced (and given their penchant for spouting psychobabble at each other, their kid and everyone else they encounter, it’s no wonder!), is supposed to be spending the weekend with his dad, Dr. Daniel Keller (Daniel Cosgrove). Only he and dad have an argument and, after several attempts to call his mom, Dr. Nicole Keller (Sarah Wynter), that go to voicemail, Luke just comes home unexpectedly and finds his mom hunched over their kitchen counter with someone fucking her from behind. “Help! I’m being raped!” mom says, and Luke obligingly goes to a locked closet and gets out a hunting rifle his dad, an amateur hunter, had given him, and drills the guy with one well-placed shot to the forehead. He later says he only intended to scare the guy into stopping his assault on his mom and leaving, but instead he kills him — and then is shocked to realize that the victim is his best friend from school, 15-year-old African-American star student Trey Franklin (Donald Dash). It seems like a straightforward case — Trey formed a sexual obsession with Nicole and came to her house to indulge it, and since he was a friend of her son she let him in, only he assaulted her sexually and Luke killed him to save his mom from dishonor — only when they search Trey Franklin’s room (and deal with the predictable disgust of his parents, played by Benton Greene and Chantal Jean-Pierre, who think that even though they’re both comfortably upper-middle-class the cops are still picking on them and making Trey out to be the victim because he’s Black) they find a copy of Anaïs Nin’s erotic book Delta of Venus in which they see two Polaroid photos of Trey Franklin and Dr. Nicole Keller naked together in Nicole’s bed. Nicole’s excuse is that Trey took advantage of her when she was asleep, sneaked into bed with her and took the photos as she slept, but of course Our Heroine, Lt. Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay), doesn’t believe that for a minute.

She and the fellow SVU cops become even more convinced that Nicole Keller is a pedophile predator when they uncover another young man from Luke’s school, Ethan Miller (Gage Polchlopek), who reveals that he was an earlier victim of Nicole’s attentions, and when he finally broke it off with her she turned to Trey as her next sex toy. Assistant district attorney Rafael Barba (Raúl Esparza) is determined to prosecute Nicole for murder, saying essentially that she set up her son to kill Trey by crying out that she was being raped by him — and he’s encouraged when he talks to her ex-husband, Luke’s father, who describes her as a “narcissist” and several other even less police psychological terms. Nicole’s defense isn’t going to well at trial when she asks her attorney and the judge to change her story — in her new version it was Luke who was sexually obsessed with her, to the point where when she and Trey would have sex Luke would stand in a doorway, watch and jack off — and in her new version she never said she was being raped and Luke shot Trey out of pure jealousy. Barba, worried that the jury is actually going to buy this, re-calls Luke to the stand and there’s a typical SVU moment as he faces his mom in court and it’s unclear whether filial loyalty or justice and self-preservation will win the battle for his soul, but after a long pause Luke answers Barba’s question as to whether he had any sexual interest with his mom with a firm and defiant, “No,” and Nicole is convicted while Luke goes free, presumably back to his dad and their troubled relationship. While I suspect that the people who wrote this were all too conscious that this was going to be ballyhooed as “the 400th episode” and were determined to get as many Law and Order: SVU clichés and tropes into the story as they could — down to having the cops arrest Nicole right in the middle of a therapy session with a client (Dick Wolf’s writers have long had a penchant for having their relatively privileged miscreants arrested at the most embarrassing time possible, and I can’t help the feeling that real cops would at least have waited until the session was over to avoid any unnecessary suffering and trauma for the doctor’s therapy client) — this was actually one of the better post-Meloni episodes and particularly good in Sarah Wynter’s almost psychopathic portrayal of Nicole. She makes her someone who literally thinks she can get away with anything, trusting to her knowledge about human behavior to be able to get her on top of any situation, and with a disregard for the needs and interests of her fellow human beings that goes to Trumpian levels of recklessness.