Law & Order: SVU Season 22 Episode 1 Review: Guardians and Gladiators

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After 21 years, Law & Order: SVU has still got it.

Instead of focusing solely on rape victims as it has done for over two decades,  Law & Order: SVU Season 22 Episode 1 took on some of the thorny issues surrounding police and criminal justice reform.

It was a risky move that was sure to anger some viewers and make others feel it hadn't gone far enough, but for the most part it worked.

Skeptical Kat - Law & Order: SVU Season 22 Episode 1

It's always difficult to take on racial issues on police dramas. 

By definition, the cops are the heroes in any such story, and it's the rare series that can portray them as less than admirable and not lose the audience. 

It's even more difficult when some of the protagonists are Black and Latinx cops, because shows run a risk of turning those characters into tokens who exist only to experience conflicts between their chosen career and their racial identities.

See, for example, Chicago PD, which has been criticized for this exact problem in the past.

But if any cop drama can pull this off without alienating a large swatch of viewers, it's SVU, which has not shied away from less-than-rosy storylines in the past.

Carisi Speaks - Law & Order: SVU Season 22 Episode 1

Not being a person of color, I can't speak for how viewers who experience race-based police violence in real life might have felt about this episode. I'd love to hear from some of you in the comments.

But from my perspective, I thought SVU did a fairly good job, not just of showing Benson's growing awareness of her own biases but also of illustrating how complicated an issue this is.

Garland: My sense is that 1PP is more interested in optics than actual change.
Benson: Is that why you told Fin to warn me to watch my back?
Garland: When an organization feels threatened, if it can protect itself by sacrificing a few pawns it won't hesitate to.

Garland's perspective was one of the more interesting ones for me. As a Black man who had risen up in the ranks, he had a lot of competing priorities to deal with.

He was aware that the brass was more concerned with optics than justice and wanted to protect Benson from being sacrificed to make it look like they were doing something.

Fin Takes The Stand - Law & Order: SVU Season 22 Episode 1

Yet he also wanted to put a stop to police violence against Black people and to make Benson understand that serious changes needed to be made.

And he also wanted to advocate for reform as best as he could even though he knew he was dealing with a system that was strongly resistant to any real change.

Garland's attempts to do all of that backfired when he sent Fin to the grand jury.

The jurors saw Fin as a Black cop who was wholly complicit with a system that hates people like him and held his past shooting of a Black suspect against him. Both Carisi and Garland should have considered this before putting him on the stand.

Garland was aware it was a problem, but Carisi didn't seem to have thought about it -- or at least, he didn't have any strategy for dealing with it.

Fin Vs. Carisi - Law & Order: SVU Season 22 Episode 1

I didn't quite get how the grand jury worked. It seemed like jurors could ask whatever they wanted regardless of its relevance to the case under consideration. That kind of free-for-all benefited nobody.

And ironically, a White rapist was able to use Black people's distrust of cops to get himself out of trouble.

I was surprised that the majority non-white jury fell for Murphy's claims. He seemed to essentially be telling them that he was treated the same way they were.

But half the problem is that White people are not, as a general rule, treated with the same disrespect and violence that many Black people are. So I thought there'd be more doubt about his story than there was.

In any case, Carisi should have spent less time worrying about how Javon's arrest would impact the case and more time preparing a defense against that.

Fin Vs. Carisi - Law & Order: SVU Season 22 Episode 1

I didn't quite buy his claim that anger at the police did his case in. It didn't help, but Murphy's ability to lie convincingly was an important factor too.

Rollins: Juries are smart. They know what's right.
Carisi: Usually. Right now, they're so angry at the NYPD they want to punish us.

Plus, there was another bias at work that wasn't mentioned at all: bias against LGBTQ+ people.

A common homophobic trope is that gay men are pedophiles and/or rapists who try to force straight men to have sex with them.

So Murphy claiming that that's exactly what happened, then recanting his claim on the stand, may have seemed to the jurors like an ashamed rape victim not wanting to admit to the rape in public.

I'm not saying he didn't take advantage of public distrust of the cops. Of course he did. But I don't think that was the only bias at play here, and I wish SVU had mentioned that too.

Due In Court - Law & Order: SVU Season 22 Episode 1

Anyway, Benson's discussion with the IAB officer was effective, although I wish the woman hadn't had to talk to her about well-intentioned people with harmful behavior.

IAB: I'm going to stop you here before you tell me you're an ally.
Benson: Excuse me?
IAB: Since George Floyd, I've seen two kinds of cops. The baton swinging gladiators who hate that I exist -
Benson: And I'm sorry that happened to you.
IAB: And the well-intentioned ones like you, the guardians who don't consider themselves racist but are nevertheless complicit in the systemic racism in the NYPD.

That woman must feel so exhausted from having to educate every cop who she deals with, especially since she's likely getting no extra pay for her efforts.

More interesting to me than that discussion was the fact that Benson didn't remember having interacted with Javon Brown before.

She and Amaro stopped him randomly and searched him back in 2013, and the fact that it didn't stick in her mind shows that it wasn't anything out of the ordinary for her.

It's a practice she probably decries now, but back then it was standard operating procedure and Javon was probably one of a million men of color she stopped for no reason other than the color of their skins.

Noah's Growing Up - Law & Order: SVU Season 22 Episode 1

Benson's final scenes, with Noah and then with Javon, were also strong scenes. Noah saw things from a child's perspective and didn't understand why Benson had done what she did or why she couldn't just apologize. 

Her attempt to make amends showed that something like what had happened had caused too much lasting pain to be fixed with a few words of apology or an attempt to punish the woman who had started it all by calling the cops for no reason.

There was no doubt she genuinely felt bad and wanted to do better, but there was also no doubt that it wasn't enough, at least not right now.

What did you think, SVU fanatics?

How did SVU handle this hot button issue, and was the season premiere up to your expectations?

Hit the big, blue SHOW COMMENTS button to share your thoughts.

Want to refresh your memory first? Just  watch Law & Order: SVU online right here on TV Fanatic.

Law & Order: SVU airs on NBC on Thursdays at 9 PM EST/PST. 

Guardians and Gladiators Review

Editor Rating: 4.8 / 5.0
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User Rating:

Rating: 2.5 / 5.0 (86 Votes)

Jack Ori is a senior staff writer for TV Fanatic. His debut young adult novel, Reinventing Hannah, is available on Amazon. Follow him on Twitter.

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Law & Order: SVU Season 22 Episode 1 Quotes

Aren't you even asking that White Woman questions? [To Fin] Look, I expect this nonsense from her but doesn't this get old for you, man?


Fin: We have to do this this way? We're profiling this guy.
Benson: He's got warrants.