[Warning: The below contains MAJOR spoilers for the two-part Law & Order: SVU Season 23 premiere “And the Empire Strikes Back” and “Never Turn Your Back on Them.”]
The SVU Season 23 premiere has its work cut out for it. It must wrap up the sex trafficking case from last spring and say goodbye to two main characters: Demore Barnes‘ Deputy Chief Christian Garland and Jamie Gray Hyder‘s Detective Katriona “Kat” Azar Tamin. So it’s a good thing it’s a two-parter.
Picking up shortly after the finale, everyone has left the site of Sergeant Fin Tutuola (Ice-T) and Sergeant Phoebe Baker’s (Jennifer Esposito) non-wedding. And the joy from the event — even if the couple didn’t say “I do” — is short-lived, unfortunately.
Read on to find out what went down in both episodes.
“And the Empire Strikes Back”
Following their kiss, Detective Amanda Rollins (Kelli Giddish) and ADA Sonny Carisi (Peter Scanavino) continue their fun … in a courthouse hallway of all places. “Is this even real?” she asks. “It seems like it is,” he replies.
Meanwhile, Captain Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) is on her way to meet Carisi and others for a meeting with Dr. Machado (Zabryna Guevara), the supposed Good Samaritan who’s mixed up in the sex trafficking ring, when she notices someone with bright lights on behind her. Let them pass, Detective Eliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni), on the phone with her, advises. But it’s too late: Benson is run off the road and hallucinates her former partner as one of the EMTs.
The working theory is it was just a drunk driver, a hit and run, but the person knew how hard to hit and how fast to run. Benson insists her ankle is fine, but after she tweaks it, the doctor recommends rest for the fracture.
As for the case, Dr. Machado is talking, and the highest-ranking public servant with a job she gives up is Congressman Howard (Ben Rappaport). The squad wires Machado and Howard’s assistant to catch Howard at a fundraiser after-party with underage girls. What most of SVU (including Garland) doesn’t know is that Chief McGrath (Terry Serpico), who clearly hates the deputy chief, puts an undercover officer, Joe Velasco (Octavio Pizano) into play as well; he refuses to let Benson tell anyone. It’s not until they catch Howard drugging and trying to rape a teenaged girl, Jenna, that the others find out the other guy they’re cuffing is NYPD.
With his political consultant Myron Gold (Glenn Fleshler) acting as his lawyer, Howard tries to claim he was doing nothing wrong and it’s merely a political witchhunt. (You can guess how that goes with Benson.) Among his charges at his arraignment: sex trafficking and attempted rape. McGrath purposefully doesn’t tell Garland about the subsequent press conference — ostensibly due to his history with Machado — but then claims a communication error from his office when the deputy chief questions it. But Garland isn’t an idiot.
Howard doesn’t seem too worried, however. He doubts anyone will believe the victims (and everyone who can testify against him is reluctant to do so). “I’m going to be president, and I will not let a politically motivated ADA and a bitter woman cop who’s spent her life getting back at men take me down,” he declares, proceeding to threaten Carisi and Benson’s jobs, and we can’t wait to see him sent to prison.
But just as Rollins talks Carisi into taking a break — dinner! They’re together, though as she says in the second episode, not telling anyone (yet) — their phone rings: anyone who can testify against Howard — including Machado — is systematically taken off the board. At the end of the episode, one of his victims, Rosa, sees men approaching her building and wakes her son.
Also in the first hour: Benson is called in by Internal Affairs to answer questions about the Organized Crime Season 1 finale shooting. It was a good shoot on Sergeant Ayanna Bell’s (Danielle Moné Truitt) part, she says; Morales was a dirty cop. Benson also speculates that mobster Richard Wheatley (Dylan McDermott) was responsible for her accident, as part of his vendetta against Stabler. He may have also wanted Morales to kill her at the hospital since he lured her there.
“Never Turn Your Back on Them”
Fortunately, Rosa’s OK when Kat gets to her place, but the detective has to talk her into staying in the city, under protection, instead of fleeing with threats to her son. And it looks like Velasco is sticking around, at least for a bit, as he joins Rollins in trying to find Jenna. (We’re still figuring out if we like him, but we know we don’t like that McGrath does, especially given his reaction when Garland rightfully points out that he worried everything would fall apart by rushing things.) The teen reaches out to Velasco’s undercover identity. When they track down a possible location, Kat is shot twice, and one bullet sneaks under her vest. Officer down!
Rollins and Joe find Jenna trying to flee out a window, slipping down the roof, and he talks her down by telling her he understands her fears about her father, Ray, finding out everything. His dad used to whip him with his belt, until he landed in the hospital. His father was arrested, and he wears his belt to remind him why he does the job. After, he claims to Rollins he made his dad sound worse than he was, but she doesn’t buy it.
Meanwhile, Fin rides with Kat to the hospital, and though he tries to keep her awake, per the EMTs, with a bad joke and the promise he’s not going anywhere, her heart stops …
Fortunately, she makes it to the hospital and through surgery. However, after, she admits to Fin she’s been thinking about how Carisi doesn’t miss being a cop. She’s wondering if she’s where she’s supposed to be. With SVU, they’re always there too late. Victims are already traumatized, then “traumatized more,” she says. “What are we doing?” There has to be a way to be more proactive.
While Ray doesn’t want her to talk (and still doesn’t know the truth because Jenna worries how he’ll react), Jenna’s mom Laura tells Velasco that she has proof Howard had sex with her daughter (she saved a dress). There’s more: Howard got Jenna pregnant when she was 15. That actually ends up being the thread that unravels everything, including the congressman. He had no idea she had an abortion because Myron told him it had been a false positive — and arranged everything. He also arranged the hits on Machado and the others, Howard reveals, turning on his former lawyer.
They can’t prove it yet because there’s quite a bit to go through, but Myron offers a deal: He knows where a lot of bodies are buried. “Because you buried them,” Carisi points out. He has dirt on a lot of notable people (including, but not limited to an ex-president, Hollywood royalty, and real royalty). To everyone’s surprise and outrage, Howard is made to be the sacrificial predator and will be taking a deal. The Attorney General will not be moving forward with Myron or his deal.
Kat, feeling better but using a cane, stops by to see Benson to tell her she’s leaving. Nothing’s changed at the NYPD, though she’d had hopes after last year, the detective explains. While Benson wants her to stay to fight with her, Kat points out, “We’re not in the same place. I don’t have 20 years invested. I gotta get out before I get too deep. I am so happy for the victims’ sake that you’re here, I just can’t stay.”
As for Garland, he, too, is leaving of his own volition … sort of. While he went to 1PP to try to argue against the Gold decision, McGrath (even though he agreed) hung him out to dry. The higher-ups don’t see him as a team player but wouldn’t actually fire him. As his father, who’d spend a lifetime in the NYPD, advised him, “Move on. Truth is you’ll be more dangerous to them outside the department than in.”
But wait, it gets worse! Not only are we losing Kat and Garland, but we’re stuck with McGrath, whom Benson will report to until they fill the open deputy chief spot. And he’s one of those “let’s focus on real rapes” and “doesn’t believe in acquaintance rapes” people. (How long before he insists Velasco fill Kat’s old spot on the squad?)
And so that’s how we’ve said goodbye to Kat and Garland. What did you think of the premiere and their exits?
Law & Order: SVU, Thursdays, 9/8c, NBC