In the first part of this post–located here–I ran down five episodes that formed the first half to ten episodes that, were you to sit down and begin a ten-episode marathon of SVU (and let’s face it, that’s hardly difficult), wouldn’t fail to keep your attention. In this second part, I’ll run down the remaining five episodes on my list.
Again, I’ll note that these episodes are but a fraction of SVU‘s total episode count (which is 319) and to say that they’re entirely subjective would be a mammoth understatement; you could very easily choose ten completely different episodes and still find yourself connected to the sofa for the duration. But I’d love to hear your thoughts on the episodes mentioned in both of these posts.
Also, on a side note, these episodes, nor the ones mentioned in the previous post, are not ranked in order of preference.
5 – ‘Loss’
Season 5, Episode 4
Alex Cabot was, and remains, one of SVU’s strongest characters, slamming the fist of justice into the criminal scum like a HBIC. But ‘Loss’ took Cabot’s strength and used it against her, with the drug cartel pursuing her relentlessly until she’s forced into entering witness protection after an attempt is made on her life, stripping her of all her power.
Essentially, ‘Loss’ took Alex and over the course of forty minutes, turned her into a victim. It was sad to see somebody so powerful be whittled down to somebody so unable to help themself, so afraid for their life that they had to run and hide, but Stephanie March made the most of the material and provided a strong performance to make the loss of a key element to the show’s dynamic a significant moment.
If you like Alex as much as I do, then you’ll undoubtedly find ‘Loss’ a little difficult to watch because of what it does to the character, but ‘Loss’ forms the first half to what is, essentially, a two-part episode whose connecting second half takes place a season later, which leads me to…
4 – ‘Ghost’
Season 6, Episode 16
While ‘Loss’ robbed Alex of her life, her career and being able to be around everybody she cared about, ‘Ghost’ was the episode to restore all of that, even if it was temporary.
After the brutal slaying of two parents in their home, and the attempted murder of their eight-year-old son, Benson and Stabler are put on the path of the ‘Ghost’, an infamous Irish assassin given that nickname for his apparent abilities to appear and disappear without a trace. He’s also responsible for the attempted murder of Alex Cabot, bringing the former A.D.A. back home to regain what was lost to her when the Ghost made an attempt on her life.
The case-of-the-week story of ‘Ghost’ is strong enough to stand on its own regardless of how it connects to Alex’s departure, but bringing things back full circle gives Cabot’s exit somewhat of a resolution. Sure, her return home isn’t permanent, and as soon as she’s finished ensuring her would-be killer is jailed indefinitely, she has to return from whence she came, but it at least makes sure that Alex never completely left the show a victim, and that is much appreciated.
3 – ‘Doubt’
Season 6, Episode 8
I will freely admit that ‘Doubt’ is not my favourite episode of SVU. When I watched it for the first time, I found myself frustrated at the lack of conclusion to anything the episode offered. But, when looking back, I began to see that the reason I initially disliked the episode so much is what ultimately made it so unique, hence why it’s an episode you should include in a marathon, if only just to experience it for yourself.
‘Doubt’ is unique in the sense that you act as the jury. The facts are presented in front of you, namely the apparent rape of a graduate student by her professor, who claims it was consensual, and you have to decide whether you think the defendant is guilty or not. Your verdict is the only verdict that matters, because the episode literally ends with “We find the defendant…” and then the screen cuts to black, with no resolution.
But, as I said previously, it’s this element that works the most in ‘Doubt’s favour. The entire episode forces you to think carefully about everything that happens in order to choose which side of the story you believe in, which is essentially how the entire jury system operates. After the episode aired, NBC ran a poll on their website asking viewers whether they would enter a guilty or a non-guilty verdict, or declare a mis-trial, with 60% of them finding in favour of the professor. But ultimately, the episode’s resolution happens entirely in your head, and there is no other episode of SVU that comes close to following the same structure as ‘Doubt.’.
2 – ‘Countdown’
Season 2, Episode 15
Some of the best, most intense, episodes of SVU occur when the team are working against some form of a ticking clock, whether it’s a literal one or otherwise. The stakes are raised considerably, with the forgiveness for mistakes being indeterminably low. Pushing anything and everything against the detectives is what makes these episodes stand out, and ‘Countdown’ particularly shines in this regard.
After a young girl falls out of a moving van, after being kept prisoner by an unknown assailant, the detectives learn that this particular criminal has a strange, but defining, modus operandi: he kidnaps a girl, keeps them for three days (with each day being dedicated to various activities, the concluding one being rape) and then kills them–and after another girl goes missing, the clock begins ticking down before he claims another victim, giving Benson and Stabler seventy-two hours to prevent another death.
SVU functions well when it concentrates on the deepest, darkest aspects of the human element, exposing it so viciously that you find yourself physically repulsed, but it also succeeds when it just throws everything onto the table, puts a ticking clock in for good measure and watches how the characters fight against it. ‘Countdown’ is not the only episode of this type in the show’s extensive history, but it has an interesting story that has real reverberations for the characters as they plod through it, and as dark as the material is, it’s unmissable.
1 – ‘911’
Season 7, Episode 3
And now we reach the end of this list, with easily my favourite episode of the show’s history. ‘911’ has the aforementioned rapid-moving, intense plot format that ‘Countdown’ has, only it also has something else working in its favour–Mariska Hargitay, and more specifically, her incredible performance.
After a young girl calls 911 claiming to be trapped in a room, alone and hungry, the call is passed over to SVU. However, when efforts to trace the call have strange results, namely the apparent change of geographic location upon every attempt, as well as conflicting stories from the caller, a belief kicks in that the call is nothing but a hoax. But Olivia is unrelenting in her belief that Maria (the caller) is true, and with a depleting phone battery, a bizarre technological phenomenon and a young girl’s life potentially at risk, the entire episode’s forty minutes rarely let up in palpable momentum.
This was the episode for which Mariska Hargitay was nominated for an Emmy award in 2006, and which she subsequently won. For a police procedural (on a network station, no less), winning an Emmy award was unprecedented, back then and even now, but Mariska Hargitay’s performance was every bit as deserving of the landmark award. Over the course of ‘911’, Olivia is pushed up against a wall with every minute that passes, and the range of emotions the character goes through are all displayed with absolute brilliance by Hargitay, who proved once and for all that she is a formidable actress capable of spinning any material given to her into gold.
It’s not just in Hargitay’s performance where ‘911’ excels above all others, either. The episode’s structure is marginally different to what is normal for SVU; the sheer pace of the narrative is insane when compared to other episodes in the show’s life. The combination of strong character work with an intense, fast-moving story are what makes ‘911’ my all-time favourite episode of SVU, and considering the calibre of the other episodes on this list (and even ones I haven’t mentioned), that’s a considerable accolade indeed.