Law & Order: Organized Crime 2×17 “Can’t Knock The Hustle” took a deep dive on Detective Stabler’s feelings about his father. We’ve always known Elliot’s dad wasn’t the best, to say the least, but he’d always kept his illusions about his “good” side as some sort of heroic cop. But last time we met with the team at Organized Crime, we learned that maybe even Joe’s best moment was…still pretty awful.
So, we have a man, a protagonist, a hero — or maybe a little bit of an anti-hero, given some of his past misdeeds — who’s had nothing but upheaval when it comes to his sense of self in the past year. After decades of centering his whole identity on being a man committed to duty, to being a better husband and father than Joe ever was, his wife was taken from him in an act of violence. Before so much as beginning to heal, he went undercover the first time and nearly lost himself to Eddie Ashes. Now, while Stabler’s trying to rebuild a “friendship” (sure) with the partner he left behind, he’s undercover as the worst possible version of himself so he can root out corruption at the NYPD and make the institution more like his idealized version of it…only to find out that whatever model he tried to follow was nothing but a lie.
Even before he learned that Joe Stabler’s Combat Cross was soiled, Elliot was conflicted. We’ve seen this in his constant worry that he’s betraying other cops. He’s eaten up by guilt when he thinks about how he doesn’t actually have Donnelly’s back as a partner should.
That same inner conflict certainly showed up in Law & Order: Organized Crime 2×17, especially in the scene where Elliot went a little bit UN-Stabler on a domestic abuser while the dirty Donnelly was remarkably gentle and decent with the victim. There’s a moment in that scene, as Stabler is on his way out the door and looks back over his shoulder, that Christopher Meloni makes it very clear Stabler is taking it all in and seeing the good in Donnelly and, once again, having a moral battle with himself.
But the real struggle, and the real heart of this story — and really any story we find ourselves affected by — comes down to family.
Elliot Stabler is carrying a huge burden with him, and it used to be a huge symbol of faith. This time, it’s not about faith in God. It’s his faith in his father, his faith in what he does for a living.
It’s painful, watching him turn that Combat Cross over in his hands before hastily shoving it away when his own son starts to ask questions. At OCCB, he’s starting to build up a new family in Jet and Sergeant Bell. But even though he can be light-hearted with Jet about going for a ride, and even though he knows Bell has his back, he can’t quite bring himself to be fully honest when he asks Jet to look into Joe’s record — he’s not quite there yet.
Honestly, there’s probably only one person on the planet he’d feel comfortable unloading his unguarded feelings about the whole dilemma on — because, you know, they could always share all the things except how they felt about each other. But he’s leaned on her too much lately and is, hopefully, trying to do better…
“That was the pride of our family.”
The most honesty we get from anyone in Organized Crime 2×17 comes from Bernie Stabler, through the lights-out performances of Ellen Burstyn. There are her frank, almost light, mentions of how Joe would’ve boxed Elliot’s ears if he rolled his eyes at him, or washed his mouth out with soap if he “sassed” him. All of that talk is avoided, in typical Stabler fashion, by simply trying to redirect the conversation. The thing is, you can change the subject all you want…but the pain is still there.
Elliot has yet to learn how to work through it, but he’s trying. Somewhat.
Once Eli has left the room, and Elliot tries to casually bring the conversation around to the Combat Cross, El’s “Mama” becomes noticeably. It’s here that we really see just how much trauma Joe Stabler put them both through.
“Don’t tell Bernie anything. She can’t handle it. Don’t tell her your secrets either. She can’t keep a secret. God forbid you tell her your secrets. Don’t tell her that he’s cheating. Don’t tell her that he’s suspended…“
As always, Elliot can’t handle putting his mother through this kind of stress, so he interrupts her. It’s enough to snap her back to parroting the stories she was obviously fed. And it just hurts. There’s so much pain here because of Joe’s many abuses, so there’s really nothing else to say other than that — it just hurts.
We’ve talked before about how purposely confusing someone with an already-loose grip on reality is a whole new level of abuse…And while all the talk of boxing Elliot’s ears or “something much worse” is terrible enough, realizing just how much Joe Stabler manipulated his mentally ill wife is probably the most difficult part of all.
And we know, with the threat of “worse than he did to that perp,” that Elliot is starting to put together just how much more traumatic his mother’s experience with Joe was than he ever even realized. Which, of course, makes all the doubts about Joe being “a good man” and a “good” cop even stronger.
So…he pays a visit to the only real father figure he ever had: Donald Cragen.
Most of the promotional material for Law & Order: Organized Crime 2×17 focused heavily on Dann Florek’s guest spot as retired SVU Captain, Donald Cragen. We’ll say it again: Found family is often more important than the family you’re born with. And as far as both Organized Crime‘s Elliot Stabler and SVU‘s Olivia Benson go, Captain Cragen was always the father they never had, yet the dad they needed and deserved. He was tough but fair; he was there for them and cared about them in ways the people who were supposed to be there for them never quite did.
So, in an episode so focused on juxtaposing bad cops like Donnelly with noble ones like Stabler and even layering the “family man” image of Mr. Webb against all the toxic reveals around Joe Stabler, a Cragen appearance was necessary. It’s just…Don disappointed us a bit.
Elliot went to his former Captain for answers. What he got was kind of a mix of good advice, more doubts, reassurances, and thin blue line crap. So, we’ll start with the good and then explain what went wrong: Yes, El needed something good to hold onto, — some kind of sign that everything he thought he knew about the Combat Cross wasn’t a lie.
Yes, Cragen gave him the best possible way of looking at the gift going forward:
“I’m guessing that your father gave you this medal as a kind of…act of contrition for him — maybe his way of saying, ‘you do better. You honor this Cross and all that it’s meant to represent.'”
With that being said, though…It’s time for some real talk.
Cragen made way too many excuses for Joe, and for dirty cops in general. It’s 2022. Hearing all about how “tough” it was for cops and blahblahblah, especially coming from someone who’s meant to be the voice of wisdom and reason in this moment, is…kinda gross, actually.
It just — it really wasn’t a great look, particularly coming from a franchise that’s been known for copaganda. I don’t care about “different times” or any of that. Being “a good cop” doesn’t involve being an abusive asshole at home, and being a “loyal partner” doesn’t mean helping your bestie cover up murder-by-cop.
Elliot is in the middle of trying to expose a corrupt cop in Donnelly. While Stabler was busy worrying about his father’s legacy as a “good” cop, Donnelly was down for murdering a guy to cover up the fact that his gang had stolen from him. So, spare us all.
Elliot doesn’t need to hear about loyalty and whatnot. He needs to hear the truth about right and wrong and constantly striving to be better — better than his father and, yeah, also better than his past self.
People make mistakes. There are gray areas, and including characters who are neither pure evil nor pure good is one of Organized Crime‘s strong suits. When it comes to Joe Stabler, though there’s not really a lot of room for gray. Especially if we want his son to be the man he clearly wants to be himself.
Can’t knock these Law & Order: Organized Crime 2×17 musings
- “Is that Papa Joe’s?” “Yeah, I think so.” Way to be cryptic, Zaddy.
- “For one thing, you could not steal my meds.” Bernie Stabler, shade artist.
- Carmen/Nova…probably shouldn’t have told her brother how deep undercover she’s been all these years until after she was done helping Bell take down Mr. Webb. The way her story fit into all of this, though…was kind of brilliant. Family is so messy and complicated, and even if you’re doing something you think is noble, it may be the opposite of what your parents wanted for you. A message.
- Can we talk about that look on Meloni’s face after the “we’ve all done things that we’re not proud of” line, though? Stabler’s jacket is full of those things..and then, there’s the part where the Detective Dumbass ghosted Olivia for all those years. That moment of understanding with Cragen had better cover all of that.
- “Was there corruption? Of course there was. Were there bad cops? Absolutely.” Right. Sooooo…Leave it at that, and quit with the excuses. Period.
- “You’re nothing like him, Elliot. You’re a good man.” Listen to your mother, El. (But also, be better than your past shit.)
- It’s weird how Stabler totally understood that we aren’t our fathers when it came time to reassure the one true love of his life of how great she turned out…but he can’t seem to get the guilt to stop eating at him over what his own dad did.
- Also: Gonna go out on a limb and say that El knows a little bit about acts of contrition that then become emblems of comfort and faith…only to get spoiled. (“Semper Fi, El.”)
- “That’s what partners are for.” No.
- Elliot Stabler, coffee snob. Love it here!
- But also: Coffee is good and good for you. Fight me.
- …and that big bulk of a man with that tiny cup…hot why?
- “That sounds like MAGA.” AND THEN HER FACE. Never change, Bell. Never. Change.
- “The hospital food’s better than this crap.” Me at any apple juice that didn’t come in those little cups my Grannie used to save for me when she was in the hospital, tbh.
- “I did what I had to do for my family.” Webb’s part in all this fits. Same goes for Santos.
- Still criminals, though.
- “It’s on my bucket list!” Um. It had better be below moving your “friendship” forward. We’re all tired and at death’s door at this rate.
- The point of that scene, though, was obviously how close El is with our girl Jet. And yeah. We love that for everyone involved.
- Plus: This man in leather. Help.
- The little hat. Also help.