Mid-season openers are often hit-or-miss. It can take a while to get back into a show and to remember what you loved about it.
Not so with Law & Order: SVU Season 18 Episode 7, which offered pathos, tension, and a serious real-life issue treated with the gravity it deserves without being depressing.
I have to admit that this was one of the rare cases where the actual episode was much better than the preview, which showed only Carisi being held at gunpoint by a perp. The cop in danger trope has been used an awful lot on SVU recently and yet another cop-taken-hostage situation didn't sound all that appealing.
That part of the story actually only took about 10 minutes, and they were tense, gripping, and inevitable once the plot unfolded.
The actual story was about a girl, Quinn, who was stalked by multiple men, raped, and eventually taken hostage and almost killed.
Quinn's original stalking incident was bad enough. She had gone on a date with a college classmate once, refused his further advances, and then couldn't get rid of him. The man, Ray Wilson, had just got out of prison and Quinn, unsurprisingly, seemed to have some PTSD as a result.
The subject of Quinn's PTSD was not really explored; this was the only flaw in an otherwise perfectly executed story. Quinn's fear was one of the most realistic depictions of how PTSD affects survivors of violent crime ever shown on television.
Carisi: Have you ever seen someone watching you?
Quinn: No. It's just a feeling. And you get this sense that there's this dark energy focused in your direction.
Her panic was understated but easily felt, and it's not surprising that she doubted her instincts and was unaware that someone really was following her until she was attacked.
PTSD is one of those often-misunderstood problems that television has helped to give a bad name to with cartoonish representations or stories about PTSD sufferers becoming violent or unstable.
It would have been wonderful to see SVU do more to combat those stereotypes in this particular episode, but it's understandable that there wasn't room with everything else that was going on.
What they did show was far more realistic than usual, and they deserve praise for that. Quinn's breathless description of her fear and doubt left me on the edge of my seat, and it also made me feel even worse for her when the truth of her situation was discovered.
Bartender: Everybody stares at Quinn. She's beautiful. And she has this really honest, intense energy. She -
Rollins: You're starting to worry me, Nate.
The investigation into what happened to Quinn led to not one, but three stalkers – four counting the creepy bartender. This was a risky choice on the part of the writers because it could have easily become so unbelievable as to be ridiculous. But at the same time, it was incredibly important to do.
Stalking is a real problem that affects countless victims each year, most of them women, and SVU is the one show that attempts to shed light on these issues instead of using them as plot points.
By having several stalkers who all thought that what they were doing was okay, and having most of them be non-violent, the show sent the message that this behavior is both super prevalent and entirely unacceptable.
The exchange between the bartender and Rollins was the best example of this. He talked about people staring at Quinn as if it were natural and her beauty as if she owed all these men something because they liked to look at her, yet had no clue that his behavior was at all inappropriate, never mind down right creepy.
I definitely wasn't stalking Quinn. It was more like, due diligence.Man
Quinn's co-worker was slightly better only in the sense that he knew, on some level, that his behavior was wrong and was embarrassed enough by it to beg the detectives not to tell Quinn what he'd done.
Like the bartender, he probably never intended to hurt Quinn in any way, though the fact that he was unable to control his urge to stalk her could have caused him to hurt her at some later point.
20 years I gave. You tell them I'm sorry.Tom
And then, of course, there was the retired cop turned stalker who actually did attack Quinn and was contemplating murder-suicide after he was caught.
At first, I wasn't sure how I felt about having a retired cop turned bad guy.
Corrupt cops are another TV trope that can be good or bad. When a corrupt cop story relies on stereotypes and/or depicts cops abusing power as somehow heroic, it falls flat and can even be offensive.
In addition, there is so much tension between cops and civilians in real life that corrupt cop stories on TV need to be careful not to demonize either all cops or the victims of those who are corrupt.
SVU managed to avoid all those problems by making it more the story of a man who unraveled after retirement than a corrupt cop story.
Cole seemed to feel that all the time he gave to his job was meaningless and that his life itself was pointless because one girl who he had tried to protect then rejected his advances.
His wife knew he had become a different person but didn't want to face it and he hovered between suicide and murder during the stand-off with Benson and Carisi.
This was a smart move, both plot wise and character wise. Cole's involvement in the crime unfolded gradually and viewers found out right alongside Benson and Carisi that Cole wasn't the benevolent cop who was invested in protecting a crime victim that he claimed to be.
Benson: Unfortunately, prison usually changes you for the worse, not for the better.
Carisi: Just like being a cop.
Benson: Who are you, and what have you done with Carisi? You really feel that way?
Carisi: Ask me in 20 years.
Cole's entire arc interwove two of the episode's themes: retirement and what police work does to a person.
Throughout the hour, Benson struggled with the question of whether it was time for her to retire, while Carisi asked more than once if being a cop changes you for the worse. In the end, at least one of these characters got their answer, as Benson decided she definitely was not going to retire.
Benson: Be careful, Carisi.
Carisi: I'm good.
Benson: Hey. I said be careful.
It was only in the last 10 minutes that the story changed from an investigation into a rape into a tension-filled hostage situation.
Again, "Next Chapter" toed the line between cliche and strong drama. Normally, when a character tells another to be careful, it's a signal to the audience that that character is not going to be careful and is about to get very hurt.
But it didn't quite go that way this time. Anyone who had seen the preview knew Carisi was going to get attacked, but that only added to the tension as he and Benson hid behind a car and Benson began hostage negotiations.
Carisi surprised me by actually calling in the SWAT team – backup is often an afterthought in crime dramas. The realism here helped up the drama quotient along with the knowledge that it was only a matter of time before something happened.
Meanwhile, a completely unraveled Cole went back and forth between tears and anger, between turning the gun on himself and on his victim, and it just wasn't clear exactly what he would do.
Benson's eventual rescue of Carisi was perfect; the blood splatter on his face initially looked like his own blood and then viewers were finally allowed to see that he was okay.
Afterwards, someone told Benson she would have to give a statement and she had to turn her gun in as evidence. She didn't seem worried about it, though her decision not to retire because of this situation has me anxious anyway.
What better drama would there be than for her badge to be on the line again just as she's found new purpose in her life as a cop?
Quinn, this is not your fault, you hear me? Guys like Cole, they're predators. They look for light and they look for goodness and they try to steal it. Promise me you will not blame yourself for this.Benson
Benson's signature comforting of the victim is always the best part of the show for me, and her words to Quinn didn't disappoint. It was especially impressive that she could be optimistic and nurturing right after being involved in a life or death situation that almost lost her another cop turned friend so soon after Mike Dodds' death.
I never liked Benson and Tucker as a couple and could care less about how Benson's decision not to retire will affect their relationship, but there's sure to be drama there in the coming weeks. In the meantime, what did you think of "Next Chapter"? Was it worth the two-months wait? Did it have you on the edge of your seat or rolling your eyes?
Weigh in below, and don't forget that if you missed something you can always watch Law & Order: SVU online to catch up.
Jack Ori is a staff writer for TV Fanatic. Follow him on Twitter.