Title: Philadelphia (Season 8, Episode 16)
Uncomfortable Synopsis: A SVU detective discovers her newly found brother may be a rapist.
Memorable Line: Maybe these bozos don’t have good gaydar.
Plot: Detectives Stabler and Benson are deposed by an unseen interviewer regarding a case in New Jersey …
Backing up to sometime earlier, Benson and Stabler run afoul of some New Jersey cops just as Benson prepares to make contact with a suspect. The SVU detectives are rushed to the local precinct because Benson refuses to reveal the nature of the case. Captain Julia Millfield releases them, having talked to Captain Cragen, but warns them to stay out of New Jersey.
As if you really need that warning.
Back in the present, the detectives are asked to describe one another. Returning to the flashback, Cragen chews them out for taking police issue weapons and vehicles to New Jersey, but does not mention a “get out of jail free card.” Instead, he tells Stabler about their latest rape victim in Central Park. It seems there’s been a string of attacks on gay men. Local community leaders are beginning to suspect hate crimes and Stabler is the primary on the case.
He and Benson go to Saint Mark’s Hosptial to interview the latest victim, Ronnie, who says two average white guys pulled him into a van, where they kicked and punched him. While he maintains that he is not gay and is, in fact, getting married in a few weeks, he admits to being raped. Cragen orders them to take Ronnie to the park in order to retrace his steps, but Benson seems distracted and asks Stabler to do it on his own. Finn offers to help.
Benson visits Dr. Huang, who got his hands on the rap sheet of one Simon Marsden, the person she went to see in New Jersey. Turns out he volunteered a DNA sample during a murder investigation six years earlier and it pinged in the system while she was investigating a private matter. Benson tells Huang that she knows he lives with a girlfriend and a son from a previous relationship. She reveals to Huang that she and Marsden share the same father.
You may remember that Benson is the product of a rape.
Back at the squad room, Stabler and Finn plan to stakeout the park, watching for crews in vans. When Cragen says he cannot authorize more manpower, Finn volunteers himself, Stabler, Benson, and Munch for the detail. Meanwhile, Benson attempts to make a first contact with her brother, leaving her card with his girlfriend.
Back in the present, the unseen interviewer asks Stabler if Benson is under a lot of stress. “Stress is part of the job,” he replies.
Upon leaving Marsden’s house, Benson is stopped by Captain Millfield. She takes her to a bar for an informal chat. Turns out Millfield’s looking at him as a suspect in a stalking case. He’s the only link between the three victims, who claim someone has entered their homes and rearranged their panty drawers. That’s not a euphemism. At least, I hope it’s not. The case is currently in a log-jam, but the appearance of a sex crimes (note the use of the term) detective leads Millfield to believe she’s on the right track. Benson agrees to give her any info that she might find.
Okay, stakeout time. Finn lets Benson and Stabler know a stolen van is making its way through the park. They mobilize to stop the van, but Benson, in her own vehicle, gets a call from Mardsen’s girlfriend Lucy. They plan to meet up. She’s also in walkie-talkie contact with Stabler, but turns the wrong way when he tells her to turn east. As a result, the van gets away.
Back in the present, Benson tells the interviewer that she and Stabler have a great rapport.
As a result of Benson’s screw-up, another man is found attacked and taken to Mercy General. This victim, a tourist, tells the same story: two men, kicks and punches, rape. He adds that the younger man drove while the older one raped him, he also notes that one of them had a razor-wire tattoo.
At the squad room, Huang notes that the initial hate-crime hypothesis might be incorrect as every victim since the first has been straight. He suggests the pathology is revenge for getting raped in prison. Cragen gives Benson some busy-work checking the new description against recent parolees. He also asks about what happened during the stake-out, but Stabler covers for her.
Cragen and TARU Tech Morales listen to a tape of the com chatter during the pursuit. Morales enhances the audio and Cragen makes out that Benson was on the phone during the chase.
Benson meets Marsden when he takes Lucy’s place at the planned meet-up. He did a little digging on the Internet and learned that she’s a SVU detective. He assumes she’s part of the Jersey investigation. Benson is tempted to reveal their true relationship, but walks away.
Next morning, the forensics team gets a finger print off the burnt remains of the stolen van, leading to the arrest of a pair of brothers. Stabler and Benson ask Ronnie, the victim from the start of the episode, to identified them. He is convinced the defense will claim he wanted it because he became aroused during the attack. Benson tells him that was the body’s automatic response and that the jury will see photos of his injuries from the night of the attack, confirming his story.
Cragen has another nice chat with the detectives. Stabler gets defensive. Before it comes to blows, Finn arrives with a new detail: the suspect “belonged” to a prison gang.
Back in the present, the interviewer asks Stabler just how far his loyalty to his partner goes.
Marsden arrives at Benson’s apartment. He shows her a clipping of Benson’s mother as a young woman, telling her that he found it in his father’s stuff. Inviting him inside, Benson learns that their father died ten years ago, but the picture was a mystery to Marsden’s family. He also produces a picture of his father. Note: this is the first time Benson has ever seen a photo of him. Dramatic music swells as Benson reveals that his father raped her mother. Marsden refuses to believe it until Benson tells him their siblings. The two talk late into the night, getting to know each other. Benson learns a little bit about her father and Marsden maintains his innocence on the stalking case.
Benson wakes up to a phone call from Middlefield: the stalker has upgraded to rape. Arriving in Jersey, Benson tells her that Marsden was at her apartment until three hours prior. At a line-up, the victim identifies him as her rapist.
Once back in Manhattan, Benson finally tells Cragen that Marsden is her brother. He calls Stabler into his office to determine if he knew about the whole thing from word one. Stabler feigns ignorance and Cragen reminds them of all the times he’s stuck his neck out for them. He’s very unhappy, saying that it might be time to separate them or transfer them out of the unit. He tells Stabler and Benson to go home.
ADA Casey Novak uses video tape interviews from the prison gang to get the rapist to admit not only to the attacks, but the abuse he received in prison. She also mentions that the tapes are going to be given to Dateline, because we’re one big NBC family. They cut a deal, but was this episode even about a rape case?
Cragen asks Huang about Benson and Stabler.
Back in the present, the unseen interviewer asks Benson what she would do if she had to choose between saving Stabler and saving a member of the public. Stabler was asked this question as well, but he already faced this situation for real and chose his partner. Benson refuses to answer, ending her interview.
At Benson’s, Stabler sees Marsden has sent her mementos of his life so that she can get to know him. While discussing the Jersey case, Stabler finds Millfield’s sister Carrie in Marsden’s high school yearbook. The two visit Marsden, who admits he got rough with Carrie after a high school dance. Benson is finally convinced that he’s guilty, despite Marsden’s insistence that he would never lie to her.
The detectives also talk to Millfield about the whole situation, but the Jersey captain has DNA on her side now from hairs left behind at the crime scene. They’re a positive match for Marsden. She also reveals that her sister dropped out of college, turned to drinking, and has been in and out of psychiatric hospitals since the night of the school dance. After being arrested, Marsden jumps bail.
Back in the squad room, Cragen orders Stabler and Benson to undergo individual psychological assessments.
The interviewer turns out to be Dr. Rebecca Hendrix from “Identity.” She tells Cragen that “Detectives Benson and Stabler have a degree of mutual reliance, an emotional dependence, that compromises their effectiveness as police officers. They’re too close.” When he asks if he should split them up, she replies, “If you want to lose your two best detectives.”
The Marsden storyline continues in a subsequent episode.
Why it is one of the worst: All of the bottom five feature a break from format. The key to the success of every “Law & Order” show is this tried and true progression of plot: a case if followed from beginning to end. Any deviation from this format generally leads to trouble and in the case of SVU, it is often contained within a flashback.
There are a handful of episodes that frame the story as an investigation into police misconduct. They all fail because they break the format. You have scenes of the lead characters in starkly lit rooms telling unseen Internal Affairs goons or psychiatrists about their feelings on the events you are about to watch. With the story occurring in two time periods, you’re never really sure which material matters. In the case of this episode, the rape van storyline is an afterthought, there only to show Benson’s poor performance. It only serves the flashback format as Cragen (and the writers) need a reason to order the evaluations in the first place
Cop shows have to be linear. Even “The Wire” avoids double-backing in on itself for just this reason. Asking a TV audience to be part of an investigation means presenting clues in a definable order. This is, generally, the forward progression of time in which the cops (and the lawyers) work the case. Failing to do that will leave the viewer bored and disconnected from the narrative. NBC tried an unconventional cop drama called “Boomtown” that played with time. In it, you saw a case from several different angles — the media, the cops, city hall — but each angle would start at different points in the case, often with the characters beginning their day prior to the crime. After each commercial break, you were given a new set of characters and their interaction with the plot. The show did not last.
In the case of today’s episode, “Philadelphia,” both the rape van and Benson’s brother plotlines suffer as a result of flashback structure. To the viewer, the episode is seemingly about the detectives’ psych evaluations.
Also, consider this: the flashback structure adds nothing to the story, not even its intended tension. Would the episode be substantially different if the interview scenes were removed? Cragen never acts on the evaluations, so what was the point?
What I believe to be the single worst episode of the show is the first to use this framing device (we’ll get to that one in a few weeks), but this Season Eight episode also features one of the big problems of later seasons: the reliance on the characters’ backstories. In seasons 7, 8, and 9, Stabler’s marital problems, Benson’s search for family, and Finn’s gay son and crazy step-son come to dominate the show.
Watching this episode again, I noticed it makes some of the same mistakes with Benson that the pilot does. Despite being a dedicated officer, she goes off the rails pretty fast. While her backstory is intriguing and informs the character’s ability to get witnesses and victims talking, it rarely ever works as the text of an episode. Utilizing her past often makes her behave way out of character and strains the show’s credibility. She should’ve been fired eight-times over by now. Also, the scenes where she and Marsden get to know each other lack the charm or sense of spontaneity needed to make her inner turmoil satisfying. I simply never care if she believes her brother is a rapist or not.
While the show is meant to be more character-focused than the original recipe, I find the episodes that are actually about the character’s personal lives play rather poorly. This also became a problem on “Criminal Intent” from its fifth season onward. The “Law & Order” format is at odds with this injection of “character.” What we want from this show is smart people maintaining order in an increasingly chaotic world. It’s comfort TV. If I want to see the disintegration of people or institutions, I’ll watch “The Wire.”
Lessons learned: Never trust Olivia Benson. Cragen’s “get out of jail free” card has infinite recharge.