Performance of the Week #6: Mariska Hargitay
Law and Order: SVU
“Surrender Benson/Imprisoned Lives”
Law and Order: SVU has been on the air for a whopping fifteen years–a remarkable achievement for any television show in today’s landscape. And for all of those fifteen years, lead star Mariska Hargitay has been there all the way, kicking criminal ass with different haircuts every year. Olivia Benson has always been, and still remains, one of the strongest female characters–and certainly one of the most admirable–that’s graced the television-sphere.
In the season fifteen premiere, however, all of that changes. After being taken prisoner at gunpoint in the final scene of season fourteen by a sadistic and deranged killer famous for torturing and raping his victims before killing them, Benson is subjected to a series of horrific assaults–both physical and otherwise. She’s no longer the same character whose strength we’ve all come to love and adore over the years. She becomes a victim.
It’s this stark contrast that results in such a powerful and harrowing experience over the course of “Surrender Benson.” Olivia has been in situations at least somewhat like this before, with the assault in the prison during season nine’s “Undercover” being one that springs to mind, but never to this degree. She loses all of that strength and is reduced to a quivering shell begging for her life to a monster who’s reveling in her weakness. It’s harrowing and difficult to watch, but at the same time, it’s incredible and one of SVU’s strongest episodes to date.
One of the reasons why the episode is so fantastic, beyond the script and the directing and the incredible tension throughout, is Mariska Hargitay’s performance. Hargitay makes Olivia’s terror and bewilderment so palpable at every point that it’s horrifyingly resonant. It’s real and gutting, painful and heartbreaking, yet some of the finest work she’s ever displayed during the show’s life. The paroxysm she unleashes when she breaks free and is taunted by Lewis is a particular highlight. It’s a detonation of rage and emotion, and it’s insurmountably brilliant.
Hargitay’s dedication to this character has always been pure and unfaltering, and the fact she can still give depth and explore new facets of Olivia’s character after fifteen years is a true testament to her skill as an actress–a testament I hope is given the requisite recognition.
Of course, Hargitay is no stranger to being recognised for her achievements on SVU; she was nominated for the Lead Actress Emmy from 2004-2011, with a win for the brilliant “911” in 2006. But the pattern of her nomination was broken in 2011. I don’t know if she will manage to secure herself a place in next year’s ceremony (sadly I doubt she’ll be able to), but after watching her phenomenal performance across this season’s double premiere, I can’t think of anybody else I’d rather have a nomination go to at this point. She’s one of television’s most committed actresses, and if for whatever reason you had any doubts as to her power as an actress, these two episodes should alleviate any and all of them.
Person of Interest: “Liberty”
Root is a deliciously crazed character, obsessed with the functionings of the machine that sits at the heart of Person of Interest’s premise, and Amy Acker is impeccable at playing her with just the right amount of ostensible sanity and lurking lunacy to not make her a cartoon villain. Root’s monologue at the conclusion of this season’s opener is a chilling display of just why Root’s such a fascinating character to watch, as she calmly explains how she’s arguing with the machine in regards to murdering her doctor. Acker provides a fine antithesis to Reese and Finch’s unrivaled morality. It’s for this reason that I’m beyond happy she’s a regular this season.