This editorial contains spoilers for the season finale of Special Victims Unit so consider yourself warned.
Before continuing with this piece I want you to take a long, hard look at the screencap below. Now sit back for a moment and take in everything that’s happening at that moment in time. Two dead bodies are on the floor, Olivia is over one and Elliot is over the other. Three dead bodies in the cage, Fin is on the phone trying to get EMS to the station, cops are running left and right trying to make sense of the chaos, and through it all we all know that we will return to the Special Victims Unit in September and it will be like nothing happened.
But none of the characters in that moment will forget what they’re witnessing right now. And that’s the beauty of Law & Order: SVU and why it’s one of the standards of how to do episodic television the right.
For those not up to date, here’s what happened. The finale takes place over the course of a few days following the random shooting of a woman who was about to begin her rape trial next week. Tragically she was shot in front of her daughter. The episode eventually leads detectives Benson and Stabler to a crazy homeless dude, a hair dresser and an ATF agent who all (whether they knew it or not) had a criminal involvement in the death of this woman.
What happens next will go down as one of the most violent moments in the show’s history. In the final scene, the daughter of the murdered woman walks into the station, is informed by Olivia that the men in the jail cell are the ones responsible for her mother’s murder, she thanks Olivia and walks out. A few second later she comes running back in with a pistol in hand, firing frantically into the cell, hitting all the men inside. She also ends up taking out a social worker in the station (who we met earlier) and another cop. Upon realizing she hasn’t finished off the man that pulled the trigger on her mother, she goes in for the final shot when Elliot, seeing no other option, shoots her in the side, killing her.
And that brings us to the screencap of the ensuing chaos…
When people think episodic television, they always point to Law & Order as the prime example, but it’s never in a positive way. All we ever hear from people who think they “know” is that Law & Order and like it suffer because the stories don’t matter. Since the format is set up so that you can jump in at any point, that some how makes it of lower quality than acclaimed series like Breaking Bad, LOST and Justified. Apparently, unless you’re animated, a comedy or an animated comedy – you can’t be episodic.
But I got news for you: SVU in particular, gets it. The show’s format understands how life works. Yes, there is no doubt that that scene (and more importantly that frame) is traumatic. It’s painful, it’s gory and it’s hard to look at it without thinking about the senseless deaths we’re witnessing. But these are cops, it’s not the first time they’ve dealt with traumatic situations, and it won’t be the last.
And while this may be an extreme example, think about your every day lives. How much of what you did the day before affects what’s happening to you right now? Seriously. Sure, sometimes elements of life swing over to the next day, but for the most part, we all live our lives like episodic television. And that’s why when SVU does something like this, it’s so effective.
The show plays in real time, and while the cases the SVU deal with are always violent and painful for the people involved, they are hardly ever traumatic for the cops. To them it’s their job to put away the bad guys. But when the bad guy isn’t really a bad guy, and the violence goes from second-hand talk to first-hand experience, that’s when we really feel it. We need those mundane episodes that play out like normal everyday life for scenes like this to work. The episodic format is not one to be shunned, but embraced. Embraced for showing life the way it really is: boring and often uneventful.
This season of SVU represented the high quality that we have come to expect from the best iteration of the Law & Order franchise, but this scene is more than just a testament to the quality of the episode or to the show, but for the format it exists within.
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