In its 15 years on the air it’s a pretty safe bet that no one has ever accused Law & Order: SVU of being simply mindless entertainment. The issue-oriented series has always been a ‘thinking man’s’ show week in and week out. Some episodes are more complicated than others and require a bit more attention, but those are the episodes that really shine and show just what can be created within the framework of the (mostly) procedural drama.
The season 16 opener was an extremely intricate narrative that unfolded in a high octane fashion that featured what felt like a cast of thousands and plenty of intense action all in the hope of tracking down the person who ordered a prostitute killed.
To fully understand what went down in this episode, we have to back up a bit here. Last season closed out with squad leader Sergeant Benson stepping in to foster the infant son of the aforementioned prostitute, Ellie Porter, after Ellie was horrifically killed by being ‘greenlit,’ in layman’s terms, set on fire and burned to a crisp.
Before her death, Ellie was desperately trying to leave the profession, get clean and make a life for herself and her son, Noah. She proclaimed to Olivia, “I don’t want Noah to grow up in foster care like I did. I want him to be safe, to grow up knowing that he’s loved.”
Olivia seems to have the ‘love’ part down, but the ‘safe’ part is another matter, especially when she turns all of her attention toward unraveling the details surrounding Ellie’s death, which turns out to be no small feat. (For the viewer either. Get ready people – this one has so many zigs and zags it may make your head spin!)
It all begins when Amaro, now demoted to working a beat after assaulting a child molester, stops a man in his car with an underage hooker named Luna. Fin and Rollins make a beeline to Amaro’s precinct to move the girl back to the 16th precinct because it turns out she’s a material witness in the Porter murder case. Amaro seems genuinely surprised to see the pair and uses, the ‘I meant to call’ line with Amanda, who it was revealed last season he was sleeping with. But personal issues aside, Nick, looking for any opening to get back into the ‘SVU’ squad tries to convey that he might have a rapport with the young girl. Fin shuts him down, saying Benson wants to handle this herself.
Transporting the girl, Rollins and Fin are shot at on the street. As Fin returns fire, the shooter, Diego Ramirez, is hit by a car. Sprawled on the ground, he attempts to raise his gun at Fin, who, very matter-of-factly says, ”move and I’m a gonna cap your ass.” This is why we love Fin; he’s never one to mince words.
Back in the squad room, we’re introduced to the newest member of the ‘SVU’ squad – Detective Dominick ‘Sonny’ Carisi. Carisi, desperately trying to be cool, looks like some sort of throwback cop with his slicked back hair and fidgety manner. Doing his best to prove he’s well-suited for this new assignment, he talks as if he knows it all. Benson, with her years of acquired wisdom, isn’t for a moment taken in by this guy, but she lets him sit in when she talks to Luna, hoping he might learn a thing or two.
When Benson attempts to gently convince Luna to cooperate and admit to what she knows about Ellie’s murder, Carisi grows impatient as the tactic produces no results. With seemingly no sympathy for this victim, he jumps in and threatens Luna, an approach that Benson clearly does not approve of but that eventually clears the way for the girl to give the address of the house that she’s working out of.
Needing an undercover operative to set up the man running the house, Benson decides to call on someone who has the appearance of being disgruntled with the NYPD – Amaro. After tailing Joaquin Menendez, Amaro strikes a deal with the man, telling Joaquin that his house will be raided that night.
When the raid goes down, Joaquin evades arrest using Amaro’s name, but the crackdown does yield another find – a young prostitute named Missy. Missy refuses to talk to the detectives until they find out she has a daughter who was taken from her when she was forced into prostitution. When she sees a picture of her daughter, she starts to crumble. Missy wants to help but she doesn’t know who’s running the operation, only that Joaquin is in charge of the girls. Missy mentions, that she grew up in foster home, ran away and ended up working for Joaquin. (For anyone who missed it, that’s yet another mention of what can happen to a child who grows up in foster care.)
Further investigation uncovers that all of the girls used a car service called Quick Ride, so the detectives pay a visit to the owner, Angel Perez, to get information about his customers. After some reluctance he offers up the name Tino Aguilar as the man who has handled the girls in the past, but Angel insists that he’s cut all ties with Aguilar.
Benson, having dealt with ‘Little Tino’ before, heads to Attica where he’s in prison on a rape charges to try to coerce him into giving up who he was working for, who ordered the hit on Ellie. Even with District Attorney Barba there to sweeten the deal, Tino will have none of it, going so far as to tell Benson that if she truly loves Ellie’s baby, she’ll leave this alone.
Amaro, still working undercover as Joaquin’s informant, tries to force Joaquin’s hand by telling him that the District Attorney is ready to give Tino a deal if he names names. No sooner has this meeting concluded that, in rapid succession, Little Tino is shanked in prison, Diego Ramirez is given a lethal injection in his hospital room, and Missy, the young prostitute, is shot dead in a car. Benson quickly realizes that “somebody is cleaning house,” and calls her babysitter to check on Noah. They’re at the park and while Benson is on the call, shots ring out as a gunman drives by and fires several rounds into the park.
Rushing to the playground, Olivia fears the worst, but breathes a heavy sigh of relief when she finds that Noah is unhurt, holding him tightly in her arms.
Still convinced the Joaquin had a hand in the carnage; Benson orders that he be arrested, along with Amaro to make his undercover work with Joaquin look legit. Although he still won’t admit to any involvement in the crimes, Joaquin does manage to get in another threat again little Noah.
In the Attica medical ward, Benson attempts to pay a visit to Little Tino, who miraculously survived despite being stabbed multiple times. His mother puts a halt to the detectives speaking with her son, but, in fear for his life, she gives the detectives a tip about a woman named Selena, who’s connected to the sex trafficking ring.
To get to Selena, the detectives set up a sting with Sonny undercover as a john who gets rough with one of Selena’s girls and demands to see the woman in charge. There are a few tense moments as Selena’s gun-toting bodyguard points his piece at Carisi’s face, but Fin bursts in and quickly subdues the man. (Fin! Again, getting his guy!)
Back in the interrogation room, Selena lawyers up fast and the detectives lose their chance to get any information from her. However, Luna decides to speak up and reveals that she and Selena are from the same town in Mexico where they were kidnapped and forced into prostitution.
Using information from an international taskforce, Barba outlines how the operation works and who’s in charge. The detectives gasp as he shows a picture of….. Angel Perez, the owner of Quick Ride. Perez’s mother still lives in Mexico, harboring all of the children of the prostitutes, one of which is Selena’s son. Using the promise of being reunited with her son, Olivia convinces Selena to turn on Angel.
As Angel carries a suitcase in an attempt to leave town, the squad swoops in to arrest him. Fin begins to cuff the man, but he throws an elbow, pulls a gun from his waistband and points it at Benson. Fin fires a quick shot and kills Angel. (Fin truly wins the MVP award of this episode!)
Soon after, Selena is released from prison and Olivia, true to her word, reunites Selena with her young son. As she watches the mother and child embrace, a wave of satisfaction is clearly evident on Olivia’s face.
Later, at home alone with baby Noah, Olivia explains to the young boy that she’s made sure that the man who hurt his mother is never going to hurt anyone else. The peace this brings Olivia is unmistakable as she holds the child, calls him ‘her boy,’ and simply states, “I love you.”
While this is still a considered a procedural show it’s infinitely more relatable when the crimes explored on ‘SVU’ contain an element of humanity and that’s exactly what transpired here with the mother/son connection explored in several ways in this episode – Olivia and Noah, Tino and his mother, Selena and her son – with each pairing intimately showing the protective bond between mother and child. But was Olivia’s continued exploration into Ellie’s murder, knowing that it might put her child in harm’s way, true to her character? If you know the history of Olivia Benson, you know that as a new, single parent, she’ll do whatever it takes to reconcile her role as a sergeant with her new found motherhood. But like any parent, she’s bound to make mistakes along the way, bound to question her own judgment when it comes to what’s best for her child. This exploration may turn out to be one of the best elements of ‘SVU’ this season.
With this episode Season 16 of ‘SVU’ is to be off to a quick, fresh start. This installment, with its equal parts criminal action and personal character advancement, is the perfect way to slide right back into the series.