Recap: SVU opened its season with a roller-coaster of a double episode. "Lost Reputation" and "Above Suspicion" took up where the cliffhanger of last season left off: with Captain Cragen waking up drenched in the blood of a dead hooker sprawled in his bed.
(Last season's finale involved a 16-year old escort killed at a debauched bachelor party. The investigation centered on two rival prostitution rings, whose methods of dispute resolution involved murder, corruption, and a pattern of planting dead women in homes.)
The captain claims he doesn't know how the call girl, named Carissa, ended up stabbed to death in his bed. Internal Affairs orders the SVU detectives to stop investigating the case of their beloved boss. (Of course, they spend the next two hours investigating that very case.)
DA Paula Foster is the prim head of the DA's public integrity unit. Olivia tries to convince her that Cragen was set up. But the evidence against him is damning: scratches on his back, his DNA under Carissa's fingernails, Carissa's saliva on his penis. (Anyone else cringe at the sight of the ME telling our good captain to drop his drawers so she could swab him?) Meanwhile, a doughy new captain cracks down on the Special Victims Unit, even ordering Ice-T to wear nicer clothes.
The detectives delve into New York's underground sex trade and discover the corruption reaches deep within their own office. Olivia's ex-boyfriend, Cassidy, is an embedded undercover with a pimp named Ganzler,"The Emporer of all Pleasure," who was engaged to marry Carissa, his top escort. Carissa used to work for Ganzler's rival, Delia, the madam of an exclusive escort agency. Delia's little black book contains the names of many of New York's most powerful men. One of Delia's escorts asks SVU for witness protection and is soon found dead, her wrists slashed in a bathtub.
Delia tells the DA that Cragen hired many of her girls and liked rough sex; she even has pictures of Cragen canoodling with the beautiful women. Cragen is arrested and forced to do a humiliating perp-walk.
We see the surreal sight of Cragen sitting in an interrogation room in an orange prison jumpsuit. He tells Olivia he used escorts, but just for companionship. He was lonely.
Meanwhile, Nick's wife leaves him, and he's cracking up. He suspects Cassidy has "crossed over" and is now allied with Ganzler, the pimp. Nick pulls Cassidy into a restaurant bathroom, points a gun at him, and shouts, "Tell me who you're working for or I'll kill you." (I'm pretty sure this interrogation technique is not recommended in any police manual.)
Cassidy soon gets shot, but not by Nick. A few scenes later, he tries to stop some thugs breaking into Ganzler's car, and is shot in the chest by a responding rookie police officer. Our detectives soon learned that the rookie's sergeant ordered the hit, and the sergeant is in Ganzler's pocket. Ganzler figured out that Cassidy was undercover and wanted him killed.
Cassidy pulls through, and Olivia is so relieved, she kisses him in his hospital bed. Perhaps an old flame is being rekindled?
Ganzler is arrested. At his arraignment, the DA says that Ganzler's defense attorney is part of the conspiracy and may soon be charged. Later, the DA convinces the defense attorney to turn on his client. The attorney goes to Ganzler's house and says he's quitting the case. Ganzler then admits that he's the one who killed Carissa because he was jealous that she had fallen in love with Cassidy. Cassidy and Carissa were having an affair. (So much for old flames.) Ganzler is arrested again and now held in jail.
But wait -- there's more. It turns out that Delia was the one who killed the 16-year-old escort last season, and planted her to frame Ganzel. Delia also killed a few other escort/witnesses to cover her tracks. But the DA drops all charges against Delia. Why?
Olivia is suspicious; she and the other detectives look into the DA's finances. They discover that she is outspending her income by $200,000 a year, on medical expenses for her sick daughter. Olivia sits Paula down and asks her about this. Paula admits that Delia was bribing her for eight years, in return for official protection. "She owned me," Paula says.
Olivia arrests Paula and a bunch of high-level officials. They system is shocked by how far the corruption went. Cragen is exonerated and allowed to come back to the SVU, looking much better in khakis than the prison jumpsuit.
What they got right:
This was a creative and edge-of-your-seat riff on a couple of real cases. Anna Gristina, aka the "Soccer Mom Madam" and "The Millionaire Madam" made headlines when she was arrested last summer for running an exclusive escort agency from her suburban New York home. Her little black book was said to hold the names of some of America's most powerful men. She had a notorious rivalry with Jason Itzler, the self-proclaimed "King of All Pimps." According to the New York Daily News, Itzler described Gristina as "the most vindictive b***h ever in the escorting game," and said she is: "Dangerous, dangerous, dangerous." Gristina pleaded guilty -- just this Tuesday -- to one count of promoting prostitution.
Of course, tonight's episode was all fiction -- did you notice the big disclaimer at the beginning, noting that everything portrayed was fictitious? Still, the episode accurately portrayed that dispute resolution in the sex trade can get brutal. They can't call the police. My most recent novel, Discretion, was also inspired by these same real-life cases, and deals with rival madams beefing with each other.
I also appreciated the way that the SVU detectives looked into the financial life of the DA. In real life, they would have run queries with the three main credit agencies, found what credit cards she had, and then followed her payments to her bank. Then they could have subpoenaed the bank for her account records. All of this would have taken months or even years -- it was condensed for TV time -- but a dedicated officer could get the information the SVU detectives got tonight.
What they got wrong:
The key confessions on tonight's show never would have happened in real life. To begin, Ganzler never would have confessed in these circumstances. The DA had already announced that the lawyer was going to be charged as a co-conspirator. Then the lawyer comes over, announces that he's off the case, and asks Ganzler to chat? Any criminal in that situation would be suspicious -- especially one who's supposed to be as smart and tricky as Ganzler.
Second, it was unethical for the attorney to be wiretapping his clients. The lawyer had a fiduciary duty to Ganzler -- he couldn't testify against him. Perhaps the lawyer thought it was worth chucking his law license in order to escape a jail sentence. But I'm thinking the prosecutor herself could have gotten into some serious bar ethics trouble just for setting this scenario up.
Finally, I thought it was silly that the prosecutor confessed to Olivia as soon as Olivia brought up her finances. This is a seasoned DA, well-versed in how difficult it is to bring a case without that golden confession. Paula would have clammed up, lawyered up, and waited to see if SVU could make their case.
As a writer, I understand the confession as a plot device. The audience wants to know whoddunit, and how it was done, and no one can tell you like the criminal herself. It's also quick, easy, and efficient. But as an ex-prosecutor, I can tell you that this sort of gift-wrapped confession usually doesn't happen in real life.
Perhaps the least plausible part of the story, however, was that Cragen hired those prostitutes just for their conversation and companionship.
Still, it was a strong episode, well-written, compelling and grounded in authentic details. I'm looking forward to seeing what the rest of the season brings!