Law & Order: SVU (S20E01/02) “Man Up/ Man Down”

Thursday night brought the much-anticipated premiere of the historic 20th season of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit and, in the end, it did not disappoint.

Law and Order: SVU kicked off its record-tying 20th season with a 2 episode, 2 hour premiere. Much hype has surrounded the fact that with this 20th season SVU now ties with both Gunsmoke and the original Law and Order for the longest running scripted television series in history. Little doubt remains that, barring some catastrophic loss of viewers or advertising backing, SVU will continue for at least one more season to hold the record of 21 seasons, with most anticipating it will continue for at least a few more.

But the real question is whether SVU is still worthy of remaining on the air, regardless of the clear television-history importance of continuing and if the season premiere is any indication of what the show can still bring to the table, the answer is a solid “yes.”

Thursday night’s premiere saw a return to the bedrock foundation of the procedural approach to story telling that SVU has unfortunately veered from in the recent past. The first episode focused squarely on the “law” half of the story,  the second the “order.”  The “personal” story lines of the regular characters were exposed throughout as they related to the episode story. Exactly what has made the entire “Law and Order” franchise great television and exactly what SVU will hopefully continue to do this season.

The “case of the week” couldn’t be more timely, centering on “toxic masculinity.” It played out fairly predictably but showcased some outstanding performances from guest starring cast. Dylan Walsh was especially noteworthy as the angry, abusive, narcissistic John Conway. Conway was accused of raping his 15-year-old son Sam (Bryce Romero) because he deemed Sam not manly enough, probably gay and certainly not worthy of being his son.

Sam refused to name his father as his rapist.  Sam fell victim to the manipulative pressure of his father to believe that the rape needed to happen, to prove to Sam that he did not want to be gay. He needed to “man up” and become tougher, more aggressive, violent. Everyone in the family knew what was happening but Conway held such abusive power over them that no one would talk.

Even after emotional cross-examination, Sam would not change his testimony and Conway was acquitted.  When his family members chose to act as if the entire ordeal was actually a “win” for the family, Sam reached his breaking point, went to school the next day and opened fire on his school mates. After Detective Carisi (Peter Scanavino) is able to convince Sam not to commit suicide he is taken into custody.

When his father arrives at the station, he hits Sam in a fit of rage and we see just how guilty Peter is feeling over the way the case played out. After Conway is separated from his son, Peter appears absolutely stricken over what he just witnessed. When Conway announces that Sam will “man up” and plead guilty, Stone is so disgusted by the encounter that he refuses to shake Conway’s hand.

Peter follows up by visiting Sam in prison and discovers that Conway may have planted the seed for the school shooting by further humiliating Sam. Stone, in consultation with the new forensic psychiatrist Lisa Abernathy (Sandrine Holt), decides to bring John Conway to trial for criminally negligent homicide in creating the toxic environment that led to the school shooting.

Stone’s questioning of Conway during trial does not go well and it appears he may be acquitted again.  Peter is being ripped apart by his guilt over Sam’s outcome and the school deaths. Benson (Mariska Hargitay) steps in and encourages a very reluctant Stone to call Sam to the stand again. Stone focuses his questioning of Sam on his father’s repeated emasculation of him and finally Sam breaks. He paints a vivid picture of the horror that his father has put him through and the jury convicts Conway.

Stone’s state of mind is the real drama in the season 20 premiere and it was a feast for Peter Stone fans. There were several times that previous Stone scenes and dialogue was referenced from both SVU and Chicago Justice. Most notably his hammering in on Conway’s expectation that his sons meet his toxic expectation of a “good man.” It is impossible not to recall Peter’s statement about his father to Jack McCoy that “a great man is not necessarily a good man.”

SVU ended last season with Peter Stone at his breaking point after the horrific (on many levels) murder of his sister Pam by criminals connected to a case he refused to drop. Stone had already been struggling. Leaving his career in Chicago, trying to come to terms with long-standing but still vaguely disclosed issues with his recently deceased father, the grind of being responsible for Pam’s care and a total lack of a support system in NYC were taking its toll.

It became just how much Peter was struggling when we first see him in the premiere as he sadly looks at a picture of himself with his sister. But that wasn’t all Peter had regrets about. We quickly discover it was the morning after a night of a drunken menage a trois. Peter’s regret obvious as he tried to get the women to leave by making it clear that breakfast was out of the question and his face morphed from a smiling facade to one of self complete self-disgust. (“No eggs” is now my new code for “get out!”)

Peter spends much of the episode drinking heavily. Most of Stone’s dialogue can be interpreted at least two ways. At face value, he’s disgusted by Conway’s toxic masculinity and the damage its done to his family. He feels guilty over forcing Sam to testify and believes that to be the breaking point for Sam, making him partially to blame for the school shooting. He’s disgusted with himself for his how his own “weakened” state may have caused his failure to get a conviction.

It can also all be interpreted through the cloudy lens of whatever the real issues were between Peter and his father. It is very clear that Peter is deeply disturbed by Conway’s aggressive, domineering, demanding toxic masculinity. He makes repeated references to the long-term damage that any sign of weakness or inability to live up to a domineering father’s expectations will do to a kid. In drunken conversations with both Carisi and Benson, his voice breaks with emotion as he seemingly is talking about Sam. It’s clear that Peter is fighting for more than Sam throughout this case.

When Conway is convicted in the end, Peter’s behavior in court in dramatically different from the usual court confident Stone. We know he was drinking heavily the night before. He made it through proceedings confidently but now, as the verdict is being read, he appears shaky, sweating slightly and unable to look up as the verdict is read. It takes him a beat to respond to the guilty verdict, finally looking up and composing himself. He takes an unsteady step into the isle, glances toward the jury and has to stop again to compose himself.

As he walks from the courtroom, you see him breathe an obvious sigh of relief.  Relief that he won? Relief that he stayed on his feet long enough to get through the day? Relief that maybe he can put some ghosts to bed with this win?  relief that he can head back to the bar? Whatever it is, I am more than eager to see this story line continue. It is providing Philip Winchester the opportunity to showcase the depth and discipline of his talent. He excels in the quiet intensity of these emotionally charged, vulnerable scenes.

The completeness with which he inhabits a character is stunning. There are several times in this episode that Winchester’s choices shine. In the scene in which the Conways present their decision to have Sam plead guilty, Stone sees through the facade of it all and zeroes in on Conway’s hostility with a cold hard stare. Winchester remains largely motionless during most of this scene. When Conway reaches to offer his hand to Stone, Winchester doesn’t move a muscle. It is human nature to instinctually make some lean in to that motion. Winchester’s choice is brilliant. Not only will he not shake Conway’s hand, he does not take Conway’s bait,  he does not concede the social gesture.

He does not  flinch. He just threw Conway’s masculinity right in his face by beating him at his own game.

For Stone’s scenes alone the SVU season 20 premiere is well worth watching. The fact that it set the tone for what looks to be a strong season is encouraging. Enough of a teaser was set with the other main cast that I’m game for the remainder.

 

Law and Order: SVU airs on its new night Thursdays at 10/9c on NBC.