Law & Order: SVU 23×19 “Tangled Strands of Justice” featured absolute fire-driven performances from Mariska Hargitay and Orfeh as they squared off in an episode combining two cases that, on the surface, didn’t quite fit together. But then, the similarities started popping up, some more subtle than others.
In the first place, both cases ties to the past: Aretha Green disappeared just before 9/11, and while Libby Blandon’s brutal rape was just a year ago, the rapist…Well. We’ve known about that particular monster for a number of years. Sure, it hasn’t been as long, but there’s still something to be said for seeing the way a single moment can have ripples across years and years.
But, perhaps the bigger connection was the ongoing question: What happens to victims when the system either can’t or won’t support them? There were some other issues at play here, too, in terms of how we interpret right from wrong…Mostly, though, those questions weren’t really questions at all—especially as they were raised by some pretty clear-cut antagonists.
When the system can’t…
We’ve missed seeing Demore Barnes as Deputy Chief Garland. Let’s just get that out of the way before we take a look at his piece of the Law & Order: SVU 23×19 puzzle. If we’re sticking purely to fiction here, it hurt seeing yet another person Olivia Benson cared for and trusted leave her—especially when it meant that she was going to have to answer to McGrath, of all people, going forward.
(There’s also kind of, you know, the giant blow to viewers who actually got to see a Black man in charge…But, apparently, being upset about losing Barnes and Hyder was all about a ship. Ok. Sure.)
Not that we haven’t loved seeing Mariska Hargitay’s portrayal of an increasingly-done Liv, standing up to her disgusting excuse for a boss…but Garland was just better in every way. We also kind of prefer it when our Captain actually gets a few moments of peace here and there. Those breaks even give Hargitay more to work with, more ways to show off, seeing as how they keep her from always having to play pain and/or TV’s idea of Strength™.
See also: A happy Olivia Benson like the one who greeted Garland at the beginning of the episode? That’s something we can’t get enough of—literally. As in, Law & Order: SVU won’t let us have it. So, we’re so at the end of our rope here, we’re actually using “literally” correctly. Yes, it has come to this.
Back to the matter at hand.
What stood out here, in terms of a real “fit” with the episode, was the system’s failure. It wasn’t a malicious failure—just the result of the system being over-taxed.
Garland asked Olivia for help because he was sure he’d finally closed a case that had haunted him for over 20 years: Aretha Green’s September 10, 2001 disappearance.
“There was before, and there was after. But during? So many tragedies unsolved.”
The NYPD was unable to investigate Aretha’s case because they, and all the other first responders in the city, were busy in the aftermath of 9/11. It’s one of those situations where, if you look at what was going on at the time, it makes sense. There was something “bigger” than one missing little girl. Priorities were what they were in the face of so many other missing people and a “greater” horror.
Yes, there’s a reason for putting those modifiers in quotation marks, and it’s certainly not about implying the 9/11 attacks weren’t that big of a deal. The thing is, for the Green family, Aretha’s disappearance was everything. Her mom was left without closure, wrapped up in never-ending grief and misplaced guilt. Then, all these years later, she had to be traumatized all over again by finding about Aretha’s fate and everything that led up to her death.
“I thought maybe I did something wrong. But I hoped, you know, someday…She’d forgive me. Come home.”
And her sister, Nina…Who knows what that girl’s life might have been if not for this?
The loss would have been horrible regardless, but it didn’t have to be this horrible. Maybe if someone had known the truth sooner…
So, what happens when the system can’t be there for victims? Life moves on for everyone but them or, in Aretha’s case, everyone but their living relatives. Time can stand still; pain lingers while others heal. But those affected still suffer—even people like Garland, who might always wonder what they could have done differently. If only.
When the system won’t
Sometimes, gaps in the law make it easy for injustice to thrive. Certainly, that’s been an ongoing theme across all of this franchise’s series. And it was the issue for Law & Order: SVU 23×19. Often, the criminal justice system is best described as criminal.
Read that again. Take time to really think about it.
“Because it never occurred to anybody that they needed a law to prohibit it. This is completely unethical!”
Here, there was nothing preventing Detective Szabo from using rape kit DNA to close her cases—nothing, of course, except having basic decency toward victims who already had enough reasons not to come forward. Luckily for Libby Blandon, Olivia Benson and Lorraine Maxwell exist. Unfortunately for those of us outside this series’ fictional world, they actually don’t.
Most cops are Szabos, willing to do whatever it takes for justice.
Which, ok. Sure. If you don’t look too closely, a drive for bringing “criminals” to whatever qualifies as justice, a drive that refuses to give up in the face of obstacles…It’s something that sounds good—right up until the point when one of the so-called obstacles is having a moral compass.
And yeah, there are times when “protocol” is just a code for “how we’ve always done it because we don’t want to change” or (worse yet) “let’s cover up our fellow officers’ misdeeds.” But…violating victim privacy protocol—especially for rape victims—just to solve some cases where some material things were stolen? Kinda (a lot) trash.
Detective Szabo and D.A. Drakos made some statements that, within the smallest margin of error, are almost surely “correct.” Being a victim doesn’t mean you can’t also be a criminal, and it technically shouldn’t be a “get out of jail free card.”
…but it becomes a messy gray area, one with far too much in the column of “wrong” and not enough in the column of “right” to pull DNA from rape kits for any of this. It’s bad enough that so many victims suffer the painful process of having all that evidence collected, only for nobody to bother doing anything with them. Or for the end result, even when an attempt is made, winds up being that finding justice is impossible.
And the slippery slope nonsense about murder? As pretty much all of Olivia Benson’s reactions to Szabo indicated, they’re some real mental gymnastics. And still. Just no.
What happens when the criminal justice system won’t protect victims? We have to hope for someone in it to stand up for them. We have to hope for a Captain Benson or a Deputy Chief Maxwell.
Do such heroes exist? Maybe. It feels increasingly less likely that they do. But, at least, fiction can give us the escape we need from the criminality of reality’s idea of justice.
That’s what this series’ priority is supposed to be, and the goal was certainly achieved in this particular outing. “Tangled Strands of Justice” resulted in the only outcome that wouldn’t set a precedent for demonizing victims, who are already traumatized enough—by everyone from the people who assault them, to the cops and attorneys who scrutinize and demonize them in the process of investigating those crimes.
“Do you have any idea how difficult it is to get a rape victim to come forward, let alone agree to agree invasive trauma of a rape exam? The minimum pact between us and them is that we don’t use their DNA against them.”
Of course, let’s not even get started on the part where the very same Queens D.A. who refused to drop the case…took credit for Olivia Benson’s unending heart and advocacy. Because the real heroes almost never get recognition, while much weaker individuals tend to thrive.
That tracks, too.
Performance vs. ???
On the one hand, we could watch Mariska Hargitay and Orfeh spewing venom at each other for hours on end and never get sick of it. For a lack of a better way to put it, because there’s really no good way to put it at all, I’m going to steal a line from Dexter and go with “sweet Mary, mother of fuck that’s good.”
Bold of anyone to ever claim Olivia Benson doesn’t care anymore. Every single scoff, eyebrow raise, slammed door, ounce of pure fight—everything coming out of our shining star—in this episode was the result of her caring more than anyone, including the Liv of yesteryear, ever has. This is a woman, hellbent on standing up for victims and not putting up with anyone—especially not a mere Major Crimes detective—hurting them.
…which is where we have to say we’re a little bit confused. Maybe we’ll get some backstory in the future, but seeing Detective Szabo brazenly speak to Captain Benson like that didn’t quite add up. Then, when she dropped her little sarcastic quip at Division Chief Maxwell, in the middle of a courtroom…Um…That was even wilder.
What, exactly, fueled that woman’s audacity? How did she get away with it? And, as always, how did she have a predatory Captain Benson get in her face in that office and live to tell the tale? How does anyone ever survive the full force of an Olivia Benson on the warpath? We certainly don’t have answers there.
But, eh. We almost don’t care. Because. Wow.
Tangled Law & Order: SVU 23×19 thoughts
- The way she said “Chief” in that diner…the fondness…the joy. This is me, begging for more of it. Please.
- Like, the woman was off-camera, and I got so much out of one word. Come on!
- If I was a cynic—or, rather, more of one—I’d say Law & Order: SVU 23×19 and 23×18 both finding closure for decades-old cases might indicate a sort of need for the series to wrap things up. As in, maybe Liv’s time here is ending, and we need to tie up loose ends. But I’m not going there. I refuse to believe she won’t be with us forever.
- Side note: I also refuse to believe the math adds up. 2001 was not over 20 years ago. I’m not that old.
- “Careful what you call me in here. We don’t want the roof caving in.” Garland’s got jokes. And look how well he works with the team.
- “Seemed like a nerdy kid, you know? Not somebody who would ever get in any trouble.” Y’all could @ me.
- Hm. A one-way phone call about dinner plans. Easy, isn’t it?
- Here’s another one to tie the Green case to the Blandon one: Unraveling. Libby wound up stealing from her “Sugar Babies” dude; Nina wound up on the streets.
- “Grief isn’t meant to stay fixed. It’s…” “…unstuck from time.” A statement.
- Hear me out: Liv’s “and I don’t care” was everything. Period.
- “She was not my grandchild, so it was not a sin against God.” If this didn’t turn your stomach, seek help.
- Here’s another reaction to all the Benson/Szabo arguments, if the Deb Morgan one doesn’t do it for you: Can I get pregnant from this? Or, at the very least, does watching those scenes make anyone else feel like they’re standing on the surface of the sun?
- “How about you do your job by actually investigating, or getting subpoenas, instead of trading sexual favors for shortcuts to the DNA database?” She snapped.
- “So, you’re some kind of saint?” Um. Close enough. And?
- “You’ve never put your finger on the scale for a former partner…?” I’m actually going to yeet myself into the sun.
- No, but truly: Olivia mentioned “sexual favors.” This bitch mentioned Elliot. It…What are words?
- “Good decision. Especially since the charge is not bail optional.” We love a shady judge!
- Ok but that scoff when Drakos said she had sympathy for rape victims was the epitome of “sure, Jan.”
- …and that whispered “yeah” when Liv left Drakos’ office.
- All those knowing looks with Chief Maxwell.
- Every other note is basically, “omg Benson’s reaction.”
- Also, just…women. All the women. Powerful women. Iconic women. Women.
- Mariska Hargitay said something about chutzpah. First of all, she’s one to talk about chutzpah when, week after week, she keeps doing that and looking like that.
- Second: Mariska Hargitay, speaking language of my people? I am decidedly not well. That’s as good a place to end this lovefest as any…
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