SVU’s Season 14 Premiere Opened with a Bang

Recap:  SVU opened its season with a roller-coaster of a double episode.  “Lost Reputation” and “Above Suspicion” took up where the cliffhanger of last season left off: with Captain Cragen waking up drenched in the blood of a dead hooker sprawled in his bed.

(Last season’s finale involved a sixteen-year old escort killed at a debauched bachelor party.  The investigation centered on two rival prostitution rings, whose methods of dispute resolution involved murder, corruption, and a pattern of planting dead women in homes.)

The captain claims he doesn’t know how the call girl, named Carissa, ended up stabbed to death in his bed.  Internal Affairs orders the SVU detectives to stop investigating the case of their beloved boss.  (Of course, they spend the next two hours investigating that very case.)


DA Paula Foster is the prim head of the DA’s public integrity unit.  Olivia tries to convince her that Cragen was set up.  But the evidence against him is damning: scratches on his back, his DNA under Carissa’s fingernails, Carissa’s saliva on his penis. (Anyone else cringe at the sight of the ME telling our good captain to drop his drawers so she could swab him?) Meanwhile, a doughy new captain cracks down on the Special Victims Unit, even ordering Ice-T to wear nicer clothes.

The detectives delve into New York’s underground sex trade and discover the corruption reaches deep within their own office.  Olivia’s ex-boyfriend, Cassidy, is embedded undercover with a pimp named Ganzler,“The Emporer of all Pleasure,” who was engaged to marry Carissa, his top escort. Carissa used to work for Ganzler’s rival, Delia, the madam of an exclusive escort agency.  Delia’s little black book contains the names of many New York’s most powerful men.  One of Delia’s escorts asks SVU for witness protection and is soon found dead, her wrists slashed in a bathtub.

Delia tells the DA that Cragen hired many of her girls and liked rough sex; she even has pictures of Cragen canoodling with the beautiful women.  Cragen is arrested and forced to do a humiliating perp-walk.

We see the surreal sight of Cragen sitting in an interrogation room in an orange prison jumpsuit.  He tells Olivia he used escorts, but just for companionship.  He was lonely.

Meanwhile, Nick’s wife leaves him, and he’s cracking up. He suspects Cassidy has “crossed over” and is now allied with Ganzler, the pimp.  Nick pulls Cassidy into a restaurant bathroom, points a gun at him, and shouts, “Tell me who you’re working for or I’ll kill you.”  (I’m pretty sure this interrogation technique is not recommended in any police manual.)

Cassidy soon gets shot, but not by Nick.  A few scenes later, he tries to stop some thugs breaking into Ganzler’s car, and is shot in the chest by a responding rookie police officer.  Our detectives soon learned that the rookie’s sergeant ordered the hit, and the sergeant is in Ganzler’s pocket.  Ganzler figured out that Cassidy was undercover and wanted him killed.

Cassidy pulls through, and Olivia is so relieved. she kisses him in his hospital bed.  Perhaps an old flame is being rekindled?

Ganzler is arrested.  At his arraignment, the DA says that Ganzler’s defense attorney is part of the conspiracy and may soon be charged.  Later, the DA convinces the defense attorney to turn on his client.  The attorney goes to Ganzler’s house and says he’s quitting the case.  Ganzler then admits that he’s the one who killed Carissa because he was jealous that she had fallen in love with Cassidy.  Cassidy and Carissa were having an affair.  (So much for old flames.) Ganzler is arrested again and now held in jail.

But wait – there’s more.  It turns out that Delia was the one who killed the sixteen-year-old escort last season, and planted her to frame Ganzel.  Delia also killed a few other escort/witnesses to cover her tracks.  But the DA drops all charges against Delia. Why?

Olivia is suspicious; she and the other detectives look into the DA’s finances.  They discover that she is outspending her income by $200,000 a year, on medical expenses for her sick daughter.  Olivia sits Paula down and asks her about this.  Paula admits that Delia was bribing her for eight years, in return for official protection.  “She owned me,” Paula says.

Olivia arrests Paula and a bunch of high-level officials.  They system is shocked by how far the corruption went.  Cragen is exonerated and allowed to come back to the SVU, looking much better in khakis than the prison jumpsuit.

Verdict: A-

What they got right:

This was a creative and edge-of-your-seat riff on a couple of real cases.  Anna Gristina, aka the “Soccer Mom Madam” and “The Millionaire Madam” made headlines when she was arrested last summer for running an exclusive escort agency from her suburban NY home.  Her little black book was said to hold the names of some of America’s most powerful men.  She had a notorious rivalry with Jason Itzler, the self-proclaimed “King of All Pimps.”  According to the New York Daily News, Itzler described Gristina as “the most vindictive b***h ever in the escorting game,” and said she is: “Dangerous, dangerous, dangerous.”  Gristina pleaded guilty – just this Tuesday – to one count of promoting prostitution.

Of course, tonight’s episode was all fiction – did you notice the big disclaimer at the beginning, noting that everything portrayed was fictitious?  Still, the episode accurately portrayed that dispute resolution in the sex trade can get brutal.  They can’t call the police.  My most recent novel, “Discretion,” was also inspired by these same real-life cases, and deals with rival madams beefing with each other.

I also appreciated the way that the SVU detectives looked into the financial life of the DA.  In real life, they would have run queries with the three main credit agencies, found what credit cards she had, and then followed her payments to her bank.  Then they could have subpoenaed the bank for her account records.  All of this would have taken months or even years – it was condensed for TV time – but a dedicated officer could get the information the SVU detectives got tonight.

What they got wrong:

The key confessions on tonight’s show never would have happened in real life.  To begin, Ganzler never would have confessed in these circumstances.  The DA had already announced that the lawyer was going to be charged as a co-conspirator.  Then the lawyer comes over, announces that he’s off the case, and asks Ganzler to chat?  Any criminal in that situation would be suspicious – especially one who’s supposed to be as smart and tricky as Ganzler.

Second, it was unethical for the attorney to be wiretapping his clients.  The lawyer had a fiduciary duty to Ganzler – he couldn’t testify against him. Perhaps the lawyer thought it was worth chucking his law license in order to escape a jail sentence.  But I’m thinking the prosecutor herself could have gotten into some serious bar ethics trouble just for setting this scenario up.

Finally, I thought it was silly that the prosecutor confessed to Olivia as soon as Olivia brought up her finances.  This is a seasoned DA, well-versed in how difficult it is to bring a case without that golden confession.   Paula would have clammed up, lawyer up, and waited to see if SVU could make their case.

As a writer, I understand the confession as a plot device.  The audience wants to know whoddunit, and how it was done, and no one can tell you like the criminal herself.  It’s also quick, easy, and efficient.  But as an ex-prosecutor, I can tell you that this sort of gift-wrapped confession usually doesn’t happen in real life.

Perhaps the least plausible part of the story, however, was that Cragen hired those prostitutes just for their conversation and companionship.

Still, it was a strong episode, well-written, compelling and grounded in authentic details.   It bodes well for the season.  I’m looking forward to seeing what the rest of Season 14 brings!


  1. says

    I noted early that there was a dichotomy with Paula’s treatment of the men (Capt. Cragen and Det. Amaro) and her treatment of Olivia. She was very confrontative and hostile when questioning Cragen and Amaro. Then she was all friendly with Olivia. Come to the end of the episodes and her hostility was explained … she was working for Delia after all.

  2. TokoBali says

    Finally! It’s about time.

    What I didn’t get at all was the murder scene with Charissa and Cragen. If Ganzel was telling the truth (and the story line suggest he did), shouldn’t that place be a mess. It is presented as a perfect frame up: only Cragen’s DNA, only his finger prints etc. If Ganzel did not plan it, and it was a crime of passion, he would not have acted this “clean”.

    I did like Paula’s story on how the bribery started. Sounds a lot better than “here’s some money, could you do away with all the dead bodies I left behind?”

    • says

      Great point about the bedroom being a mess, TokoBali. And I thought this episode very realistically portrayed how real-life bribery of public officials often gets started: with meaningless little favors that get ramped up.

  3. Alenna says

    An interesting and entertaining story. I guess I should give up on any idea of realism on SVU though. Was it just me or did it seem that the whole SVU stopped working while all this was happening? No other rapes or child abuse happening in Manhattan? They did mentioned one case – a masseuse being sexually grabbed or something. But essentially all the detectives were working on this case (which is a major conflict of interest) and not doing any other work. Wouldn’t a case involving politicians and DAs and other high officials go to the Feds?

    While they were doing their back-door “investigation”, they never once crossed paths with a real homicide investigation for the murders? The DA seemed to be working alone on this major case. And why on earth wouldn’t they find their captain an experienced shark-lawyer? Also, it seems to me that Cragen’s set-up was obvious from the beginning. If you were a police officer in bed with a prostitute and you intentionally murdered her in your apartment, wouldn’t you try to cover it up somehow? It’s not like the neighbors heard screams and called the police. He called Olivia and she called who exactly? She should have called a police supervisor or friend of Cragen’s. They would have “quietly” called in a team of investigators.

    Maybe I’m being cynical, but anybody who’s worked with (or against) the police know that they protect their own people – to a fault really. They have each other’s backs. The media would not have been informed of any details until much later – and then it would have been reported as a probable “set-up”. Unless Cragen has some serious enemies in the NYPD, he would have been taken care of much better than this.

    I have to say I knew the DA was involved somehow – she looked (and acted) so much like that detective that set-up Olivia’s brother for murder a few seasons ago. Also when she mentioned her daughter’s illness – that was a dead giveaway. It was great to see Alex Baldwin again – I just recently watched his old series “Firefly” and I kept thinking some of his “Jayne” character humor might slip through. No such luck.

    • says

      Yes, the entire borough of Manhattan seemed to have no other crimes — except one star who was harassing those masseusses, I guess. And it was all SVU versus public corruption — no homicide detectives at all. You’re right, the feds would have been the best entity to handle this mess by the time Cragen was involved. There were at least two competing RICO conspiracies (Delia and Ganzler)’s.

      Nice early call on the DA’s corruption. At first, I just thought it was sympathetic backstory for a recurring character.

  4. James Pollock says

    I was suspending belief right up until the hit on the undercover guy.

    First, he blows a THREE-YEAR UC op to identify himself to a uniformed officer arriving on scene, rather than drop his weapon and let Olivia handle the situation. Second,car thieves caught in mid theft run, they don’t turn and make a stand. Third, the whole string of events that leads to his getting shot is a little bit farfetched (even if the NYC cops ARE that trigger-happy, you couldn’t know for certain that they’d arrive to a situation that called for shooting.
    (Also, where was the scene showing the two uniformed officers losing their LE certification and being fired?)

    • TokoBali says

      First, your right. Second, if the car thieves were instructed to, off course they will make a stand (remember, it was a set up). Third, Ganzel did know the cops would arrive, because he arranged that with some sergeant. That is actually why Olivia thought it was a set up; she mentions the uniforms were there way too fast.

      Not necessarily a realistic portion, but I don’t think it is filled with plot holes.

      • James Pollock says

        For the second point, the car thieves were tipped that the car would be there. That isn’t going to make them suddenly decide they should get in a shootout. There ARE car thieves who use guns (carjackers), but they START OUT using their guns; using the threat of violence is part of their plan from the get-go.
        For the third, when you arrange to have cops show up at your car break-in, how do you know they’re going to open fire at the undercover cop? There are way too many things that can go wrong with that plan. For example, an experienced detective might be one scene and flash a shield and say “hold fire!”, or the UC guy might drop his weapon, or he might be the one who ran after the car thief down the alley and isn’t even on the scene when the patrol car rolls up, or they just might be bad enough shots to miss. Having a dirty cop take a shot at an undercover, sure. Trying to contrive to have a NON-dirty cop do your dirty work? Not believable. Particularly in this case, where they roll up on two people pointing guns at each other, and only shoot one of them. And, even if they WEREN’T dirty cops, they’d still lose their law-enforcement certification because of the bad shoot and attempt to cover it up, which would cost them their jobs.

  5. Carl N. Brown says

    Yes, tracking a few cases in the local news as a layman, I do find wrapping up a complicated case in two hours contrived, so I’ll just look at some of the entertainment values of this double episode.

    Adam Baldwin’s forte is playing tough guys with an ironic sense of humor (like Jayne Cobb in Firefly and Serenity). I too missed that. I kept ad-libbing lines from Jayne (“I’ll be in my bunk.” and “Boy, it sure would be nice if we had some grenades, don’t you think?”) Captain Steven Harris has one more episode, I think, to channel his inner Jayne.

    It was distracting to see “Mayhem” (Dean Winters) as a character in the story and in commercials (I annoyed my wife with uncontrolled laughing). I think he oughta move on to acting.

  6. Alenna says

    I had another kind of nitpick-question about this story. The SVU detectives were told at the very beginning that they were to stay away from this case (due to obvious conflict of interest). They were not the official investigators of the case. Would any evidence they found be considered tainted or inadmissible in court because of that? Also, how could they obtain the DA’s financial records without some official authorization (and paperwork)? Just wondering.

    • James Pollock says

      The reason you take the Captain’s detectives off the case of investigating the Captain’s involvement in a crime is because you’re afraid that evidence pointing to the guilt of the Captain will disappear. (A reasonable fear, considering that Cragen called one of his own detectives before he called 911). This is only a problem if the Captain is actually guilty.

      • Carl N. Brown says

        People emotionally connected to a suspect pro or con should not be on a case because it skews their perception of evidence. It would be a problem if the Captain was innocent, too. One mistake of well-intentioned people who believe in the innocence of a friend is to hide (or simply not reveal) what appears to be incriminatory evidence. Sometimes what at first blush appears incriminatory could be exculpatory in context of other evidence.

        • says

          It was just a bad idea, either way. If Cragen is innocent, the fact that his buddy detectives found the perp would help the perp get off (by arguing “They framed me to help their friend). If he was guilty, they were inclined to interpret the evidence in any way except for the truth. That’s why they were conflicted off the case. In real life, their continuing investigation could have caused quite a bit of legal trouble.

  7. Aoife says

    I figured the twist out the instant a seriously sick child was mentioned. I think I groaned aloud. The 80/90 minutes kinda bored me if I can be honest. It just wasn’t plausible enough to keep me occupied. I’m surprised that you gave it an A-.

  8. Michelle Cunin says

    My heart went out to Cragen when he admitted to using the prostitutes as company. Poor Don. ” (
    I just don’t know how plausible it would be for him to call Olivia. If that came out, then Olivia would have gotten dragged in it, too. That she somehow conspired with Cragen to hide the body or evidence. So, if anyone can tell me if that’d be plausible, please let me know.

    So if Cassidy was having an affair with Carissa, wouldn’t he get into trouble for having sex with a minor? If she was 16 at the time of death, she’d still be jail bait, regardless if it took years to actually prosecute everyone.

    • says

      You know I have a soft spot in my heart for the good captain, too. After the escorts, though, I’d have a hard time setting him up with one of my friends.

      (I didn’t get the impression that Carissa was underage.)

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