SVU Episode 14-5: Manhattan Vigil

Only SVU could celebrate its 300th episode with a gut-wrenching story about child abduction and pedophilia. “Manhattan Vigil” showcased the dramatic chops that have made SVU a TV staple for the last fourteen years. I teared up – twice.  But, in the end, I was left wondering about a question unrelated to the plot. What moisturizer does Mariska Hargitay use? The woman looks better now than she did thirteen years ago.

Recap: The episode opens with a real estate mogul taking his seven-year-old kid, Wyatt, to a baseball game. While Dad and boy are on a subway platform, a man grabs Wyatt and forces him onto a train, leaving panicked Dad on the platform as the train speeds off with his son.

Olivia and Munch feel a sense of deja vu – this is the same neighborhood where another seven-year-old boy, Hector, was kidnaped thirteen years ago. There follow a series of flashbacks in which we see our detectives ruminating about Hector’s case back in Season One.

(And – wow! – I was heartened. Munch looks far better as a silver-haired sage than he did as a gangly young man. And Mariska has aged like fine wine. SVU creators, take note. You might try a product tie-in: SVU anti-aging cream.)

Anyway, Olivia fears that she got Hector’s old case wrong – and the same kidnapper has struck again. She soon discovers there have been many similar child kidnappings – and nearby arsons shortly thereafter – over the years.

The detectives pull grainy surveillance video of the abduction, talk to witnesses, and visit Hector’s mom, who never gave up on finding her boy. In the least-plausible technical twist of the night, Amanda does some computer magic and finds a building that had a new concrete floor installed shortly after Hector’s death. The police dig it up and find Hector’s remains.

It looks like the killer might be a dorky rent-a-cop who conveniently “found” evidence in both cases. But he was just the requisite red herring.

The real kidnapper turns out to be a wifebeater-wearing wiseguy named Lou. Lou worked for Wyatt’s grandfather, setting fires to the landlord’s buildings to get rid of pesky tenants. Lou is a pedophile, and used these arsons to hide the bodies of boys he abducted over the years.

But Wyatt was different. Lou abducted him because he thought Dad’s real-estate company treated him badly, and he wanted revenge. The SVU detectives promise to keep mum about his child-molesting ways if he tells them where Wyatt is. (Good luck enforcing that promise, Lou). He tells them, and our detectives rush to an abandoned building. They find Wyatt – alive and well – and carry him outside to his parents’ joyful arms.

Verdict: B+

What they got right:

The season-one detectives who guessed Hector was kidnaped by his father were playing the odds. Kidnappings are committed by a family member or acquaintance in over 75% of cases. The good news: only one child of each 10,000 missing children is not found alive. But acting quickly is crucial – 74% of abducted children who are ultimately murdered are dead within three hours of the abduction.

The case on tonight’s show was reminiscent of the real-life case of Etan Patz, a six-year-old boy who disappeared in 1979, on the first day he walked to the school bus on his own. Just this summer, NYPD dug up the basement of a Manhattan building, looking for his remains.

More and more, child-abduction investigations rely on surveillance video. As a prosecutor, I subpoenaed these all the time; they’re a wealth of information. Check out this shocking attempted abduction caught on tape.

Finally, I agreed with Nick’s sentiment, when he went to tell Hector’s mother that her son’s body had been found. “Worst part of the job,” he said, before knocking on the door. I’ve spoken with many homicide detectives who say exactly the same thing.

What they got wrong:

I hate to nitpick on the 300th anniverary, but our good detectives kind of sank tonight’s case. They didn’t have probable cause to burst into Lou’s apartment. At that point, they knew: (1) Lou had signed for that concrete floor, (2) he told Dad he was owed money, and (3) he “complained about a basement apartment.” That and $5 would get Olivia a latte. In real life, all the evidence from Lou’s apartment would be suppressed, Lou’s arrest would be found unconstitutional, and his subsequent confession would be suppressed as “fruit of the poisonous tree.” Guys, you can’t start cutting legal corners just because it’s your birthday.

With a few clicks of her computer, Amanda found a building that reported water damage and installed a concrete floor in 1999. This is closer to Harry Potter than a real police investigation. That magical computer doesn’t exist. I shudder to think about the months Amanda would have to spend deep inside Iron Mountain to find that information in real life.

Lou seemed an unlikely revenge kidnapper. As a sex-crimes prosecutor, I saw many repeat offenders. But these recidivists tended to do similar things multiple times. I prosecuted one rapist whose MO was to abduct at knifepoint and sexually assault women who were with their children. He did this over and over – but I have a hard time imagining him kidnapping anyone for financial revenge. The idea that Lou would abduct all these kids to fulfill his pedophilia – and then abduct Wyatt as a way to avenge a monetary debt – seems far-fetched.

Finally, I laughed at the pastry shop waitress who distinctly remembered “the guy who ordered tea.” It reminded me of John Mulaney’s routine about the “bartender who recognizes everyone.”

Well SVU fans, what do you think? Was this show a fitting milestone for the 300th episode? What were your favorite moments, tonight and over the years? And can we expect another 300? Leave your comments!


  1. Chris says

    Is it me or has there been a lot of reminiscing over past cases? This season alone there have been two episodes where we are taken back to scenes from the “early years” and we are in the beginning of the season. Are they trying to tell us something? Because I want to see another 300, and I feel like I am in a pre-death “life before my eyes” moment!!

    Anyhow, in this episode, I had an epiphany. It just goes to show that a person can dedicate their life to a profession and save so many lives, and yet you are always going to have a person in the public criticize your work, dedication, and honor. Olivia has taken several of these hits so far this season, and not only is it not fair but the writers have made her character self-deprecating and seemingly okay with these character assassinations. So, Captain, With all due respect, :), after 300 episodes Olivia Benson needs a little appreciation! And you are right, Hargitay definitely has Kevorka!!

    • says

      Totally, Chris. There have been a lot of flashbacks, and we’re only 5 episodes into the season. I love your “life before my eyes” analogy. I hope this doesn’t mean the beginning of the end.

      I have to admit, I had to look up “kevorka” in Urban Dictionary. Thanks for expanding my vocabulary! I do think the show accurately portrays how hard a public servant may work, trying to get it right — and how, being human, she will still sometimes get things wrong. And I appreciate episodes that explore the emotional impact such errors have on the person who made them.

  2. Alenna says

    I liked the episode. Poor Olivia though – she keeps on having previous cases come back to haunt her. I liked how they showed a bit of how tough it must be to inform someone that their child has been found dead. Somebody has to do it. But I can understand why most detectives only stay in a SVU-type of police unit for just a couple of years. Burnout. Seeing the dead bodies and abused children and having to deal with pedophiles and rapists would make one very jaded after awhile. And very cynical about the human species. All the main characters on SVU are single moody-loners (well except Amaro who almost is). Is this normal in a police unit? No spouses or kids – I still miss Stabler for that aspect of the job.

    You’re right about Mariska Hargitay looking great after 13 years of doing this show. I hope she doesn’t start going in for all that plastic surgery crap that so many actresses do when they get older.

    • says

      I actually spoke to a bunch of my homicide-detective friends while researching “Discretion,” and they all said notifying the family is the worst part of the job — so I was intrigued to hear Nick say that as well. Love your point about the loner-detectives. In my experience, about half are married or remarried, 1/4 are divorced, and 1/4 are playing the field. Which is probably about on par with the rest of the population, right? And, yeah, there are a lot of coping mechanisms for the tough subject matter. Lots of gallows humor.

  3. Josh says

    It was at least better than SVU’s last landmark episode. Where Robin Williams played a cooky manipulator that runs a website and could convince people to strip a restaurant employee of her clothes, just because he said so.
    The episode ends with Olivia and Elliot arresting him, and him setting off a bomb as a distraction and running towards the Hudson River. O & E, lose sight of him, and become convinced that he must of jumped in to the river and drowned.

    And before you ask me, NO I did not make any of that crap up. So I think we’ve come a long ways from what the show was doing in 2008.

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