The Law & Order: SVU intro is one of those things that, when you sit on your couch all weekend long and watch nothing else, you still have to quote along. You know the lines. We all do. The serial rapist and murderer featured in “They’d Already Disappeared” definitely didn’t sleep on the “especially heinous” part.
After watching 500 episodes of a series, it’s easy to start getting lulled into a sense of complacency. Viewers know what to expect by now. It doesn’t matter whether you’re pulling up one of the classic episodes from back in the day, when Mariska Hargitay and Chris Meloni were two halves of the Benson-Stabler whole, or tuning in to SVU in the “2.0” era. There’s a formula to it. (Randy Meeks from Scream voice: “…a very. Simple! Formula!!!!”) You can count on certain pieces of the puzzle coming together in a certain way, and in Law & Order: SVU season 23, you can almost always be sure there’s something involving a power imbalance at play.
But because of incredible performances—from Hargitay and Meloni back in the day or from Hargitay and someone like a Kelli Giddish more recently—formulaic wouldn’t ever quite be the correct word to describe the show. Yeah, there are recognizable parts of every episode, but that’s ok. We all keep coming back for more with good reason. Hargitay’s Olivia Benson is almost surely the most compelling reason for staying invested, but there’s always a little something more in terms of a connection to telling survivors’ stories, or a certain type of storytelling, or any number of other things.
All this is to say, though, that the task of keeping it all fresh has to be an incredibly difficult one, especially as the episode count continues to climb. Law & Order: SVU 23×07, however, certainly fit the bill. After seeing Captain Benson and the Special Victims Unit tackle literally over 500 cases, some of which even had an eery resemblance to one another, being actually shocked when watching an episode shouldn’t happen often anymore, if at all.
But it happened here.
When Detective Amanda Rollins and Joe Velasco found the “vampire’s” layer, full of mummified women, it was something straight out of a horror movie. It was dark in a way that even this series about the darkest crimes imaginable usually isn’t. We can use all sorts of descriptive terms, like jaw-dropping (my mouth dropped open, literally, and I had to cover it with both hands as I gazed on horror) or nightmare-inducing.
It felt far more like an episode of Criminal Minds, complete with a basic, white male serial killer trying to compensate for his pathetic existence. That series certainly always pushed the shock value and trauma porn in ways that just about no other one ever has, particularly on network television. And it even revisited, on several occasions, stories about victims who were on the fringes of society before being taken, tortured, and killed—they’d already disappeared, if you will.
There were think pieces galore about whether or not Criminal Minds went too far, or whether the series truly had any value. (For my part, it did, with respect to that “found family” aspect of the BAU, but that’s a feature that was written years ago for a now-defunct site, so…moving on.) And we must ask ourselves, as always, whether seeing the truly sickening posing of those broken, yet preserved, bodies on Law & Order: SVU 23×07 ”They’d Already Disappeared” was actually worth the frightening images burned into our memories, as well.
Oddly enough, as much as I’d prefer that the answer were “absolutely not,” it might actually…be yes?
NHI: No Humans Involved
We’ve heard the “NHI” phrase before, all the way back in Law & Order: SVU‘s first season when a cocky cop rattled it off to an already-done-with-y’all’s-shit Olivia Benson. Over 20 years later, and with multiple Black and brown women disappearing over the course of 10 of those years, here it was again. Just scribbled on a case file. It turned out the drug users and sex workers, the homeless and the forgotten, weren’t just from East Harlem where Tania and Beauty were lost. They were from all over, possibly everywhere where the monster behind the madness had traveled with his carnival.
But several were from one place, and nobody at that precinct, aside from one guy at the bottom of rank structure, gave a damn.
It’s a very real phenomenon, often pushed aside and buried if mentioned at all. When white women, especially well-off ones, go missing? Everyone cares. Black and brown women, though? Society’s racism jumps out.
Throw in some other elements, like “survival” sex work, and these people labeled unworthy are devastatingly easy to make disappear. It’s a story that’s been told over and over again, but until someone actually hears their stories, it’s never exactly wrong to keep telling people—even through fiction like on Law & Order: SVU—what’s happening out there. In a season that’s packed with power struggles, highlighting what happens to some of the most powerless among us is a necessary move indeed.
“I’ve been doing this for over 20 years. I’ve never seen anything like this. And honestly? Honestly, you never get used to it. Any of it.”
Probably the biggest argument against an episode of television like “They’d Already Disappeared” is the graphic nature of it. Some might see it as trauma porn or something done just to ramp up the shock value as much as possible. As always, viewers’ feelings—especially when they feel as if they’ve been pushed too far beyond their own limits—are valid and to be respected, regardless of the work that went into every single detail of telling this story.
But I’d also argue that, in order to really make the message stand out, we sometimes need that ice cold bucket of water dumped all over us. You can’t exactly say SVU‘s 501st episode was forgettable or predictable, after all. It’s a fine line, wanting to up the ante and keep viewers from becoming too apathetic, all while (hopefully) trying to consider what will work versus what will just be there for the sake of being as jarring as possible. Sometimes, you might turn many off.
But there’s a certain respect that comes with seeing a bold move from a procedural that’s been on the air for so long—especially when all signs seemed to point to one specific person being the killer…and he turned out to actually be a really sweet guy with a meaningful way of comforting victims’ families. Again: “Formulaic,” thankfully, doesn’t work as a descriptor.
We are, once again, asking everyone at Law & Order: SVU how Mariska Hargitay does that
There are words. There are feature articles and “Woman of the Year” accolades. There are trophies galore and weekly reviews of Law & Order: SVU. And none of those things, individually or as a group, will ever explain Mariska Hargitay. They will never capture what it is she has brought to our screens, week after week, for over 20 years.
Despite knowing, logically, that Olivia Benson is just a fictional character, Hargitay has made her so real, it’s increasingly difficult to remember otherwise. In “They’d Already Disappeared,” it came from the moments when Liv would let herself be a little more vulnerable around Fin. We know she can let down the mask of professionalism around him, show just how much the case is actually getting to her, because she trusts him. She knows he won’t see her as less capable or weak—no “Captain” front is necessary.
Or, we could highlight when showed that characteristic and ever-growing empathy, this time, toward a victim’s sister in some of the briefest, yet most meaningful, looks. We saw Captain Benson’s humanity in all the quiet, supposedly insignificant gestures and moments of silence—like when Hargitay quite literally touched her chest, more than once, after M.E. Abel Truman had touched Olivia’s heart so deeply with his talk of preserving the right memories. After holding it together as the Special Victims Unit’s Captain for the entirety of Law & Order: SVU 23×07 “They’d Already Disappeared,” Hargitay finally gave us Olivia’s own, genuine reaction to all the pain and horror we witnessed throughout this case in that devastating final shot.
And then, of course, there was Captain Benson’s lights-out attack mode in interrogation with Trace Lambert. She worked him, pushed all the right buttons, and pretended to be so impressed by the killer’s intelligence, all while we saw—we just knew—the way Olivia was absolutely sickened underneath it all. There were so many notes to that part of the performance alone, and when you stack them against everything else in this episode…Truly, what are the right words? How do you characterize what this actress does, time after time?
As far as elements of this series that you can always expect or predict go, we’d say “Mariska Hargitay slays” is always at the top of the list…but it’s always just impossible to be prepared for the level of excellence. She simply keeps redefining what that means and raising the bar.
Thoughts on Law & Order: SVU 23×07 that refuse to disappear
- Putting this as a bullet because I can’t even: The haunting similarities to a certain other particularly horrible serial…had better not have been just a “wink, wink. Nudge, nudge.” There’s no way this wasn’t triggering for Liv. Honor her story, please.
- Bathrooms for customers only are ableist as fuck and just gross in general, for the record.
- “It is heartless out there tonight.” And for women like Tania and Beauty, it’s heartless out there every night.
- “Scream all you want. Nobody cares.” Also correct.
- “And stay away from the nerdy guys. They’re always the psychos.” Not Law & Order: SVU serving scalding hot tea like that in the 501st episode.
- I’m just saying if Fin wanted the why (besides “this guy is garbage”) for Lambert removing organs post-mortem, he could’ve called the BAU. (Yes, I’m still stuck on the Criminal Minds of it all. So, sue me.)
- There’s no way in hell Liv actually thought Country Jones was the killer after his reaction to those images, right? After all the years she’s been doing this? After all the years she and Fin have both been doing this, they needed the timeline to tell them it couldn’t have been Country? Nah. Plot hole.
- Jamal the vampire slayer got his inspiration from seeing J. August Richards as Charles Gunn on Angel. Don’t @ me.
- Whoever decided to give Law & Order: SVU off for Halloween week before airing this the week after? Was foolish. Those corpses were some spooky season shit.
- That one mummy’s body that they kept showing was…a lot. Address for sending therapy bills, please.
- Not McGrath’s toxic male ass and his little spy being the most visibly shaken by that crime scene. Like, yeah. It was awful. But compartmentalize like the two badass ladies you think you’re better than, ok? Ok.
- The way Liv whispered “hellhole,” though. Mariska, ma’am. Stop hurting me.
- “Somebody knows this killer. Somebody sells him coffee. Someone delivers his takeout. Somebody works with him or works for him.” There are monsters among us, and we don’t often recognize them for what they are. Great (kinda terrifying after this episode) reminder there.
- “The brain doesn’t need to retain an image of a cold, traumatized body. You can encourage recall of happy memories, especially in such a young woman.” This is so beautiful?
- …and see above re: Mariska’s portrayal of how Liv reacted. Because we will continue to stan.
- “He’s organized, methodical. No trace of his DNA or prints on the bodies or in the warehouse.” No, really. Too many similarities to that other guy, including his whole “I’m totes innocent” (until Liv cracked his ass) demeanor.
- “He came out of me that way: white as a sheet, flattened, quiet. A dead fish.”
- Just say he’s a fugly loser and move on, Mom.
- No but really. Liv played that man. Interrogation GOAT.