The second half of the Law & Order: SVU premiere double-header, “Never Turn Your Back On Them,” was somehow an even more damning look at the wealthy and powerful than the season 23 premiere. Had we not seen the first half on its own, we wouldn’t have been able to tell where it ended and SVU 23×02 began. So, all that “cinematic” talk over the hiatus really was trying to tell us to buckle up for just nonstop sitting on the edge of our seats over this case.
Before getting into the guts of this thing, it’s worth it to note that, given the complete lack of justice here, we should feel powerless. We should feel jaded, like it’s time to give up. Between the outcome of the case and two more people walking out of Olivia Benson’s inner circle, the episode’s ending should leave viewers with a bitter taste in their mouths.
And yet…because this is television—and part of a damned fine pair of episodes at that—all the real-world disappointment is overshadowed by pure excitement for all the possible storytelling avenues to come.
Season 23 is kicking off with so much potential, and I say that…weirdly not from a place of being totally unhinged about Olivia’s personal life? I mean, yeah, I’m there, too—particularly after the new Organized Crime promo—but the chance to explore all of these power structures from Liv’s perspective? With Mariska Hargitay doing that thing she does in terms of getting better and better by the second? That…That’s something else entirely.
So far, by showing how disgusting all the behavior at the top is, Law & Order: SVU’s latest attempt at tapping into the issues is right on target. Everyone loves Liv. Let’s not make any mistake about that…But trying to force her to seem like some kind of perfect crusader for justice, even when she was defending indefensible behavior from her fellow officers of the law, a few years ago…did not go over well. Mixing too many headliners in the wrong way has been tried before, too, to an almost clownish effect. Sometimes, though, creating a complex scenario, with a set of intertwined Big Bads, really, truly works.
This was one of those times. There were shades of so many memorable pieces of news in this episode, not because anyone tried to force them together, but because they’re just all small parts of a much, much larger and uglier hole.
Calling out all these politicians gone bad, then blending their trash behavior with a system that was supposed to protect girls like Jenna Evans but rallied behind the perpetrators instead?
Yes. This is the way. It works because it’s genuine.
Law & Order: SVU 23×02 totally nailed this part, specifically
One thing that may or may not get talked about as it relates to “Never Turn Your Back On Them” is just how real Jenna’s background was. SVU has certainly told stories about re-victimization over the years—almost to the point of absurdity with the number of Benson’s kidnappings. But if we’re going back to the idea of this being a truly “genuine” episode—an organic one, if we dare to use that word in a TV review—we really need to point out how perfect of a target Jenna was for Congressman Howard.
To be clear, in case anyone who reads this tries to pick a fight : No, no one is saying it was the victim’s fault or that something was inherently wrong with her that made this filth choose her.
It’s just…these powerful men, who get away with doing the worst over and over, become good at seeking out people they can easily manipulate. Maybe we’re all easy to win over if the right kind of predator finds the right place inside of us—the right scar or gaping wound to poke at—but someone like Jenna, with a clearly abusive father? All the fancy Congressman had to do was show an interest in her, pretend to trust her judgment when her own father tried to keep her locked up and sheltered…And Howard was the good guy to her.
This is what serial predators do: They find a way to be your “friend,” turn on the charm to the public eye so they can fool both their victims and everyone else around them, and then they strike.
It’s infuriatingly easy to relate this to the Larry Nassar/USA Gymnastics scandal. The Karolyis were abusive in so, so many ways. Nassar barely had to do anything to earn athletes’ trust. And then, he could do whatever he wanted. For decades. To hundreds of young girls. (See also: He literally earned McKayla Maroney’s trust with bread.)
Back to the case at hand.
There’s no penalty for being an overbearing father, for being a little too aggressive—even with the cops who are trying to find justice for your daughter and countless others. Even on Law & Order: SVU, there’s no way to prosecute if it’s not reported. And even then, the law falls short, both in fiction and in reality. So, for Jenna, no matter how terrified she was of her father, no one was coming to save her—not even Olivia Benson in her full superhero attire. Jenna was never going to have an escape from her dad’s temper and controlling nature—except the life a predator politician showed her.
And so, everything that happened…happened.
It’s perfectly believable that Jenna would lie to herself—to think Congressman Howard did nothing wrong by having a sexual relationship with her at 15, by having his fixer pay for her abortion, or even by slipping something in her drink. Deep down, she probably knew it was abuse… But everything inside of her would have been in denial, screaming at her that no, he didn’t hurt her. He was her knight in shining armor. He opened the whole world up to her; he freed her from a shitty father, who didn’t want to let her grow up and who would absolutely kill her if he knew what she’d been up to.
Honestly, bravo to Law & Order: SVU 23×02 on that. There was so much going on with the politics of it all (also well done there), but what will stick with at least this viewer is how well they showed how one type of trauma can lead to another.
If the goal is to give victims a chance to tell their stories, so to speak, then it was well met here.
Oof. Where to begin? This is the hard part.
Given what they represented to Law & Order: SVU viewers, there was never going to be a way to write off Kat Tamin (Jamie Gray Hyder) and Deputy Chief Garland (Demore Barnes). With that being said, Executive Producers Julie Martin and Warren Leight did the best they could do with a bad situation—with one exception.
I had an entire angry rant in my head, just ready to be written, for most of the time I was watching Kat’s story play out on SVU 23×02. She was an openly bi character in a police procedural, so even giving the possibility of her dying from her on-the-job shooting just…It wasn’t a good look. “Bury your gays” was really close to becoming “Law & Order: SVU buried their bi,” and there was yikes written all over that.
Then again…nobody’s exactly saying they weren’t on the edge of their seats, waiting to see it all play out. So, it worked in its way, even if it was a bad idea to do? If that makes any sense at all? It probably doesn’t. But whatever.
Kat’s shooting gave Fin a chance to make corny dad jokes, for Ice-T to really give a killer (no unfortunate puns intended) performance between the worrying over his partner and the guilt he clearly felt over not protecting her.
This plot point in “Never Turn Your Back On Them” also gave the Fin/Olivia partnership another chance to shine. Fin was Liv’s rock in 23×01, what with him fretting about her doing too much on her broken ankle and all; now, in 23×02, Captain Benson was able to give him moral support. Honestly, their friendship and partnership doesn’t get talked about enough. If anyone ever wants to argue that any character was a “better” partner than Elliot Stabler, Fin is literally right there. He’s been by her side all these years.
…not that anyone will ever convince me that El isn’t, wasn’t, or won’t always be the partner for Liv, though. Anyway.
Thankfully, the SVU writers didn’t didn’t actually kill off Kat, no matter how bad things looked for a while. Her exit fit who she was and gave us an important reminder: The Special Victims Unit is not a place where officers traditionally last long. Olivia Benson, Fin Tutuola, and Amanda Rollins are gods among mere mortals for staying on this “elite squad” (emphasis on elite) all these years.
“I really want to talk out out of this because I believe that change is coming.”
“Because you have to. We’re not in the same place. I don’t have 20 years invested. I’ve got to get out before I get too deep. Look, I am so happy for the victims’ sake that you’re here. I just can’t stay.”
(I’m not crying. You’re crying. Insert whining about Mariska Hargitay’s sheer audacity in breaking hearts here.)
As if we didn’t all suffer enough, Kat’s exit wasn’t the only one this early in the new season. We also had to say goodbye to Deputy Chief Garland.
Doing the right thing cost Deputy Chief Garland everything. And that’s totally how it works.
Old white dudes like McGrath don’t like things getting “too political” (bigot-code for calling out racism and other injustices), so they bury any voices that actually stand up for what’s right. Someone had to take the fall and keep the power structures in place after Congressman Howard’s lawyer-slash-fixer didn’t come through with the Big Catch he lied about giving the authorities.
So, of course, why not push out someone like Garland, who was trying to do what was right? And, you know, the guy who said all along that rushing the case was going to end in a loss?
Liv probably has to watch her back in Law & Order: SVU season 23…
All that talk about “real rapes” at the end of Law & Order: SVU 23×02 was…something else, too. There’s really no response to anything that came out of McGrath’s mouth in that last scene other than fuck that guy.
“…focus on the real rapes”? Fuck that guy. “Old school side talking”? Just say you’re garbage and move on. (Also, fuck that guy.) Something about “policing the bedroom” and blah, blah “there’s no one better for this job” than Liv but only if she puts her mind to it???? Fuck him into oblivion.
God, he’s gross.
But that’s just part of what makes it look like season 23 has the potential to be the best in a very long time, maybe even the best ever. Liv’s reactions to this dude were so on point, and there’s already this feeling of her having to find a way to strike a balance between standing up for what’s right—”I’m not going to turn my back on any victim”—and doing what has to be done to stay SVU’s Captain so she has a chance to be there for victims.
These are the problems with law enforcement: The “good” ones have to walk this line and constantly be silenced by the out of touch, racist, sexist, and overall disgusting (did I mention fuck McGrath?) dudes in charge. If Olivia Benson is really the hero we’ve been led to believe all these years, watching her navigate this very reality-based system, with everything laid bare like, has the potential to be groundbreaking. God (Mariska), let it be so.
My entire soul is ready to be destroyed by Mariska Hargitay. Let’s do this.
We’re out here thinking things about Law & Order: SVU 23×02 at a billion o’clock, folks…
- “Death is overrated if you ask me.” Literally the fandom’s thoughts after seeing that promo for the upcoming Organized Crime episodes.
- I don’t like Velsaco. He had a moment there…but I don’t like him. Rollins’ constant annoyed reactions to him? Same, sis.
- “Say hi, Kat.” “Hi, Kat.” Jokes.
- “How many cops does it take to screw in a lightbulb? Kat. Wake up! wake up! You’re gonna be mad if you miss this punchline, alright? How many? None. They bust the bulb for being broke and the room for being Black.” King of dad jokes that speak truth to power.
- The throwback to the Lewinsky dress, though…Oof.
- “No one has more respect for Chief Garland than I do.” Liv’s raised eyebrow is the mood.
- “Why do I feel like we’re winning some battles, here and there, but we’re losing the war.” “Because we are.” A word.
- Just, like, the heartbreak all over Liv’s face at everything Kat said during their last scene together. And all the pain rolling off of Kat because of the broken system she was stuck in…Mariska Hargitay and Jamie Gray Hyder really did that together, huh?
- “Maybe all these guys should go to outer space.” Yes. Shoot them into the sun, to be honest.
- It’s always the guys who “don’t believe in that” when it comes to abortion who are absolutely fine with all sorts of actually terrible things, huh? Trafficking single mothers who need housing? Cool. Taking advantage of teens? The dream. Letting your fixer leave a trail of bodies in his wake so you can avoid the consequences of your actions? Perfectly OK. People deciding whether or not to be pregnant? A bridge too far, apparently.
- “There’s no way that it’s mine! I always pull out!” Liv and Carisi…those looks…SAME.
- “With SVU, it’s just…like we’re always there too late. By the time we get there, the victim is already traumatized. And then, they’re traumatized more. It’s like, what are we doing, you know?” “For me, it’s always been about getting the bad guys off the street.” “I hear that…It’s just…when half the time they plead out. Or, if they’re rich? They just get off. It’s like…there’s gotta be a way to be more proactive, you know?” They went there. Bravo.