Law & Order: SVU 23×17 “Once Upon a Time in El Barrio” did something that seemed unthinkable earlier this season: It actually gave us a clear picture of who Detective Velasco is. Or, well. Maybe it wasn’t the full story on this new-ish character, who’s told a lot of stories that don’t always seem to add up and was brought in kind of as McGrath’s “guy.” But it was something real, something that got to the roots of him instead of having us scratching our heads and trying to figure out what the point of him even being there was.
On top of making us actually kind of enjoy getting to know the new guy, the episode worked really well from an overall arc standpoint. And some of the “hey, why can we get X conversation and not Y” stuff we talked about with SVU‘s previous episode…even managed to show up here.
So, let’s get deep with Law & Order: SVU 23×17…
For most of our time with Detective Velasco, we’ve kind of thought of him as just…Velasco at best and “Detective Whyshehere” at worst. We didn’t care to use his first name because we didn’t feel like he was part of the family, or even one of our friends. But on the rare occasion anyone tried to include him in that way, they called him Joe. Even official images have him listed like that: Detective Joe Velasco. He’s just Joe, about as “American” as apple pie or baseball or whatever — who knows what that even means anymore — a name as you can get.
But, when “Joe” received a phone call from a priest in Ciudad Juárez, where he grew up, that wasn’t what Padre Daniel called him. It turns out “Joe” is José.
New York, and especially the good ol’ NYPD, was never going to accept a José the same way it would a “Joe.” And so, somewhere along the way, he must have made a decision to lose, or at least hide, that part of himself. Rather than through one of Velasco’s seemingly unbelievable trips down storytelling lane, though, we learned this vital thing about him in a much more natural way: It just…happened. It was, as much as we hate it when TV writers use the word, organic.
For the most part, I’m not the right person to discuss what it’s like to come to the U.S. from Mexico and have to find a way to belong, often at the expense of everything that you are. Then again, even if I don’t know the exact feeling, I can still understand how inescapably human it is to feel like the place you call home doesn’t want to call you a part of that home because you’re different. Because you might speak a different language, look a certain kind of way, or have different traditions…Or because you might have a name that just isn’t “normal” according to whatever the people in power call “normal.”
But names are important in ways that are incredibly difficult to explain.
They carry so much of us with them, and even people who “don’t see color” or “love everyone” can’t seem to get past their internalized bullshit and respect all names. If something is too difficult for a certain kind of American to pronounce, they force nicknames on you. Or they repeatedly screw it up. It can wear you down, all that othering.
See also, if we’re going to insert the writer into the review for a second: My good Yiddish name is pronounced with a long A in the middle…but I’ve just given up, and accepted, in some parts of my life that the “an” in the middle of my name will be pronounced like “Anne” instead of like “ayn.”
So, yeah…I don’t know what it is to be José and have to tear away a piece of myself so I can be Joe…But I can empathize on some level.
“We’re of the same blood. You can trust me, Señora.”
So, yeah. Seeing “Joe” Velasco reclaim José, all while he spoke Spanish with victims and witnesses alike…Those details might seem small but really aren’t — at all. When you start to see a character become a full person, it makes you want to know even more. It makes you care. That’s what we got here.
Even better yet, Velasco just really did good, important work and connected with victims in Law & Order: SVU 23×17 in a way that, maybe, he hasn’t before now. Growth.
Was he kind of an idiot for disobeying a direct order from the Captain Benson? Obviously. But was his heart fully in the right place? Absolutely. There have always been hints that he might actually care and not just be here as a McGrath puppet, but we’re skeptical and protective of our Captain and her squad. We don’t trust easily, and we’re always looking for bad motivations.
In “Once Upon a Time in El Barrio,” though, there was nothing but pure heart. You could see it in the way he got Lucía to trust him, in his call with the priest at the end, and in so many other places throughout the hour. It just, simply, worked.
Captain vs. Captain
We just think that Olivia Benson utterly destroying a corrupt NYPD Captain…
No, we can’t finish that sentence because no, words don’t exist in this language or any other.
In a Season 23 that has consistently highlighted just how much corruption is always in the highest of places, and just how much that imbalance of power leads to the worst outcomes, SVU 23×17 certainly fits in. Valeria and her friends had big dreams that became even bigger nightmares when they put their trust in all the wrong people — powerful people with the money and connections to get them to New York. They thought they’d be safe. Valeria thought she was going to sing and dance with her name in lights. Instead, the “modeling” gig was just a trafficking scam. And we’re honestly not even getting into the brutal murder that opened the episode because it was just too much.
All of that would have been bad enough, but it was Captain Kubiak’s involvement that really sealed the deal on making “Once Upon a Time in El Barrio” such a strong fit for the season. This man had no business being in the business of protecting and serving, much less at such a high rank, but…
…well. Take it away, Liv:
“Oh, come on. You know how that goes. I mean, the old boy network, union protections. The one case that did get filed against him? It got tossed because of qualified immunity.”
And in this house, in Captain Benson’s house, we do not put up with this brand of shit. We don’t put up with it from anyone, but we especially do not take it from cops. (If only the actual world of law enforcement had someone like her, which we know…eh. It has the worst version of her?)
Even for someone who had seen a lot of terrible things, it was shocking to hear that Kubiak had been involved — had been raping these girls and was likely complicit in his detective’s murder. And then there was the delightful way Benson and Velasco set a trap for the disgraced Captain, all under the guise of going over evidence. They were kind of brilliant together.
Not to mention, when is it not just utterly delicious to see Olivia Benson fearlessly get in the face of unworthy men, all while destroying them with that tone that’s pure, acidic derision? It’s always so fun to watch when she goes into attack mode. And if there was ever a time for Liv to be a stand in for viewers, it was here, in her disgust at having to make a deal with Captain Crap.
“Are you kidding me? I can’t believe that you’re even thinking about giving this piece of crap any kind of deal.”
Because, of course, despite being a criminal…he had all the power. And so, the justice system would cut him the slack that people without power, no matter how relatively minor their “crimes,” will never see.
Once upon a Law & Order: SVU 23×17 thought…
- Kinda hinted at this above, but…Literally nobody needed to actually see the crime, much less the terrible condition of that poor girl’s body.
- Speaking of names that aren’t good ol’ Murrikkan types. Do y’all ever think about the dumbasses who told her to change her name and hope they’re crying about it now?
- “Is that what you tell yourself? That these brutalized, terrorized little girls like servicing you?” She—
- I just think that the expression on Olivia Benson’s face when Captain Pieceofcrap tried to talk to her about respect…
- No but how does anyone go around Mariska Hargitay when she’s saying literally any words in that tone or when she gives them those looks…and not actually drop dead? Asking for a friend who barely survives seeing it through the teevee.
- “The things we do for love.” “Right?” “I’ve been meaning to ask you about Stabler…” Fin, that was the least smooth you’ve ever been…but absolutely zero people care. Because it worked. This is the easy continuity we asked for!
- …the transition to “Stabler” from “love,” though. And Liv basically responding as if they are a unit because they are. Thriving in that endgame era.
- But also, let’s move this ship forward, please and thank you. We’re all getting old here.
- Wardrobe that does not hide hotness + exerting authority all over the place = fangirl flambé.
- I can not believe Fin asked if chisme was a pastry. Also can not believe his Spanish sounds even worse than mine did in sixth grade.
- But hear me out: Liv can have gossip and pastries with me. Any. Time.
- “Mi nombre es José.” This is so…it’s a lot, ok? I don’t even go here, but it’s big. We have writers here who could explain why better than I ever could…But I have heard them, and I see them. And I know stuff like this, plus Octavio Pisano actually being from Mexico when he’s playing José Velasco from Juárez, is a Big Deal.
- I just. Livterrogating a Captain?! The power that has, the intelligence that has…etc.
- And another “actually” moment. We keep winning.
- I literally have a hanging “Liv. YES” in my notes that, eh…Same, Shana from earlier — even though I have no idea what, specifically, it’s about. Just. Same.
- Tag yourself: I’m Captain Benson’s approving nod after witnessing Detective Velasco’s final call with Padre Dañel. Heart. On. His. Sleeve.