Title: Runaway (Season 2, Episode 16)
Memorable Line: “What about their rights?”
Plot: The SVU officers respond to a hostage situation. Narcotics Sergeant Frank Foster has gone rogue after his daughter Jill disappears. A renegade filmmaker called Tito took a picture of her, but refuses to reveal the location. Captain Cragen talks Foster down, but the Sergeant says, “This isn’t over until I know my daughter is safe.” Tito shows everyone a video of Jill decrying her parents. At the end, a pimp named Lance Kannick can be seen offering her money.
When we return from credits, Cragen is being interviewed by the Internal Affairs Bureau about “irregularities” in the case. “There was nothing normal about this case,” Cragen offers after the female IAB detective elucidates the breaks in standard operating procedure he authorized. “It was cop’s kid.”
Back in the past, Stabler and Cragen brief the other detectives on Kannick. Tito shows Stabler and Benson his undercover camera while Cragen visits with Foster over at Riker’s Island. The two discuss the situation at home. He felt Jill was slapping him in the face by doing drugs. Cragen finally asks if he abused her. Sgt. Foster admits to verbal abuse, but nothing more.
Finn — still donning his vice squad athletic gear and doo rag — and Munch try to track down Kannick to no avail.
Stabler, Benson, and Tito find an ad for Kannick’s “Rainlight Rave” in Central Park. They question a few homeless kids nearby about Jill when one of them runs. Stabler catches up to the boy who breathlessly says, “I think she’s dead.” The squad convenes at a disused warehouse filled with mannequins. There, they find a corpse.
CUT TO: Stabler telling the IAB goons that the body was not Jill Foster, but another so-called “throwaway kid.” Trying to find fault in Cragen’s report, the officers asked about Tito.
Back in the past, Medical Examiner Taylor (Lance Reddick) tells Benson and Stabler that the girl was physically abused and that she was hairless except for eyebrows and scalp.
Jefferies questions the boy Stabler caught about a night when he and the warehouse victim were taken to the location and encouraged to have sex in front of a group of unidentified people. ADA Cabot watches the interview, but notes it will be difficult for her to help without a perp she can charge.
Munch and Finn visit with Kannick’s lawyer (Darell Hammond!) posing as pimps. The lawyer gives up Kannick’s phone number. It leads them to a studio space where seemingly drugged out photographer Lorna Frankel promptly tells them to get undressed. Rousting the under-aged junkies present, the detectives finally get to Kannick. He is, naturally, unwilling to answer Benson’s questions.
Finn and Munch bring the kids in for further questioning, but Kannick’s lawyer arrives to get them released. Cragen chews out the boys for playing loose and going undercover without authorization.
CUT TO: IAB asks Benson about the undercover operation about that is about to unfold in the past. She plays dumb, saying she was just following orders. In the past, the squad infiltrates Kannick’s rave. Jefferies spots Tito and the security watching him. She tries to warn him, but he’s not interested. Stabler spots Jill, who runs. Benson flashes her badge when she sees Frankel taking pictures of an apparent rape.
At the station, Cabot tries to get Frankel to roll on Kannick and his lawyer. She claims the laywer is just that, but offers up tapes of Kannick giving kids drugs and “other things.” As Stabler watches the interview, Jefferies shows up and tells him Tito’s been found dead. Luckily, his hidden camera was still on the body. The tape shows that he found Jill, who admits she took some “pictures” for a hit. Tito tries to convince her to go to the police, but it’s clear she believes things are too far gone. After a single gunshot, Kannick appears on-screen to talk some trash to the corpse.
CUT TO: Cabot talking with IAB as a professional courtesy. They ask her about morale and Cragen’s state of mind. She lawyers around the questions. In the past, Kannick has been brought in for questioning. Cabot shows him the tape and suggests that she’ll be the governor of New York when Kannick attempts one last stay of execution. After putting life in prison on the table, Cragen convinces Cabot to offer twenty years.
Finn and Munch discuss roughing up Kannick shortly before transporting him from the station back to holding.
CUT TO: Finn telling IAB that Kannick “volunteered” Jill’s location. They try to get Finn to admit that he brutalized the suspect. Finn responds that “real victims” make the difference in working SVU and that he’ll do anything to save a kid.
Back in the past, Stabler and Benson go to the location Kannick provided. There, they find Jill OD’d in yet another warehouse.
CUT TO: Finn loses his cool in front of the IAB Ciphers as he blames Jill’s death on Kannick. He then calls for his union rep.
Back in the past, Cragen gives Sgt. Foster the bad news.
CUT TO: Cragen’s IAB interview. The rats dock him five days pay. He pontificates on how sad it is that Kannick, a lying, murdering sack of crap, is all they care about. “That sack of crap has rights, too,” says one of the rats. Invoking some Harry Callahan shit, Cragen mentions Tito and Jill and utters the memorable line.
Why its one of the worst: And so we have reached the apex of mistaken writing, the veritable summit of wrong-thinking when treading through a well-trodden format. This is, without a doubt, the worst episode of Special Victims Unit committed to datacine. And here’s one more harrowing thought, a couple of universes down the Einstein-Rosen bridge, this was the model of every subsequent episode to follow.
Truly, hyperreality is a shock corridor of horrors too terrible to contemplate.
If you’ll notice from Ice-T’s clothing, the presence of Detective Jefferies and the tone of certain conversations, notably Finn’s references to his days in Vice, this was the second episode of the season, now restructured to air late in the year. “Wha’happa?” you might ask. At some point, actress Michelle Hurd, who played Jefferies was either let go or asked to be let out of her contract. The exact nature of people leaving “Law & Order” is generally murky, but often comes down to creator Dick Wolf’s refusal to acquiesce to a plea of “I demand a raise!” What little I can find online seems to indicate that Hurd felt the character was not developing quickly enough and the production found she was ill-fit when partnered with Richard Belzer’s acerbic Detective John Munch.
But if you’ll recall from the first season episodes in the bottom five, Jefferies was part of the pack of ill-conceived characters like Kenny Briscoe (played by Jerry Orbach’s real-life son Chris) and Dean Winter’s obnoxious oaf Detective Brian Cassidy. With Ice-T’s arrival, the show very nearly hits the balance that would sustain it for almost a decade. The only stumbling block being Jefferies.
As aired, the season premiere featured Michelle Hurd in the front credits and a “special appearance” credit for Ice-T. At the end of the episode, he finally arrives at the squad room telling Jefferies that he’s been assigned to the unit. She responds with a curt, “You’re my replacement.” Storywise, the seeds of Jefferies dismissal come from a plotline in the first year where she ended up having to sue the Department or somesuch. I only bring this up to point out how tedious the character seems. I guess she’s the last holdover of the “Sex Crimes” version of the show, but, finally, she was gone.
Well, until “Runaway.” As the bulk of this episode was filmed while she was still intended to be a series regular, it was necessary to reassemble it with the least successful story structure for “Law & Order”: the flashback. All of that shoe-leather happens just so Captain Cragen can tell the Internal Affairs guys that Jefferies has been temporarily reassigned to the squad for this case. As with any SVU episode told in flashback, the episode is robbed of any import. The story might actually work if not for the cuts to the IAB interviews at the start of every act. It breaks the story tension with our concern placed more on Cragen’s possible suspension than Jill’s immediate situation.
The next problem is the presentation of IAB itself. The show would eventually develop a recurring rat squad character to tussle with Stabler. In this episode, however, the IAB detectives appear in shadow to “menace” the main cast with their invasive questions about the case at hand. To me, a big problem with IAB and/or flashback episodes is the way they break the linear unity of “Law & Order.” Part of its success over three (long-running) series is its linear narrative. For the audience to enjoy the minutiae of detective work (such as it’s presented on network shows), they cannot devote brain-cycles to remembering when scenes are happening in time. This is why more serial-ish shows like the modern “Doctor Who” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” are forced to insert scenes from previous episodes whenever an old plot point is re-introduced. Also, let’s face it, very few people can wield the flashback effectively.
As for the drama itself, you’ll notice Cragen has an emotional investment in the case, a rarity even when he was on the original “Law & Order.” With the show still finding its feet, this must’ve been an example of the type of stories the writers and producers thought they might do going forward. While Cragen is a great character and Dann Florek is a good actor, I don’t think regular examinations of the captain’s life would work. Hell, I don’t think it works for Benson and all of the cutaways to Stabler’s home life in the first few seasons leave me cold as well. That isn’t the show people signed up for. While glimpses into the characters’ lives work, open-faced explorations lead to bad things, like the ninth season’s unending display of poor judgement and surprise relatives.
And that’s exactly what the show might’ve become had the situation with Hurd not happened. Keep in mind that the “SVU” we’ve all grown to love really didn’t happen until roughly half-way through that second season with the crazy-go-nuts plotlines only emerging in the third. The influence of the “Sex Crimes” series it was initially developed as was still hanging around and that show required a greater investment in the regular characters than the “Law & Order” format allows. Just imagine an “SVU” where we know entirely too much about Benson’s past and Stabler’s family.
Okay, fine, just watch the ninth season.
That said, this is the template. The source from which all subsequent poor episodes of the show spring forth. With IAB questioning our heroes, a flashback structure, and that weird emphasis on the recurring cast, we find all the hallmarks of bad writing and decision making that makes us question our love for “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”
Gladly, it doesn’t happen that often.