Law & Order: SVU 24×15 “King of the Moon” is an absolutely gutting look at how dementia can destroy a life and, in its early stages when the patient with the disease knows what it’s taking — and soon will take — from them, do a horrible sort of damage to the very concept of hope. The episode features a brilliant performance from Bradley Whitford, which shouldn’t really surprise anyone. And yet, it’s still noteworthy on a level that makes one wish the Emmys still actually bothered to pay attention to network dramas, much less procedurals. As a highly-anticipated episode, between both Whitford’s appearance and (small detail) Mariska Hargitay’s first time directing in a few years, this one delivers.
Even so, this episode isn’t without its problems. Some seep in through the A story, but it’s with the B story that the frustrations really start to pile up. And the broad majority of those issues are more a reflection on overall, season-wide, choices than anything specific to this episode. In the first place, after seeming to completely drop the thread between episodes 13 and 14, the Velasco story (apparently?) gets both its middle and end in “King of the Moon.” If nothing else, a huge chapter is done. And yeah, the story’s there, and Octavio Pisano certainly portrays his character’s big moments well. But it still doesn’t quite fit.
It almost seems like interrogating Velasco might’ve paired better, thematically, with “Dutch Tears” since both Fin’s story there and Velasco’s story here are based around unraveling the past and trying to find some kind of path toward redemption. But then, that would’ve turned a highlight for Sergeant Tutuola into a way to tell this character’s story, too. Which, to be honest, that doesn’t quite settle well either.
If we really stretch things, we can talk about how negligent and/or outright corrupt police work unites Pence’s story with Joe’s…but eh. At the end of the day, something this big simply needed its own room to breathe. Rather than let it take away from our overall satisfaction with SVU 24×15, though, let’s take what wins we can?
The “King of the Moon”
Maybe it’s because we really get to learn about who he was before. Or maybe it’s just that Bradley Whitford is Bradley Whitford. (Eh, it’s probably some combination both.) Regardless, Law & Order: SVU 24×15 tells a much richer story about Pence and Winnie Humphreys (Nancy Travis) than it has about quite a few other characters over the years — even those with much longer arcs. As Carisi says at one point, Winnie and Pence’s is a great love story. And, while there’s no way to argue that Winnie’s rape and murder make up anything other than a tragic ending, this episode makes it clear that their “fairytale” (as Carisi also puts it) arguably ends on a heartbreaking note the second Pence receives his diagnosis.
The choice to really sit with both Whitford and Travis in that defining moment, specifically, makes every other creative decision and every other emotional moment rip you to shreds about a million times harder. Because it’s all just so very personal. Which, yeah. Sure. Meeting these characters as children, then getting little snapshots in time of their lives, adds that effect before we ever get to the 2015 gut-punch. But that moment separates us into a true before and after, smartly making us see them as part of our world, even as we are very much not in theirs.
It wraps up all the hope of a tentative friendship, to the love that became so much more, and shows us the true culmination of all those years together. “This is both the end of the fairytale and the beginning of our story,” it seems to say. And it’s exactly this moment that we’re meant to look back on — at least as far as I can personally see it — when Pence talks about their pact later in the episode. Here is the embodiment of a very relatable and human struggle against an inevitable ending, a desire to hold onto each other, to comfort each other, to remember that we never really have to be apart.
Also of note, the setup makes a very clear, very bold and important statement. That moment of comfort, which is simultaneously the beginning, middle, and end of Pence’s story is a private one. It’s to be shared between two people who love each other very much. Them, and no one else. It is not for us to witness in any way other than from the outside in. To that end, we can’t hear what they’re saying as the physician provides the diagnosis. We’ll never really know how Winnie and Pence process it, other than through their outpouring of emotion. And that’s because it’s not ours to know or hear. Sometimes, it’s not just possible — but appropriate — to bear witness without knowing too much, without placing ourselves inside someone else’s world.
Creatively, pulling viewers outside of this scene’s action and slowing down in this place, whereas the rest of the episode feels like the world is moving too quickly, and everything’s just outside reality. And too much is going on, and, and, and…Well. It’s sometimes a lot to take in, a lot to follow. But it works, and it does so precisely because the weight placed on feeling Pence’s agonizing loss — of both himself and his one true love — provides it a genuine impact. And it does so because all those other things, whatever else is happening outside of Pence’s mind and world, do just continue to rush along, heedless of him or even his Winnie.
So, as Carisi and a reluctant Benson work on finding the real murderer, it makes the lazy police that took Pence’s confession at face value that much more damnable. The tiniest amount of effort…how you say…detects the markings of a life that’s falling apart as the dementia eats at Pence. But what it doesn’t show is any reason to assume a heartbroken, sick man’s confession is the whole story. In fact, all the evidence points away from him. Not toward him. And watching him come to terms with his guilt over actually being innocent is soul crushing in its own way. Which, honestly, truly does defy all logic and description.
“Captain of the Moon”
As far as the center of SVU‘s universe goes, Olivia certainly has some kind of experience here. With any luck, she may even be able to use it to think about her own life. At the very least, this story is certainly an interesting way to show us she’s still very much not okay. That’s not at all what we want, but it’s (the fictional) reality of the situation. Pence’s childhood writing about a boy who enjoyed “all the benefits of being alone” (same, kiddo) on the moon may have been the result of a lonely kid’s wish to never have the other kids pick on him again, but let’s be real for a minute. It’s also a very heavy handed way at looking at how some of us, like…say Liv, close ourselves off because we simply don’t want to be hurt anymore.
But Pence gets his Winifred and lives a very full life with her. Meanwhile, what what life is Olivia living? Let’s see… Oh. Right. Our Strong Female Character™ is still “not ready.” At the same time, she’s out here making snarky comments about not being able to find someone who’s emotionally available. So, there’s that extra element of pain for y’all to chew on.
It’s actually difficult to tell what’s more of a mess: Liv’s personal stuff or the original murder investigation. Liv’s irritation with the incompetent and lazy cops from Homicide is great on multiple levels. Not only does it speak directly to an audience that, for many of us, is watching in spite of — not because of — this series’ usual spotless depiction of police, but it also really fits with where Captain Benson’s head is right now. Everything is on her shoulders, always, to the point where she’s now just cleaning up everybody else’s messes.
And to really drive the point home: No, she doesn’t have her own a great love story to fall back on like Pence does — except that she could, should, and will when she’s ready to reach out and take a certain bald man’s hand. So, without someone to help carry her burdens, everything is just that much more difficult.
She may not have seen the aftermath of Pence’s diagnosis, but we did. And all that mutual care and support is in direct counterpoint to basically Olivia’s entire life. But it hasn’t always been this way…not exactly. She did have a partner once, just only in one sense of the word. And she can have one in every sense of the word, if only she’d (to use language “King of the Moon” here) return to Earth. (Although, to be fair, it’s not exactly Liv being too wrapped up in fantasy that’s the problem with EO. It’s more like her being buried under her own pain and too many years of harsh realities. Head buried in the pits of hell is probably more accurate for our girl.)
Sometimes, the fairytale love story has a tragic ending. Doesn’t mean Liv shouldn’t try for her own, especially since she’s already had plenty of suffering before. In fact, maybe all the tragic missed beginnings mean she’ll actually get her happy ending. (She’d better.)
What do we have as Benson investigates Winnie’s murder? Someone who’s having to see all that evidence of a life well-lived, yet crumbling, all while she has got to be near her own breaking point. And yet…she keeps fighting, doesn’t she? Maybe Liv wasn’t completely keen on getting involved at first, but once she’s in, she’s in. She cares about Pence. Olivia even figures him out in a short amount of time. She even knows when he covers for the real murderer by pretending he’s experiencing another episode of memory loss. So, what does Liv do? She hears him out, really listens, when he (in yet another killer moment from Whitford) describes his disease.
Every moment Liv spends with Pence, especially those when it’s just the two of them, is a gem. It’s the usual Olivia Benson empathy and care, yet raised up several notches. Basically, in an episode that’s double duty for Hargitay, she’s out here increasing the quality of work by many more orders of magnitude than that. And in both roles, no less. Not that anyone should be anymore surprised about that than they are about Whitford shattering us in this role, though.
While Olivia helping Carisi prove Pence’s innocence, “King of the Moon” finally does something with the Velasco recording. Which, as I mentioned in the intro, both works and doesn’t. I just feel like this should’ve been its own “A” story. If nothing else, it certainly deserved to not be forgotten for an episode, then completely (at least by all available information) dealt with the next. And it’s an odd situation to keep feeling like every secondary story should really be a primary one. Because I do support a return to an older style of SVU that, quite often, told more than one story at a time. At the same time, so far, the execution just isn’t doing it for me.
As far as the unsolved murder and Velasco’s “drug” use go, there are some great elements to the story. Despite any gripes, these definitely shouldn’t be discounted. Pisano does a fantastic job with what he’s given, really nailing down all of Velasco’s frustration at being questioned and even just how difficult it is for him to discuss what happened, much less give up his friend Chili. Then, there’s Ice T’s bit. For a lot of the story, Fin’s just kind of…watching and taking it all in. Putting his years of experience to the test and trying to read the situation. That kind of calm, outsider energy serves him — and a powder keg of a situation — very well. It also makes the moments where Fin does need to be more active work that much better.
Visually, there’s this great image of Detective Velasco looking out the interrogation room window that really gives the impression he’s actually in prison. And in a lot of ways, he actually is. He’s trapped between showing loyalty to someone who saved his life and doing the right thing by his Captain…And that is, actually, where the story stops working for me. On a number of levels.
I mean, where do we begin? How about this: Last I checked, “guy who bettered himself — assuming you can call becoming a cop ‘bettering’ yourself — after a rough childhood with no viable choices, covering for someone who was also a kid at the time” wasn’t…actually…”the reason why people are protesting outside of City Hall.” And having Churlish, of all people, be the one who gives Velasco that particular lecture just doesn’t sit right with me at all. What happened when this guy was just a kid…doesn’t count as police abuse. Like, WTF? The part with the drugs, eh, maybe. But then again, it turns out it really was sugar, so…gray area? That one’s up for debate, but the rest? Not so much in this house.
Then, there’s the story itself. It’s overdone and approaches stereotypes too much for my personal taste. If I’m reading that incorrectly, I’m sure folks will put me in my place.
The Benson/Velasco confrontation is particularly baffling, though. Tough love from Captain Benson is good. And any time we get to see Mariska Hargitay so much as hang out and do nothing on camera, I’m not complaining. (Ok, that’s not accurate. I’m just not complaining anymore than absolutely necessary.) At the same time, though, from a character perspective, it’s a bit of a head scratcher. This is the same Olivia Benson who went out of her way to protect a teenager who tried to kill her, right? And let’s not even get started on the number of rape victims she once threw under the bus for her groomer.
So, how is becoming a cop and bringing truly “bad” people to justice, blahblah insert copaganda here about making communities “safer” — yes, “safe” is being interpreted some kind of way — here…not redemption enough without throwing Chili behind bars all these years later? Just like the guy who nearly turned Liv and Noah into ingredients for Doublemeat Palace burgers didn’t have a lot of other choices, neither did Velasco’s friend. Pretty weird that the empathy queen is ignoring that.
To be fair, there’s probably a sense of betrayal at play here. And that’s going to color a lot of Liv’s reaction. So, maybe how Benson deals with Velasco just speaks to Olivia’s mind being in a darker place now than in those other situations. Maybe, even, it’s simply that she’s human and therefore not always going to be consistent. Even Olivia Benson has flaws, after all. But it just…I don’t know. Something just doesn’t quite sit right.
More on Law & Order: SVU 24×15
- “To put off until the day after tomorrow that which can be done today.” Y’all could @ me next time.
- Very cool glimpse of young Winnie and young Pence chatting at school. It’s like they’re the center of the universe, yet also not. The world, even just the school, looms so large around them. As a giant nerd, I’m here for it. It’s neat, ok?
- “About the boy who lived on the moon so he didn’t have to talk to anyone.” “Trust me. It’s better that way.” “Is it?” I mean…Have you seen humanity?
- “Anyone who ever loved you. Was wrong.” Again…y’all could @ me.
- “My love.” Everything hurts, for the record.
- “He drives a motorcycle, he grew up in Juárez, he…alluded to some misspent youth.” I mean, “alluded to” is doing a lot of work here, considering how many stories this man told when we first met him. But sure.
- The whole bit with Liv kind of nervously letting Fin in on this, then reluctantly letting him take it on for her, though…is good.
- It’s the way that finger gets pointed on that desk when she says she doesn’t want secrets in her squad for me.
- “Who are you interrogating?” “You.” The jump scare! That woman is terrifying.
- “Trust me. If I answer that honestly, you’ll regret asking.” I need people to understand that this is why I hate fake concern and people asking “oh, how are you” when they literally do not care. This right here. (Though, in this situation, Carisi does care.)
- “So now, you’re pulling on the one good heartstring I have left.” That feel when you think you’re over EO because you’re exhausted to death of waiting, but then these two idiots exist near each other.
- “Placebo this.” Help.
- Married 40 years…and yet! Very, very different from, say, Elliot and Kathy. Said what I said.
- “We loved each other, we wanted to be together. We wanted to leave together…with dignity. At the time of our choosing. My crime is worse than murder.” Emphasis on the dignity part. The rest is disturbing and possibly even glorifies suicide in a very dangerous way if you pick it apart too much.
- “And I can barely find somebody who’s emotionally available.” Ma’am, your projection is showing.
- Not sure anyone needed to watch this man do that to his wrist. Those of us with certain struggles…certainly did not need it.
- With that being said, the care with which Olivia cradles it after…just outrageously good stuff from both actors in the scene. (Brand new information, as always, I know.)
- The agony when he finds out he’s not guilty, though…pain. Excellent work.
- “An ass like the devil and a face like Jayne Mansfield. You’re a lucky sonofabitch, whoever you are.”
- First up: Who wants to tell him why her face is like Jayne’s? Second: How many times has a certain someone been called various types of sons of bitches? Exactly.
- Continued with just one point of point of contention. That line starts out icky AF…
- …but then, again, it turns so sweet — but only because Mariska’s mommy got a mention.
- “You have warm eyes. Eyes are the window to the soul.” We’ve been obsessed with those eyes forever!
- Not that I’d ever complain about a strong focus on nothing but Olivia Benson’s face, but the way she really becomes the center of the universe when she’s trying to get Pence in a place where he can make an ID is some fine art. (Even outside of her, specifically, already being a masterpiece.)
- “This disease is like the teeth of God, biting into a liqueur chocolate and sucking all the memories out of your head like a maraschino cherry. And there is no cure.” Gorgeous line.
- “Some memories are worse than prison.” I continue to feel attacked.
- “We all build walls..within ourselves, around the ugly things that we’ve done. And sometimes, those walls can be more confining than prison.” And also this.
- This week’s Livterrogation tactic: Pretend at empathy that viewers know is not her normal…then go in for the kill.
- “…from what you did” is delivered.
- The way Liv stops and side-eyes Fin. Much-needed comedy.
- “And you take on the shape of anything that you’re poured into.” *sings* …you know I change myself to impress whoever happens to be next to me…
- On the one hand, it’s probably wildly inappropriate for an NYPD Captain to go read a bedtime story to someone from a recent investigation like that. But on the other, I don’t care because
I want Mariska Hargitay to read me a bedtime storythis is fiction, and there are just enough strong bits. Like the way a young Pence morphs into Whitford, and Whitford’s sense of wonder as the character’s back in his imagination…and Hargitay’s everything.
- “Goodnight, Winifred.” Ouch?!
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