Everyone wants someone to hear them, to appreciate them, to care about their thoughts and feelings. There is no absolutely no substitute in the absence of this. In “Holden’s Manifesto,” SVU tells a tale about the loss of connection between a young man and someone, anyone, and how that deficiency led to tragedy.
Unfortunately, we know all too well that violence as a result of perceived extreme isolation is not something conjured up by a fantastically imaginative storyteller, it’s a very real thing as evidenced by the school shooting in Sandy Hook, CT, the theater rampage in Aurora, CO, and the violent spree perpetrated by Elliott Rogers in Isla Vista, CA; all acts committed by young men who desperately wanted to be noticed.
The latter is clearly the foundation for this episode as Rogers left several videos and a lengthy diatribe about what led him to carry out his horrific crimes.
Using this as a springboard, SVU crafted a dark tale about the inner workings of someone desperate, lonely, and confused about his place within the framework of societal norms.
Opening the episode is the central figure who will drive the action of the story, Holden March, as he records a video in public, noting all of the people around him who are making the type of personal connections that he has never been able to do.
This video sets the stage for what is to become a rapidly escalating pattern of revenge violence.
Holden’s on-camera mannerisms immediately establish his clumsy communication process, which features a halting, clipped, speech pattern, distinct for a lack of the use of contractions, among other things. This introduction also creates a definite curiosity about the young man’s thought process and where those feelings will take him, and us, during this journey to right the wrongs he feels have been perpetrated against him.
His delusional crusade begins with him stabbing a young female. As she’s being shuttled into the ambulance, Holden reveals via video that he’s standing extremely close to the crime scene and yet no one notices him. Chillingly, he says that soon everyone will know who he is.
When Holden attacks two other young women, a pattern emerges and some investigating leads the detectives to Holden’s parents, where his agitated father admits that they know Holden has problems while his mother insists that his just a confused young man.
As Benson and Amaro attempt to talk to Holden on the street, he pulls out his camera and begins to shout about illegal police activity to anyone who will listen, and plenty of onlookers do. At this point, the detectives back off and Holden takes off.
Later, when Benson, Amaro, Fin and Rollins return to search the apartment of the now missing young man, they discover guns, ammunition, a lengthy manifesto Holden has written about his woes, and another video; this one showing that he’s killed his neighbors for having loud sex.
While hunting for the suspect, Benson is distracted by her young son’s stay in the hospital for breathing problems and the new Chief of the SVU, who’s calls she’s been successfully dodging; until he decides to show up in the squad room for some face time and to give Benson a good lashing about the way she’s handling the case.
Frantically caught between her job and wanting to care for her son, Benson’s stress level reaches a fever pitch when baby Noah’s caseworker calls and chastises her for being at work instead of at her son’s bedside.
Using a list Holden included in his manifesto, the detectives discover the young man at his former school, holding several young girls hostage.
Rollins and Amaro end up in a dangerous standoff as Holden grabs one of the girls and holds a gun to her head.
In an attempt to bond with Holden, Rollins tells him that she read his manifesto and she understands him. She convinces him to let the girls and Amaro leave the room so that the two of them can be alone, to discuss adult things.
Outside at the police command center on the street, Dodds again reprimands Benson for her handling of this dangerous situation.
Back in the classroom, Rollins works hard to charm Holden and get him to put down his gun. She goes so far as to tell him she wants to kiss him and as he moves in to do so, a sniper’s bullet shatters the moment and leaves Holden dead on the ground and Rollins with his blood on her face.
When the detectives rush into the room, the first one to Rollins is Amaro. Clearly concerned about her, he tries to soothe her, but she pushes him away, as she’s visibly upset at how this went down, yelling that they didn’t have to shoot Holden.
In the closing moments of the episode, another video featuring Holden airs in which he declares, rather frighteningly, that he could have he could have spent his life in the shadows, but, ‘it’s better to die in infamy than to live a life in obscurity.
As usual, SVU successfully took a timely issue and deconstructed it down to its most basic elements – a lonely, socially awkward young man who desperately wants to achieve the one thing he cannot; some sort of human connection that he feels everyone but he has – and built a narrative that explored one of life’s most fundamental topics; the need for validation.
From the outside looking in, a person can seem to have all of the components that appear to guarantee a happy life – money, looks, intelligence and whatever else society deems acceptable at a given time – but none of it matters without some sort of validation. Everyone looks for validation in some aspect of their life; it may be by achieving some sort of accomplishment, but most often it’s through the attainment of something much more difficult to achieve – a close, personal association with another human being.
While Holden sought some type of confirmation that he was indeed significant in some way, Olivia tried to reconcile her newly complicated personal life with her always difficult professional life, and Rollins and Amaro, while not overtly so, sifted through a part of their relationship they clearly hadn’t intended to, certainly not while trying to resolve a hostage situation.
Speaking of that hostage situation, which for those not noticing, took up almost the entire fourth act and fifth act of the show, it really highlighted how far Rollins has come in her work with the Special Victims Unit. Often shown as just a skillful investigator, Rollins really displayed her mettle throughout this crisis and the fact that she was hoping to take Holden out of there alive demonstrated her compassion in a way that hasn’t been exposed before. Certainly kudos are due Kelli Giddish for bringing this new level of authenticity to Rollins throughout her confrontation with Holden.
John Karna, the young actor who portrayed Holden, should be commended as well for his work in making the troubled character equal parts misunderstood innocent and evil-minded murderer, something that’s no easy feat.
“Holden was a tough role to cast,” admits SVU Executive Producer Warren Leight. “We needed a very specific kind of guy. He needed to be appealing, but not in a leading man sort of way, and not in immediately crazy sort of way either to be believable. It was really tricky and normally we don’t get much time for casting but we knew this part was coming for a while and our casting director (Jonathan Strauss) found John and he just nailed it in every way; his mannerisms, the way he spoke, even the way he sometimes just grinned when it seemed so inappropriate to do so, all of it, he just got it. And, keep in mind, this wasn’t an easy role to play by any means, but John got in there and worked it so that he really exceeded where we thought this character could go in the way he made you feel so many things as the story progressed.”
Continuing on this season’s theme of family, there were moments in this episode that may have uncovered a shift in the way that Olivia feels toward suspects, victims, and the legal system as a whole now that she’s a mother. When Holden’s mother grips Olivia’s arm begging the Sergeant not to hurt her son, one can’t help but think that Olivia, now with her own son in the hospital, may understand the intensity of this woman’s pain more than she has in the past.
Along those some lines, while Noah comes through his ordeal rather unscathed, Olivia, now struggling amidst the scrutiny of the foster care system, may look back on her years of dealing with other foster parents and realize that while it’s a desirable endeavor, it’s far, far from being an easy one and she may have harshly judge others in their efforts to do it. It’s important to remember here that while a judge did grant Olivia custody, that can be revoked at any time and, not to scare anyone, let’s hope here that this hospital incident isn’t setting up the question of Olivia’s capability as a parent; that she won’t face losing Noah for circumstances that seem out of her control. (But knowing the writers of this show, that call from Noah’s caseworker wasn’t just a one-off and this issue will come up again.)
When Olivia does finally have some peaceful moments with her now recovered son, she whispers to him that he has a long life ahead of him and people who love him, but given what’s she’s just been through, watching a mother who desperately loved her son but knew he had problems be forced to stand idly by as the young man did the unthinkable, Olivia wouldn’t be a true parent if she didn’t at least wonder for a moment who her son will grow up to be, especially given that she knows virtually nothing about his biological family history. An argument for nature versus nurture could ensue here, but the main point is that bringing up a child, whether a blood relative or not is a true leap of faith. No parent knows what kind of person their child will grew into; they just have to do the best they can throughout the process.
Could Holden’s parents have done things differently? They clearly tried to do the right thing by getting him counseling. Could the simple act of someone reaching out to him have thwarted his desire for violence? Maybe. Maybe not. It’s complicated and not something that can be solved with any overall statement about how to treat others.
What we can do is not ignore the issue of the desire for connection, the need for validation; that, we know is universal. Start the conversation, pay attention – things that seem so simple and yet could make all the difference in the end. We’ve all heard stories about how just a ‘Hello’ or a friendly remark stopped someone from doing something horrible to themselves and/or others. Who wouldn’t want to be the one who changed that path from negative to positive? It may not work all of the time, but if it does, it’s certainly worth it.
“Holden’s Manifesto,” while born out of a series of unthinkable incidents, and ending on an antagonizing note with Holden’s final video — really, we know that you like to go to black with a sting SVU, but after this one it may have been more poignant to conclude with Olivia confronting her son – really does its job of staying with you and making you consider the thoughts and feelings of those around you, a feat that’s not easy to do and is rarely seen on a primetime drama.
Four episodes in and the bar has been set high for the rest of season sixteen. Please, keep it coming.