Last week in this column we very unpopularly criticized Law & Order: SVU’s mid-season return to NBC. One of the major complaints we made in that column was that the series was focusing way too much on the personal drama of the detectives of the Special Victims Unit and not actual cases themselves, something vintage SVU prided themselves on. The new focus seemed forced, as if the writers had run out of “ripped from the headlines” cases to formulate an episode around. For many, not all, but many SVU fans felt this new direction was really hurting the beloved crime series.
However, Wednesday night’s episode, entitled “Amaro’s One-Eighty,” proved that making an SVU episode personal cannot only work, but it could lead to one of the season’s best episodes.
“Amaro’s One-Eighty” revolves around a shooting that involves Nick Amaro (Danny Pino) which results in the paralysis of an innocent teenage boy. The political timing could not be worse for Amaro as the new mayor of New York is looking to make good on his campaign promise to crack down on police violence. Amaro becomes the poster boy for this promise and the crushing weight of the NYPD, New York District Attorney and even his own friends and family makes the normally smooth detective crack under the pressure.
The episode is chock full of excellent scenes and the writers threw in a few nice, unexpected wrinkles to really ramp up the sense of hopelessness and tension welling up inside Amaro. The best wrinkle is the fact that Cassidy (Dean Winters) is now working with Internal Affairs and his first case is the Amaro shooting. Cassidy’s inclusion in the investigation and his presence around Amaro off the clock adds an unsettling air of awkwardness and tension…and it’s the perfect tone for their scenes together. Cassidy’s presence also helps bolster the maddening paranoia that slowly engulfs Amaro through the episode.
Yet, no matter how good this episode is from a writing standpoint, it’s Danny Pino’s performance that makes this episode special. Tonight was, without a shadow of a doubt, the best performance Pino has delivered in his run on the series. He masterfully runs a painful gamut of emotions — anger, paranoia, remorse, depression, hopelessness. The audience lives and dies with his every emotion — when he has hope, we have hope; when he’s resigned to his own guilt, so are we.
The episode was so good that they could’ve actually stretched this into a two-parter, which is rare to say about any television series these days. What this episode proves is that you can get into the personal lives of the SVU detectives and you can make it compelling television. However, there still should be a balance between personal drama and actual cases. The show has the ability to strike the balance, so here’s hoping.
Now for a little spoiler discussion, please stop reading if you did not watch the episode yet…
The episode marks the passing of the guard that has been rumored for quite some time — Dann Florek is leaving the show. Yes, Captain Cragen, the original captain on the original Law & Order and the anchor/back bone of SVU, has turned in his shield. We got a taste of what the show would be like in his absence last season during the storyline where he was locked up for a crime he did not commit. Now, the torch has officially been passed and Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) will be running things — a move we’ve heard about for quite some time as well. One has to wonder if they will bring in a new cast member or if they will go with the squad as they have it currently comprised. Either way, the loss of Cragen is a big one as he’s been such a fixture on the show and such a great character. He’s tough, emotional and compelling, all while still being able to fire off a good one-liner when needed. SVU will sorely miss the ol’ Captain, that’s for sure. Here’s hoping the move of Benson to head of the squad pans out.