If you’re a fan of Law and Order: SVU, like me, then you know the drill by now: you’re flicking through Netflix and suddenly SVU just appears on your screen, like a gift from the Gods, and you click it, delving into the treasure trove of goodness–and before you know it, your entire day has been and gone before your eyes. You get absorbed by the quality of the characters, the intensity of the stories and Mariska Hargitay’s overwhelming flawlessness, and as soon as one episode finishes, either Netflix autoplay steals the next forty minutes from you or you go there willingly. You vow never to do it again, but then you find yourself browsing Netflix once more…
So here I am, with ten episodes chosen from a gargantuan total of 319 that I think are highlights of that huge total and why, if you were to sit down and watch ten episodes consecutively, they would keep you firmly ensconced on the sofa for hours on end. Of course, choosing just ten episodes out of a show with so many is a difficult process and entirely subjective, so anything I’ve chosen here may not necessarily be agreeable to you. SVU prides itself on being able to produce engrossing stories on an almost weekly basis, so these choices–which aren’t ranked in order of preference, I might add–are merely some of the best of an already excellent bunch.
Also, if you’re reading this having not watched any of these episodes but intending to, you should be aware that there are spoilers, so be warned.
Plus, on a side-note, there won’t be any episodes from season thirteen or fourteen in this list. That’s not because I dislike them (quite the opposite, in fact), but simply because they haven’t arrived on Netflix yet , and I’ve only had the chance to watch each of the episodes once, whereas the episodes here have been watched multiple times. I adore 13 and 14, and I consider them the strongest the show has been for years, but I don’t really remember that many of them at this point.
10 – ‘Authority’
Season 9, Episode 15
After a shop owner restrains one of his colleagues and strips her down because a voice on the phone told him to do so, Benson and Stabler find themselves on the path of Merritt Rook, a man who takes pleasure in challenging authority whenever he can in violent ways, stemming from the tragic death of his wife many years earlier. He’s apprehended, but he subsequently uses his intellect to get himself acquitted, and he proceeds to take Benson hostage, resulting in a tense standoff that ultimately has the character disappear into the wind, ostensibly dead.
For SVU’s 200th episode, predominantly comedic actor Robin Williams was drafted in to provide the challenge for the detectives to face off against, and Williams quickly demonstrated that he was more than capable of playing the part of a chilling, calculating villain that went against what type of role he was most famous for. Rook’s actions were reprehensible, but his motives sympathetic, resulting in a complex character and an intense story that made the forty-minute episode length positively fly by. What Rook lacked in brute strength, he more than made up for with his manipulative nature, and he was a villain Benson and Stabler hadn’t seen the likes of before–and possibly will not see the likes of again.
9 – ‘Undercover’
Season 9, Episode 17
Olivia Benson is a tough, strong and determined woman, which is what makes ‘Undercover’ so harrowing to watch. Because essentially, it strips her of her power and her strength and turns her into a victim, and one that comes literally inches away from being the victim of a brutal sexual assault.
I’m not going to deny that I adore Olivia. In fact, I’ll freely admit that she’s one of my favourite female characters ever to grace television, and as such, ‘Undercover’ is a genuinely horrible episode to watch, mostly because of what happens to Olivia but also because the subject matter is sensitive. (The inmates of a women’s prison are being subjected to habitual rape and assault by one of the guards.) But regardless of the material, Mariska Hargitay’s performance is absolutely spot-on, and if you were ever going to have a marathon of SVU’s strongest episodes, you would absolutely have to have this episode on the itinerary.
I was also glad that the events that happened to Olivia in ‘Undercover’ weren’t simply brushed under the carpet for the proceeding episodes, because even though she wasn’t technically assaulted, it was the closest she has ever come in the show’s history–and something as traumatic as that would have a profound impact on anybody, particularly somebody who deals with rape on a daily basis.
8 – ‘Fault’
Season 7, Episode 19
Do you ship Elliot and Olivia together? Are you one of those people that constantly feels that there is a hole inside of you that will never be filled because they won’t ever end up together? Do you cry and make fifty Tumblr gif sets about their passionate love, knowing that it won’t ever happen, thus inflicting pain on yourself, masochist-style? Well, ‘Fault’ is, and will always be, the episode for you.
‘Fault’ is good at two things: providing wholesome material for you ‘shippers’ (me included), and telling an even darker than usual tale that starts off with the brutal murder of the parents of two young children and then the subsequent kidnap of them. Later, one of them is murdered, Olivia is seriously wounded and then events culminate in a tense stand-off between the killer, who is holding Elliot hostage, and Olivia, who has the terrible decision of whether to save her partner or the child. Phew. That sure is a lot to cover in forty minutes, but ‘Fault’ coped well with the weight of all that story, fortunately.
Whether you’re watching this episode for the central partnership conflicts or for the case-of-the-week story (including a sublime guest performance from Lou Diamond Phillips), ‘Fault’ simply has to be in any marathon you’re undertaking. Unless your heart literally splinters when Olivia ends the episode asking for a new partner, in which case you’d be wise to move ahead.
7 – ‘Shaken’
Season 5, Episode 10
To put it simply, this episode was Christopher Meloni’s time to shine, and boy did he do just that. Olivia was away doing one of her ‘homicide courses’ or whatever the heck it is she does when she’s needed out of the picture, so it gave Meloni the chance to step up to the spotlight–and he delivered.
‘Shaken’ starts off with the apparent abduction of a young child while playing in a park, before moving onto the discovery of her injured, lifeless body and then to a serious case of ‘shaken baby syndrome’, with the finger of suspicion eventually being pointed at her stressed, single mother. But this isn’t simply a black and white case, and as such, it taps into Elliot’s paternal instincts and resonates with him, his own children and the struggles he’s faced in the past.
Elliot’s recital of how he came close to beating his own child because she spilled a drink on their new carpet is, arguably, the episode’s finest moment. Elliot’s monologue intertwines with the episode’s story well, showing how easily stress can cause you to do terrible things, even to those you love the most and would die to protect. Meanwhile, Christopher Meloni provided one of the strongest performances he ever did on SVU, which only elevated an already great episode into even higher heights.
6 – ‘Sick’
Season 5, Episode 19
Sometimes Elliot and Olivia come up against a truly revolting individual that commits the very same ‘heinous acts’ that the opening monologue talks about at the beginning of every episode, and you will despise them so much that you cannot fathom how anything could happen to them other than death or indefinite incarceration. But sometimes they don’t catch the bad guy, just as in the case of ‘Sick’.
It’s not difficult to draw comparisons between the antagonist of this episode–an extremely creepy predator that has a ‘treasure room’ for young kids to play in, amongst other disgusting acts–and a certain male popstar whose alleged activities used to dominate the headlines years ago. SVU has ripped the foundations for many of its episodes straight from the headlines numerous times, and this episode is one of the most memorable examples of that.
However, if there’s another thing that SVU is wonderfully good at, it’s making you loathe the villain and then watching you squirm when they escape justice, as was the case in this episode, due to the actions of a greedy grandmother who destroyed the case against the villain with her greed-fuelled lies. It’s the unfortunate truth that sometimes, the bad guy either never gets caught or does, but escapes with their freedom due to technicalities or the misplaced actions of others, and SVU has made that very clear on more than one occasion. ‘Sick’ makes you feel sick, and then makes you horrified when it all doesn’t turn out the way you want it to–and it’s fantastic, if nauseating.
In the second part of this post, which will be posted towards the end of this week, episodes 5-1 will be detailed, so feel free to make a return!