Only SVU could celebrate its 300th episode with a gut-wrenching story about child abduction and pedophilia. "Manhattan Vigil" showcased the dramatic chops that have made Law and Order: Special Victims Unit a television staple for the last 14 years. I teared up -- twice. But, in the end, I was left wondering about a question unrelated to the plot: What moisturizer does Mariska Hargitay use? The woman looks better now than she did 13 years ago.
Recap: The episode opens with a real estate mogul taking his seven-year-old kid, Wyatt, to a baseball game. While Dad and boy are on a subway platform, a man grabs Wyatt and forces him onto a train, leaving a panicked Dad on the platform as the train speeds off with his son.
Olivia and Munch feel a sense of deja vu -- this is the same neighborhood where another seven-year-old boy, Hector, was kidnaped 13 years ago. There follows a series of flashbacks in which we see our detectives ruminating about Hector's case back in season one.
(And -- wow -- I was heartened. Munch looks far better as a silver-haired sage than he did as a gangly young man. And Mariska has aged like fine wine. SVU creators, take note. You might try a product tie-in: SVU anti-aging cream.)
Anyway, Olivia fears that she got Hector's old case wrong -- and the same kidnapper has struck again. She soon discovers there have been many similar child kidnappings -- and nearby arsons shortly thereafter -- over the years.
The detectives pull grainy surveillance video of the abduction, talk to witnesses, and visit Hector's mom, who never gave up on finding her boy. In the least-plausible technical twist of the night, Amanda does some computer magic and finds a building that had a new concrete floor installed shortly after Hector's death. The police dig it up and find Hector's remains.
It looks like the killer might be a dorky rent-a-cop who conveniently "found" evidence in both cases. But he was just the requisite red herring.
The real kidnapper turns out to be a wifebeater-wearing wiseguy named Lou. Lou worked for Wyatt's grandfather, setting fires to the landlord's buildings to get rid of pesky tenants. Lou is a pedophile, and used these arsons to hide the bodies of boys he abducted over the years.
But Wyatt was different. Lou abducted him because he thought his father's real-estate company treated him badly, and he wanted revenge. The SVU detectives promise to keep mum about his child-molesting ways if he tells them where Wyatt is (good luck enforcing that promise, Lou). He tells them, and our detectives rush to an abandoned building. They find Wyatt -- alive and well -- and carry him outside to his parents' joyful arms.
What They Got Right:
The season one detectives who guessed Hector was kidnaped by his father were playing the odds. Kidnappings are committed by a family member or acquaintance in over 75 percent of cases. The good news: Only one child of 10,000 missing children is not found alive. But acting quickly is crucial -- 74 percent of abducted children who are ultimately murdered are dead within three hours of the abduction.
The case on tonight's show was reminiscent of the real-life case of Etan Patz, a six-year-old boy who disappeared in 1979, on the first day he walked to the school bus on his own. Just this summer, NYPD dug up the basement of a Manhattan building, looking for his remains.
More and more, child-abduction investigations rely on surveillance video. As a prosecutor, I subpoenaed these all the time -- they offer a a wealth of information. Check out this shocking attempted abduction caught on tape:
Finally, I agreed with Nick's sentiment, when he went to tell Hector's mother that her son's body had been found. "Worst part of the job," he said, before knocking on the door. I've spoken with many homicide detectives who say exactly the same thing.
What They Got Wrong:
I hate to nitpick on the 300th anniversary, but our good detectives kind of sank tonight's case. They didn't have probable cause to burst into Lou's apartment. At that point, they knew: (1) Lou had signed for that concrete floor, (2) he told Dad he was owed money, and (3) he "complained about a basement apartment." That and $5 would get Olivia a latte. In real life, all the evidence from Lou's apartment would be suppressed, Lou's arrest would be found unconstitutional, and his subsequent confession would be suppressed as "fruit of the poisonous tree." Guys, you can't start cutting legal corners just because it's your birthday.
With a few clicks of her computer, Amanda found a building that reported water damage and installed a concrete floor in 1999. This is closer to Harry Potter than a real police investigation. That magical computer doesn't exist. I shudder to think about the months Amanda would have to spend deep inside Iron Mountain to find that information in real life.
Lou seemed an unlikely revenge kidnapper. As a sex-crimes prosecutor, I saw many repeat offenders. But these recidivists tended to do similar things multiple times. I prosecuted one rapist whose MO was to abduct at knifepoint and sexually assault women who were with their children. He did this over and over -- but I can't imagine him kidnapping anyone for financial revenge. The idea that Lou would abduct all these kids to fulfill his pedophilia -- and then abduct Wyatt as a way to avenge a monetary debt -- seems far-fetched.
Finally, I laughed at the pastry shop waitress who distinctly remembered "the guy who ordered tea." It reminded me of John Mulaney's routine about the "bartender who recognizes everyone."
Well SVU fans, what do you think? Was this show a fitting milestone for the 300th episode? What were your favorite moments, tonight and over the years? And can we expect another 300? Leave your comments!