Law & Order: SVU 23×08, “Nightmares in Drill City” was a well-intentioned episode of television that didn’t always hit the mark. It did, however, raise some very important points, whether done as well as we would’ve liked or not, about some of the flaws in our justice system. It’s just…the blindspots the Special Victims Unit—even our beloved Captain Olivia Benson—had throughout the case were the bigger issue here, whereas a lot of time was spent…not really focusing on that part. Let’s break it all down.
Let’s start off with some positivity before we really dig in: The setup in this case was really interesting, and anyone who has wanted to see Sonny Carisi (Peter Scanavino) kind of as the central point of an episode of Law & Order: SVU was certainly well fed here. Carisi definitely did his job in terms of standing up for Tori Warshofsky, who he recognized as a victim, even when it meant pitting himself against the leadership in his first case with Homicide. He recognized all the signs of abuse from his brief time in the Special Victims Unit and worked, tirelessly, to try to find some kind of justice for this young girl, who had made terrible mistakes but was not really as much “to blame” for the triple homicide as the written law wanted to assert.
And then there was Olivia Benson, with her usual brand of fierce protection and empathy for victims. Of course, it probably goes without saying at this point, but there was also Mariska Hargitay doing that thing she does. No, we still don’t have words for it. Yes, we continue to be in awe, week after week.
So, then, anyone reading this review might wonder why we think “Nightmares in Drill City” didn’t always hit the mark. Here’s the biggest, most glaring, answer: In a 23rd season that’s highlighting power imbalances in an unjust justice system, it’s upsetting to know that, even with all her experience and all the mistakes she’s learned from along the way, even Liv didn’t think about Jasmine having suffered the same abuses as Tori until it was almost too late. There’s your story. The focus should have been on making sure both girls’ status as victims was honored, that Tori and Jasmine were given equal opportunities in this investigation.
Instead, there was a whole lot of crusading for Tori and damned near nothing for Jasmine. Or. Well. There was no thought about what “G,” the actual murderer, might have done to Jasmine until it benefited Benson’s, Rollins’, and Carisi’s crusade to keep the good, straight-A student and flutist with the mom who worked too hard out of jail. As in, nobody thought Jasmine might have been just as robbed of her innocence as the little white girl until…the thought might save the little white girl. That’s a problem—and a big one at that.
As we pointed out in our review of the latest Law & Order: Organized Crime, we enjoy our flawed heroes. It makes them more real. So, for Benson to make mistakes is both expected and welcome. The problem is, she keeps making the types of errors with respect to race that we can’t continue to forgive, especially when many of those mistakes could be avoided if there were more diverse voices contributing to the stories at Law & Order: SVU (and, to be honest, to more series in general).
If Liv had at least recognized that she screwed up when it came to Jasmine, that would have made the situation more palatable. Instead, she was depicted as swooping in as the hero with the genius idea…to save…Tori. That’s not ok.
That’s not to say that “Nightmares in Drill City” completely avoided the way race played into the investigation. It just…approached that reality through the wrong lens. We heard a lot of Division Chief Maxwell talking about “optics” throughout this case. And, again, yeah, there were some optics problems—just not the ones the prosecutors were worried about.
Commenters, correct us if we’re wrong here, but nobody is saying, “don’t prosecute the Black guy with a gun who killed three people. Throw the white girl who sent the text to set it all up in jail and throw away the key” when they call for racism to be taken out of the justice system. People are asking for those who commit the same crimes to be treated equally, prosecuted at the same rate, and given the same types of deals and/or sentencing, regardless of race. And it’s not, “oh, the poor prosecutors. How ever can they do their jobs while avoiding being called racists,” like we seemed to get from Maxwell either.
Sure, the case in Law & Order: SVU 23×08 “Nightmares in Drill City” had tons of layers of complications because the law said Tori was culpable, while common sense said she was a victim and should be treated as such. But there really shouldn’t have been any difficulty in deciding what to do about “G.” Nobody considers it a bad look when murder is punished. It’s more that white men, and/or crybaby little white boys with guns that compensate for their lack of manhood, are always let off while guys who look more like “G” face the harshest sentencing.
Granted, the Homicide DA’s office was, in no way, set up as the “ideal” in this episode, so maybe that was part of the point. It just didn’t come across particularly well or in a particularly instructive way, especially if it was meant to accomplish educating any viewers who actually think the way Maxwell does. There was also the kind of…irritating, for lack of a better word, way Chief Baptiste came across, as someone who was part of the “wrong” side of the case in terms of how to treat Tori. That would’ve been fine if, again, he was only part of the power structure that Carisi and Benson were trying to fight here.
“Ah, here we go. The generic ‘young Black male’ strikes again.”
…but then it completely made his important statement about the “young Black male” dragging Tori out of the hospital ring hollow and just feel like some kind of empty “oh, you’re racist if you go after the bad man” moment. Which is, again, not what anybody is really saying. There’s also the issue of a Black Bureau Chief making his first appearance as the enemy, even when he is saying the things people need to hear—especially after Law & Order: SVU already axed Garland, its Black Deputy Chief, earlier in season 23.
“We use our discretion all the time for the rich, for the connected. Why can’t we do that here?”
“Sometimes…Sometimes, justice is about compassion. And all due respect, the question should be: What kind of office do you want to run?”
Carisi had such great moments here, with Law & Order: SVU providing him with some powerful, thought-provoking statements. We just wish a lot of that wasn’t obscured by the problematic framing.
Thoughts on Law & Order: SVU 23×08 that may or may not give you nightmares
- First of all, who gave Mariska Hargitay the right to look like that? (Hargitay, probably: “I decide.”)
- Baptiste and Maxwell really plagiarized the shit out of Carisi’s speech, huh? Trash.
- …and again, it’s problematic as fuck for me to feel that way about Baptiste at this point, especially after a case like this.
- “I’m not mad at you.” “I’m sad at you.” Ok but Liv to El when.
- “You were never locked in a room. You took drugs, you received expensive gifts, and you partied with celebrity rappers. In fact, you never told anyone that you were being exploited until you were arrested for murder.” Looks like, instead of dying a hero, Carisi lived long enough to become the villain.
- …except he redeemed himself later. And we didn’t get a scene of Liv telling Amanda how awful Sonny was or that she couldn’t trust him anymore. Funny that.
- Does Velasco just make shit up about identifying with victims? Or…was his life actually that horrible? And if it was, why is he besties with McGrath, of all people?
- Speaking of besties: Regardless of how everything played out, I’m never, ever going to be mad about seeing Mariska Hargitay and Kelli Giddish sharing so many scenes.
- Bonus points for it being so much of Liv and Amanda just, like, talking about how shitty everything coming out of Maxwell’s department was. SVU ladies supporting SVU ladies? Sign me up.
- On the flip side, seeing Hargitay and Betty Buckley go at it was awesome, too. That elevator scene, in particular, was fire, and I appreciate the way their enmity felt like two very successful people going up against each other, as opposed to any misogynistic “cat fight” framing.
- …but do we expect any less from our queen with literally any scene partner, ever? Nah.
- “Yeah. School was easy. Nights were hard.” And see, there’s some of Law & Order: SVU‘s brilliance coming back through. Sometimes, trauma doesn’t automatically translate to failing grades (or a poor work life for older folks). Sometimes, we throw ourselves into that hard work as an escape. Been there, done that. Am the poster child in some ways…just not with the particular trauma that Tori faced.
- “What are you? Puerto Rican? Dominican? Some kind of mix?” “What does that matter?” “Just didn’t think you’d fall for that white girl magic. That’s all. But I guess everyone does.” See! This! Part!!!! Jasmine was telling us from the very beginning, and y’all didn’t listen!
- “I’m not done yet!” “That’s your OCD kicking in.” Next time, @ me about my zillion edits on all these reviews.
- “Are you a closer or not?” Carisi is no Harvey Specter, so that’s a no from me.