Last time I was in this world was September 2013, so this covers episodes 3 through 23 of last year's season. I'm pausing before the finale because it seems pretty huge and I need time to process everything I've seen to date.
Part I: General Thoughts and Story Arcs
-I feel like there were fewer "ripped from the headlines" episodes as the season went on, and the show quality was noticeably higher as a result. I was also very impressed by their willingness to break format in "case of the week" more than once to focus on a particular detective's storyline. At this point I think I'd give the season overall maybe as high as a B+?? Well...definitely at least a B. Usually it's a solid C effort.
-You never really notice how super-quiet their dialogue with victims and each other is until you're trying to watch from across the room late at night and have to keep turning the volume up to figure out what they're saying, only to realize what have I done when someone fires a gun/starts a chase scene...or the theme song rolls.
-Benson's scenes with her therapist are super uncomfortable to watch because HE'S OBVIOUSLY A SERIAL KILLER PSYCHOPATH, OLIVIA, WHY ARE YOU TRUSTING HIM. SVU, why u no understand that some actors are ruined forever by the roles they play and must subsequently be typecast as exclusively evil?
-First half of the season: "I still can't get used to Olivia's dining room being a main character, and her attempt at nesting and playing house with Cassidy still feels awkward and not quite right. I'm not even just saying this because he's Mayhem/Raymond Caine -- or maybe I am, but either way, they just have no chemistry. I wanna like it but I don't."
Second half of the season: Cassidy pretty much disappears, and I gather we're supposed to think the relationship is suffering because she's so much busier with her new job that they've become like roommates, but it is not getting enough focus to build to
Regardless, this might be the first time in my life I've believed in two people being good for each other, and the relationship being genuine and important, but only for a limited amount of time.
-A.D.A. Barba continues to a witty and barb-tongued delight in the courtroom, and it's been nice to see Nia Vardalos's lawyer character recur more than once.
-Reverend Curtis Scott has taken up the reins for the role of SVU's Most Annoying Recurring Character, whose sole purpose seems to be to follow people of color around, waiting for a chance to rush in and offer to yell at cops for them. In fact, the only reason he's tolerable is that I can't be sure he isn't a deliberate parody designed to mock people with legitimate worries about a racist police force. I mean...his outrage is regularly shown to be baseless, which he would know if ever stopped accusing the detectives of Conspiracy to Oppress long enough to hear their side of the story.
-I am loving that Amanda's gambling problem is back. I'll touch on this more later, but the episode where she got sucked into working for the underground club was powerful stuff, yo. Way more powerful than the arc with her sister, and that was the one that made me start to respect/like her as a character. I also love how many scenes she gets with her cute-as-all-heck pit bull Frannie, who to my surprise has so far not been made a sacrifice for emotional character abuse.
-Written during the first half of the season: "I love the rift between her and Amaro that has gone from mild sibling squabbling to open hostility." (um, more on that later). "I am also loving Fin's protective big-brother role contrasted with Amaro's obnoxious-older-brother role, and how Olivia is like the sister who's so much older she's almost a mother, and whenever she tries to connect, the littlest sis is like "whatever, YOU OLD HAG, you don't get it!"
-Olivia's promotion to sargeant didn't really sink in for me until Cragen left and she moved into his office. Like, WHAT?? I knew Munch had left, but Cragen's retirement took me by complete surprise. I thought they did a beautiful job of transitioning her into acting C.O., not totally behind a desk, but still handling a lot of paperwork and decision-making -- and showing surprising aptitude. Or maybe not that surprising. I never would have imagined her there 10 years ago, but now she honestly does have the experience and leadership skills necessary to run the team.
-But seriously, in the short time Cragen's been gone, I already know that I miss him less than Stabler, and his replacement is like finally breathing fresh air. I don't know how I'll ever watch older episodes again. And bringing in Donal Logue, a.k.a. the dad on Grounded for Life, a.k.a. Lt. Murphy, as the new C.O. after Olivia? HOLY CATS, THAT WAS SUCH A GREAT MOVE. I love that guy! The actor and the character -- from the moment we found out his real name, he's been perfect in every scene and made me a happy viewer. I want to swear my everlasting allegiance to him. He's the only person better suited to this job than Olivia -- and that's only because she'd be happier out actively working cases than managing from home base.
(unfortunately, I just looked him up on IMDB and found out he's not in season 16. Well, that blows.)
-Fin is having a super-chill year, huh? No personal focus at all. The closest he gets is personal conversation about Amanda's issues.
-The thing that started with Lewis in the season 14 finale went out a bit weakly, but its peak in episode 10 was even stronger than its beginning. That one haunted me good. More on this later.
-Amaro's personal self-destructive arc is so weird. Even watching at the pace I was watching, I couldn't figure out what was off about Amaro or why Maria was calling Benson all concerned about his behavior. Everyone commenting on his flirting got real weird real fast, because...chemistry? THERE IS NONE? The stuff they're identifying as flirting doesn't even register as flirting to me. And he's a handsome man, so my willingness to reject potential shirtlessness should tell you something here. I don't even want to know why he is apparently hooking up with Rollins while simultaneously claiming he's rekindled an interest in his former marriage. Why must you poison everything I love about him.
(except for the unprovoked punching in the penultimate episode. He's still hot when he's angry and reckless.)
Preview of Highlight Episodes (a/k/a Cheat Sheet)
Gold Medal: 1, 10, 17
Silver: 11, 12, 20
Bronze: 5, 9
Part II: (Mostly) Bite-Sized Individual Episode Reactions
15x03, American Tragedy: What a potent Trayvon Deen cocktail. Also, let's be real, you literally showed us how the crime went down and it still looked like somebody afraid of being raped to me -- albeit someone who was pretty reckless with waving their firearm around long before a last resort -- so I'm not sure what the point of ripping it from the headlines was.
15x04, Internal Affairs: Pretty twisted conspiracy-to-rape-in-uniform stuff. Why would a woman ever go along with that?! (also, something about Cassidy trying to go undercover to expose the rapey partner and almost getting executed, blah blah blah)
15x05, Wonderland Story: Sofia Vassilieva's back! I love when this show tries to make itself less forgettable/paint-by-numbers by creating continuity and recurring characters. I don't remember when it aired (edit: 13x06, but I can't find a review record), but I remember her being a music student. Poor dear character. But the second victim actually stole the spotlight this time, taking the rapist down by awesomely goading a secretly recorded confession out of him. OVARIES OF STEEL.
Also, Munch's sendoff in his Fancy White Tuxedo was sweet. He's been out of view so long already it's kind of like when you hear about a 1940s movie star passing away from old age, and are sort of jolted into mourning someone you almost forgot existed, but it was good to give him a legitimate sendoff. Richard Belzer earned it.
15x06, October Surprise: decent plot for Barba handling political scandal from an old and terrible childhood friend.
15x07, Dissonant Voices: Current leader for "grossest writing of the season," I am never going to get the image of the "magic purple egg" and its implications out of my head. Nor Technically Innocent Teacher's distraught face. On the bright side, during those 10 seconds Clay Aiken was on screen playing himself as a celebrity judge, I had a pleasant moment of "oh cool, you look human/reasonably attractive again."
15x08, Military Justice: Uncomfortable mess, and new winner of the "grossest visuals in writing" award. Crying Shiri Appleby apologizing for being the victim of a violent gang rape was just so awful, and not in the good way, to watch. Except for the part where her dad punched the rapist in the face for trying to convince said dad that his daughter was known for being a spoiled crybaby.
15x09, Rapist Anonymous: It was great to see Rollins being played like a violin by both a victim/murderer and (accidentally) her GA sponsor. It was like, you were pretty sure that the rape victim was also a revenge murderer, but you weren't sure why or if it was all misdirection.
*******15x10, Psycho/Therapist********: When I saw the title, I naturally assumed it referred to the secret life of Benson's therapist. I chuckled to myself at my own cleverness. And then this episode happened and the laughter stopped forever, because that was the sort of gut-wrenching work that gets Mariska Hargitay Emmy nominations.
Every inch of that was as good as the premiere, to the point that I actually lost myself in the episode and it started to affect me physically. His FACE and his whole creepy intensity just chills you to the bone (maybe he should earn a guest star nom?). I found myself cringeing, my stomach was in knots, and I was almost to the point of tears at the thought of her having to testify with him as the cross-examining attorney. His purpose was definitely to further humiliate and control, and it was horrible that they couldn't stop it, and especially horrible that we started to see how he got away with all his prior rapes and murders in court. Even KNOWING exactly how twisted and wrong his blatant lies are, you have to really fight to keep your grip on reality. The way you could see her digging deep, teeth gritted, repeating the same sentence over and over ("I did what I had to do to subdue you") before she lost control? I felt every inch of that. I hope this episode was nominated for all the awards. Acting, writing, directing, editing; whatever you've got, throw it at this episode (unless you threw it at the premiere).
I also loved how forceful she was about refusing to let him plead guilty to rape, adamant that come hell or high water, he does not get to get off on bragging about something he didn't do.
And the ending! ("Four months later...") GOOD SUSPENSE TEASER. My exact reaction: "The minute you heard his prison doctor was a woman, you had to be like, "oh hell I've heard this story before." But, much like all the leeway the judge had to give him in the courtroom even though it was obvious why he was doing all those things, there's no real way to stop this. I can't wait to chew through the rest of the season to get there."
And so I did.
15x11, Amaro's One-Eighty: TWO EPISODES IN A ROW with the format-breaking to follow a detective. Lots of delicious anger -- especially when he goes into Aggressive Protective Dad Mode. It was nice how clearly they made it obvious that the shooting was an accident, and I would have liked to focus on him dealing with that guilt, but mixing it in with unjustified public judgment didn't work for me. Too many plot holes. It felt insulting to anyone who thought this show might be using its power to take a stand against racist cops.
Seriously, why would anyone assume that you swinging a baseball bat at people milling around outside your house moments after it was shot up with bullets while your daughter was inside would lead people to assume it's because the people milling about are black? More to the point, why would people assume you shot an unarmed kid in cold blood when your partner was actually shot with a bullet and lying on the ground bleeding first? Shouldn't the focus have been on her trigger happiness? Or from a storyline perspective, wouldn't this have been more effective if Amaro was the one who fired first and caught his own ricochet bullet? I mean, his impassioned speech to the grand jury was nice, but it was weird that he needed to do that to change their minds in the first place.
I know I really liked it while I was watching it due to the high concentration of Amaro...I'm just getting grouchy playing it back.
15x12, Jersey Breakdown: TODAY'S HIGHLIGHT: CONNIE RUBIROSA! I probably ragged on her short hair back in the day, but now it's a decent length so all I feel is overwhelming joy about her pretty face taking center stage for an episode and telling us how her career's been going in the background. I also really liked the luckless foster teen. She's the kind of person who makes me want to be a foster parent, until I remember that I have a hostile attitude toward teens who aren't perfect meek angels (preferably in honors classes) and also would never be able to rest for fear of them stealing something or destroying things I love in revenge for my hostile attitude.
15x13, Betrayal's Climax: Newest winner of the "gross visuals in writing award," so if you haven't seen it yet, I would recommend bouncing after Benson is sworn in with her new title. Plus the moral of the story seemed to be "your rich white parents most likely have a good reason for disapproving of your poor Hispanic boyfriend from the projects with all the gang violence." That was probably not the best moral.
15x14, Wednesay's Child: I saw this "there is a creepy legal loophole that lets you give away your kid without making sure they stay out of pedophile hands" plot on Criminal Minds and I want no more of it. In retrospect, I should have paid more attention to Baby John Doe.
15x15, Comic Perversion: Based on this episode it looks like the reason people say rape jokes aren't funny isn't because they make light of rape, it's that they are legitimately not clever or funny. And it was still a terrible case to bring to court.
***15x17, Gambler's Fallacy***: AND OUT OF NOWHERE, ANOTHER MINDBLOWING CHAMPION. From the moment Rollins was prevented from leaving the illegal gambling club, that was a non-stop thrill ride. I had no idea how she was going to get out of it until we found out Declan was an undercover cop. And that makes it even scarier. Usually there's a way out of the "oh noez, what will happen??" scenarios they set up, and a relatively plausible one at that, but this one posited how she ACTUALLY would have gone to jail if she hadn't caught a lucky break. My eyes were total saucers by the time she was holding the pregnant club owner at gunpoint and threatening art dealers. THAT is how you create heart-stopping drama. Good on you, show.
Although I would still like to know how our Sweet Sixteen-Year-Old Jersey Girl fell off the grid and into illegal activities again between the last time we saw her and now. And also why she ratted Rollins out. (was she working with Declan? That was not clear. Oh! Wait -- someone is directing us to this deleted scene with Clare and Benson. Post-reveal of what Rollins was up to, Benson is warning Clare against falling back into this life and how she's going to end up in the gutter as an overdose victim if she doesn't stop right now/how she has a choice between prison and social services right now, which makes it seem like she was not working with Declan, so...)
15x18, Criminal Stories: Mariska Hargitay's directing debut, you say? Eh. Too much Alec Baldwin as Jack Donaghy with slightly more self awareness and more dangerous power + arrogance as a bullheaded "investigative reporter." Sympathetic Muslim victim ruined by yet another implausible effort to explore whether the NYPD might be racist. I have never seen the show work so hard to write stories where people convince themselves they're more oppressed than they are.
15x19, Downloaded Child: All I want to retain is the end: sweet if emotionally damaged young woman with unimaginable horror of a childhood finally gets her sweet and wonderful daughter back from CPS and wins 7-figure settlement without having to testify in court, aww.
15x20, Beast's Obsession: LEWIS IS BACK TO BE HORRIFYING. Maybe. The beginning definitely was -- that last murder/rape/abduction (on 3 different family members, respectively) definitely gnawed at me. But somewhere around the time Olivia inexplicably gave a public confession of perjury, it started to lose steam. Having her go to him willingly rather than him somehow finding a way to trap her removed a lot of suspense.
I was certainly uncomfortable during the last scene in the abandoned building, with the groping -- I'm pretty sure I saw a plotline for a future SVU episode in which Barba brings charges of sexual assault against a director and/or actor for escalating the physicality without discussing it with the actress -- but it just didn't feel like a big enough ending to his arc. Surely he wouldn't just give up when she went limp? Surely he'd go the torture angle first. And I know it showed one last level of psycho to frame her for murder with his dying act, and they used it to launch the next episode, but it just didn't chill my soul the way I'm used to.
I will give credit to the emotional agony resulting from Olivia's face while forcing herself to pull the trigger during Russian Roulette, though. God, she played that well. I can't imagine how it would feel to be in that position, or even how I would describe her expressions. She just tore me apart.
15x21, Post-Mortem Blues: See, now you're insulting my intelligence again. This isn't like episode 10; you in no way sold me on why anyone would believe it mattered whether she shot the psycho or not. Nice work on Declan's part taking the fall for the perjury confession, though. And I guess it was nice to see more of Olivia's emotional struggle in the spotlight.
15x23, Thought Criminal: Nia Vardalos is right: I don't want to live in a world where you can be convicted for thought crimes. But I also don't want to live in a world where people fantasize about torturing children to death (slapping them once is my limit) and/or build elaborate sound-proof dungeons that could be used for such a purpose, so despit Fin's awesome UC work as a casually sleazy hypothetical child dealer, I'd rather this episode not exist. Hearing about this deep web makes me rethink my planned decision to watch CSI: Cyber. Also, I'm mad at this show for making Maria even more of a selfish jerk.
(to reiterate: no job offer is good enough to make your ex choose between his EXISTING good job and seeing his child regularly. Especially if one of his children has a different mother so you're forcing him to give up proximity to one child either way. I don't care if you're being paid 6 figures to socialize puppies by playing with them 40 hours a week, or if you're being offered free rent + health insurance as a live-in caretaker of a historic Victorian home that the owner doesn't live in. And I'm pretty sure Maria's job offer is not that good.)
Also, as a result of episode 15 tacking on an unrelated ending to bill itself "A SPECIAL CROSSOVER EVENT WITH CHICAGO P.D.," I watched my first episode of that show. I enjoyed watching Fin and Rollins work with a new squad as out-of-town visitors -- I always appreciate when shows cross over to expand their universe -- but I gotta say, not the show for me. The likeable woman who appeared on SVU has some potential for depth, I want to transplant the mysterious hat-wearing guy to Criminal Minds immediately, and the junior officer is like an adorable eager-beaver girl scout, but I have no interest in the other characters and that one scene of illegal police brutality was way too dark. Hint: your show should not make me side with the violated rights of the sadistic rapist serial killer.