What's more disturbing: sex slavery or international terrorism? SVU tackled the question with its trademark mix of ripped-from-the-headlines issues, hairpin plot turns, and girls in skimpy dresses. "Acceptable Loss" was an intense episode, lightened by Ice-T's one-liners and Cragen's self-deprecating orange-jumpsuit jokes.
Recap: The episode opens with a garbage truck crashing into a town car, where a businessman and a prostitute are doing what businessmen and prostitutes do in the back of town cars. The SVU detectives are called to the scene after a paramedic notices that the girl has a bar code tattooed on her neck. "She's someone's property," Olivia surmises.
Our good detectives launch their investigation, and find a brutal sex slave operation dealing in women trafficked from third-world countries. Soon, a body washes up on the shore of the Hudson River -- another young woman branded with a bar code. According to the ME, the victim was "very sexually active," pregnant, and beaten to death.
Olivia and her teammates try to question the surviving bar-coded prostitutes, but the women are terrified and won't talk. So Ice-T goes undercover as an escort-service driver, smoothly chats up the women he's chauffeuring, and quickly discovers the house where the girls are being held.
But when NYPD goes to raid it, foxy Lt. Eames of the Department of Homeland Security swoops in and makes them stop. After a brief turf war, Eames explains that the pimps also provide fake documents to terrorists. Arresting them now would scare off a top-level terrorist that DHS needs to catch.
The SVU detectives grumble their agreement, then promptly continue investigating the sex ring. (I'm seeing a pattern emerge this season, where our SVU detectives specialize in: (a) sex crimes, and (b) crimes they've explicitly been ordered not to investigate.)
Using a hotel sting, they soon bring one of the sex slaves, Anna, to their side. She tells them her sad story and gives them independent probable cause to raid the house. I'm not sure why this doesn't violate the DHS directive, but now SVU feels comfortable busting into pimps' house and arresting everyone.
Lt. Eames is pissed! "You scared off the operative," she accuses. But she's wrong. In a brilliant twist, it turns out the terrorist operative was Sophia, the only one of the ostensible sex slaves who never actually had sex.
The SVU detectives want to be ones arresting the terrorist/escort, and DHS agrees. (What?!) They follow lovely Sophia to one of her "dates," which actually turns out to be a terrorist building a bomb. Nick tackles him, and the scantily-clad sleeper cell is busted.
Olivia and Eames then interrogate Sophia in a glass-and-steel chamber that was maybe supposed to be DHS but looked like the ladies room from the Starship Enterprise. At first, Sophia claims she's just a hooker. "We're gonna have a doctor examine you," Olivia threatens, "and we'll find out you're a virgin." Sophia caves and confesses her plot to bring terror to America while wearing stilettoes and a push-up bra.
What They Got Right:
This episode was a creative mashup of two important real-life issues: sex slavery in the U.S. and the radicalization of female terrorists abroad.
Selling women and girls is a booming $28 billion dollar-a-year trade. Many foreign-born prostitutes become ensnared in exactly the manner Anna's character described. Hoping to escape poverty in her own country, a young woman is lured to America with the promise of a good job. Separated from her friends and family, without papers or resources, she's then forced into a nightmare life of turning 10-15 tricks a day.
Spain recently busted a real ring of "bar-code pimps": men who branded women they forced into prostitution with bar-code tattoos to show their ownership. The women claimed the pimps whipped them, chained them to radiators, and shaved off their eyebrows for punishment.
In response to a different kind of female marginalization, more women are taking on violent roles in terrorist groups. According to the L.A. Times, "Since 1985, terrorism's so-called invisible women have accounted for a quarter of fatal attacks in Iraq, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Chechnya, Sri Lanka, Morocco and Palestine." Women, it turns out, can be highly successful suicide bombers, able to hide their bombs under loose religious clothing.
Of course, a burqa wouldn't work for tonight's escort/terrorist character. But, according to Jezebel, future suicide weapons may include -- I kid you not -- exploding breast implants. I'm a bit shocked that the SVU writers didn't manage to work that device into this episode.
What They Got Wrong:
The medical plot points tonight were exaggerated. Doctors can't really tell if a woman is a virgin. The presence of a hymen may suggest that a woman hasn't had sex -- but it is both possible for a woman to have had sex while retaining an intact hymen, and for a virgin's hymen to be broken by something other than sex. Maybe Olivia just said this as an interrogation technique. (And I pity the prosecutor tasked with applying for a court order for that examination). But earlier in the episode, the ME also said the dead woman "was very sexually active" based on her perineal scarring. That's an unlikely diagnosis. In most sex crimes, there's no injury at all. This is highly elastic anatomy that can stretch to fit a whole baby.
Finally, there's no way -- no way! -- that Homeland Security would allow the local sex-offense police to raid the terrorist mastermind's house. SVU wouldn't have gotten within six blocks of the terrorist's apartment building -- not even if Dateline was simultaneously filming an episode of To Catch a Predator there. Olivia is fabulous, but she's just not gonna be the one to collar Osama Bin Laden.
What do you think, SVU fans? Is a bar-code the world's nastiest tattoo? Will it be this awkward every time Cragen investigates a prostitution ring from now on? And will the FBI soon have to look for sleeper cells in the Playboy Mansion? Leave your comments!