SVU Episode 14-7: Vanity’s Bonfire

Each Wednesday, I find myself tweeting the sentence “Tonight’s #SVU explores every parent’s worst nightmare.” I’ve gotta hand it to the writers: it really is a skill, coming up with something more disturbing every week. The nightmare on tonight’s episode, “Vanity’s Bonfire,” posed questions ranging from deep to deeply titillating. What will a mother do to protect her child – even if the child is a killer? What will a father do to prevent his mistress from leaking their sex tapes? And how much of a bonus does NYPD have to pay the detective tasked with photographing dad’s erect penis?

Recap: A young couple watches their two-year-old daughter, Tessa, frolic in a Brooklyn playground. While Dad is distracted with texting, someone snatches Tessa! The panicked parents run through the playground screaming her name, in a scene that easily makes the list of Every Mother’s Top 10 Worst Nightmares.

Our detectives question the requisite lurking sex offender, but he just mentions a blond woman who’d been hanging by the slide. (Note: in real life, I’d put the odds at 3:1 that the sex offender did it.) Pictures on various parents’ cell phones show the blond carrying the same distinctive diaper bag as Mom.

Olivia notes that female baby-snatchers often seek a relationship with the baby’s family and asks if anyone’s paid particular interest to the toddler. Tessa’s nanny shows them a picture of Tessa given to her by a suspiciously blond lady. Following the website printed on the photo, the cops go to the apartment of Dia, a delightfully nutty blond yoga instructor who’s rocking Tessa in an exact replica of the girl’s real bedroom. (SVU meets Single White Female.)

Dia is unfazed by her arrest, because she is both (a) Tessa’s biological mother, and (b) crazy.

Dia says the child’s father is legal hotshot Kent Webster (played by Scott Bakula of “Quantum Leap” fame. Kent probably wishes he could go back in time and not sleep with Dia).

Kent, of course, denies the whole thing. He’s got a wife so sick with a brain tumor she can barely pick up a pitcher of water. And they have a lovely fifteen-year-old daughter named Hannah. (Alert! Alert! It is a unbreakable rule of SVU that if a teenage girl shows up in an episode, she’s the killer. Keep your eye on the cute girl!)  Hannah, played with luminescent innocence by Abby Jackman, is so sweet and fragile, you just know she’s going to be embroiled in something terrible.

Dia proves the affair is ongoing. She giggles, “Kent sends me voice messages saying his happiest place is in my golden triangle.” (Can they say that on TV?) “He texts me pictures of King Sebastian. That’s what we call it.” Our detectives consider subpoenaing Kent to drop trou and tender King Sebastian for comparison. (Should we call that a “subpoenis”?) Instead, they bluff him into confessing his affair.

Kent asked Dia to give up the love child “just for a while.” He got a shady lawyer to draw up fraudulent adoption and surrogacy papers transferring Tessa to the other parents, who thought they were conceiving the child via a surrogate. They’re shocked to learn their baby was essentially kidnapped from Dia.

Hannah soon discovers her father’s cheating, the old-fashioned way: through the National Enquirer tablet edition. Then, in an insane attempt to demonstrate their extracurricular love was real, Dia invites Hannah over and plays the sex tapes she made with Hannah’s father. Hannah freaks out and clubs Dia to death with a crystal vase. (I mean, who wouldn’t?)

Kent goes to the apartment to try to steal back the sex tapes, and is caught by the detectives. For a minute, they think he’s the killer, but his alibi quickly pans out. But then Hannah’s mother confesses to the killing. There’s no way she could’ve done it – she’s dying – remember the pitcher of water she couldn’t lift? But she says, “What parents really want is to protect their child.” She begs Olivia and Nick to let her take the fall. This is the last thing she can do for her little girl.

The detectives wrestle with the ethical dilemma. They ultimately agree, and Mom pleads guilty to manslaughter. She gives her daughter one final hug before being led off to finish her life in jail.

Verdict: B

What they got right:

This was an interesting twist on the John Edwards case. The man who was almost Vice President had an affair and a secret love child with a nutty blond new-age videographer, while his wife was dying of breast cancer. The whole mess was exposed by the National Enquirer. Edwards was later charged with – and acquitted of – federal campaign law violations for using campaign funds to support the mistress. His lovely daughter, however, has never murdered anyone (by all accounts, she is a strong and intelligent woman, and the rock her father leaned on throughout the trial).

If you have an affair with a crazy person, you are probably going to get caught. (Heck, even if your lover is perfectly sane, the odds are against you – especially in today’s digitized world. If America’s top spymaster can’t pull it off, Joe Blow probably can’t either.)

Olivia was right when she said sometimes women steal babies because they fantasize a relationship with the child. In one horrifying case, a Texas woman shot and killed a new mother, and stole her 3-day-old baby, because she had suffered a miscarriage and wanted a baby of her own. In another real case, an American couple learned that the child they had adopted from Guatemala had been snatched from her biological mother’s car. A different girl stolen from a New York hospital and raised by her kidnapper solved her own case, 23 years later.

What they got wrong:

Adorable tween killers. We see so many of them on SVU, but they are almost never the sex-offense or child-abuse culprits in real life. There are real predators out there. They typically aren’t high-achieving high-school girls.

What do you think SVU fans? Would you go to jail to protect your daughter? Would a jury convict an accomplished teenage girl who’d been forced to watch her dad do a John Holmes impression? And should The Enquirer get more journalistic credit? Leave your comments!


  1. James Pollock says

    To be honest, there’s probably a LOT more people paying attention to America’s (almost-)top spymaster* than to ordinary citizen Joe Blow. The plus side to being rich and powerful is that you get more opportunities; the downside is you’re more likely to get caught.

    *(The head of the CIA has had someone to report to, the director of national intelligence, since the intelligence reorganization after 9/11, which is ironic, because the CIA was originally formed to bring all the intelligence gathered by the various intelligence agencies together.)

    • says

      Hence the “Central” in the “Intelligence Agency.”

      Yes, anonymity has its advantages. One more piece of advice to famous people having an affair: do not take a photo with your lover. That’s just gonna come back and haunt you.

  2. says

    Had a chance to watch SVU in real time for a change. Last night’s episode was fine, but the teenage girl killer is getting a little worn I have to admit. I also can not believe that Olivia and Mauro would let the girl get away with murder because they felt sorry for her. So against Olivia’s character, I thought.
    Anyway, I’ve been a big fan of SVU for basically its whole run and have finally figured out what’s wrong with the show lately. IMHO anyway. I think the new characters/actors are fine and their back stories interesting enough but last season and this (so far) the show has become for me ‘just another police procedural’ and I’ve been wondering why that is. It finally dawned on me after last night’s episode.
    What’s missing is the interesting debates that used to take place in the squad room and between Olivia and Elliot after they tracked down a particularly disturbing lead. What the show did historically (and extremely well) was to examine each side of a given issue (usually hot button social issues which they didn’t shy away from) , right-to-life vs. pro-choice, is criminal behavior learned or inherited, does the legal system favor the rich or can everyone receive justice. And All of Munch’s wonderfully paranoid government conspiracy theories.
    I miss the banter in the squad room where social issues were questioned, picked apart, and argued over, and where sometimes I even learned a thing or two.
    Just my two-cents anyway.

    • says

      Hey David, Congrats on watching in real time! Hope this means you’re having a good week.

      Yes, so many of the criminals on SVU are cute girls! Last season, I did a quick analysis and found this:

      “In 35 episodes, 11 of the perps have turned out to be female (not including the female victims who end up murdering their rapist in the final scene, of which there are many). Highlights include a woman who dressed like a ninja and sodomized several men; a high-society rape victim who had actually been slipped psychadelic poisonous mushrooms by a rival beautiful heiress; and the cute tweenage girl who abducted, tortured and killed the little Romani boy a few episodes ago.

      In real life, women commit less than 2% of all sexual offenses and their abuse often involves their own children. But on SVU, by my count, about 33% of the crimes are committed by women.”

      See:, another episode featuring a woman who arranged for the rape of her female roommate.

      I like your comment about dissecting the social issues. I think you’re right, and I wonder why that’s the case. At first, I thought: maybe that was easier to do when there was a 50/50 partner relationship, like Olivia and Elliott had. But, in fact, I think the ensemble nature of the show now would be just as conducive. It must be a conscious decision, then, to go for more plot and less social commentary. Which is too bad.

      • Chris says

        In the episode with the ninja girl branding her perps, Benson also helped vendicate her in court. How many of your 33% femme fatales were vendicated in the end by the compassionate Benson? Just curious…Maybe it is a feminist agenda? Vigilante agenda? Pop culture Maxim? Hmmmmmm…..

      • James Pollock says

        Depends on what you consider a “sex offense”, I guess. Women are by far the leaders in crimes of prostitution, for example. Adultery is split fairly evenly, too. And, I’d have to say that this episode featured no sex offenses at all, unless A) adultery is still a criminal offense in NY, and B) what Dia did to Hannah constitutes corruption of a minor (we didn’t see it, so it’s hard to tell). We had plain old non-sex-related kidnapping, and non-sex-related murder/manslaughter, and a good bit of fraud. But all the sex was consensual.

        And in a plus for the lying, cheating bastard, the state of NY will now pick up his wife’s healthcare expenses, so it’s a win all around, right?

        • says

          Chris, yeah, Olivia does have a tendency to fall in love with female witnesses, in a way that isn’t helpful to her cases. The ninja girl is a great example. She was a victim of crimes — but that didn’t give her the right to go around breaking into homes, drugging, and sodomizing people. James, good point about what qualifies as a “sex crime.” Adultery is still a court-martialable offense in the Army.

  3. Chris says

    In the very first episode of SVU, 14 seasons ago, Olivia was told “You can’t pick the Vic…” and Cragen said she was on thin ice professionally for showing compassion for the murderers. This could be the beginning of a new drama for her, with Amaro center to the deception. Cragen and Olivia have a solid relationship, but I see him being just as angry about Benson’s “picking the vic” mentality as he was 14 years ago. And I think Amaro would have no problem throwing her under the bus.

    Considering that Olivia advocates the brutal revenge of a teenage socialite on a weird “nut-ball” photographer, I might worry about my attachment to her. Why do I continue to ally myself emotionally with someone who advocates such an atrocity against another person? Does my moral compass need resetting once I’ve entered Olivia’s world?

    With that said, Olivia feels vindicated, and so do I! 🙂

    • says

      Great points, Chris. I personally disagreed with what Olivia did. Her job as a cop is to find the facts and bring them to light. She can’t sit as judge and jury. That said, I thought the writers did a great job of making the decision sympathetic and understandable.

      I’m glad you felt vindicated in the end! 🙂

      • James Pollock says

        It’s that same kind of reasoning that gets spoiled rich kids out of real consequences for their actions. “Aww, it would be a shame to ruin the rest of her life for one little mistake”. Yes, it’s admirable that the poor dying mom can put aside all the difficulty in her own life to try to protect her little girl. But, sometimes you CAN’T protect them, and sometimes you shouldn’t. This should have been a “can’t”.

        • Josh says

          Where’s Casey Novak to tell Benson and Amaro “that there’s other families with parents who cheat on each other, and some of them also come from broken homes. But not all of the children in these families killed the home wrecker.”

    • James Pollock says

      With one biological parent dead and the other pretty disinterested in making a claim, it is highly likely that the child was returned to their home. This, however, would probably NOT be immediate.

      There were a couple of other loose ends they left out. The judge’s disciplinary hearing following his arrest, for example, left him disbarred and very likely facing prison time.

      The adoptive parents ALSO probably have a malpractice suit in the seven, maybe eight figures against the law firm that defrauded them. If that isn’t enough, they probably also have a tort claim against the judge, as well, depending on his assets they might pursue that as well.

  4. Carl N. Brown says

    I gave up working on a Southeast Asia metaphor linking “golden triangle” and “killing fields”.

    15yo Hannah greiving for her dying mother killed dad Kent’s nutty girlfriend Dia for shoving in Hannah’s face a sex video of Dia and Kent getting it on.

    OK to my lay juror mind at first glance that’s temporary-insanity crime-of-passion probably never to be repeated in the lifetime of most 15yo girls, but the girl needs trial, diversion, therapy.

    BUT the detectives decide to accept the mother’s false and easily disprovable confession, to let the girl walk. Where? Unless I missed something, that would be back home to dad Kent until Hannah reaches majority. (Aside: don’t prosecutors in NYC reject false confessions that don’t match the evidence?)

    WHAT IF dying mom sent Hannah to take care of Dia deliberately? It does not take much imagination to outline a future episode where Kent is found dead by Hannah’s hand, the trigger being mom’s death in prison maybe even a mom’s dying wish to her daughter. If sweet girls can be rage killers, sympathetic moms can be devious plotters.

    • says

      Yes! Just as SVU’s 300th episode featured a case from Episode 1, this episode totally had the potential to spin off another story. And Carl, you’re right, many jurisdictions don’t allow convictions based solely on a confession — there must be some corroborating evidence. And I think the best result for this 15-year-old would have involved some court-mandated anger management, at the least.

  5. Carl N. Brown says

    And on Tessa: while fictional, that case should be a caveat to adoptees who want to learn about their biological parents. Ignorance can be bliss if the truth is both useless and toxic.

  6. Alenna says

    I’m sorry but using Scott Bakula in this episode made me think of Star Trek (Captain Jonathan Archer). I kept expecting Klingons to arrive or something. The young girl Hannah did not seem capable of committing murder either mentally or physically. She must have hit Dia unexpectedly from behind because Dia seemed bigger and stronger and very capable of defending herself against the 15-year-old. Also, how did the fingerprints get removed from the murder object? Did dad know and was he an accessory? Obviously the girl is going to have some issues later in life – I’m not sure Olivia was smart in letting her get away with it. What happened to the lying judge (Captain Jonathan Archer’s dad)? Shouldn’t he be getting in serious trouble for helping his son “dispose” of the baby?

    As far as the Spymaster is concerned – nothing shocking at all. I was in the military for many years, and I now work in a polygraph office. Generals are treated like kings. They are responsible for murdering hundreds if not thousand of people (as part of war). I guess they get used to justifying it to themselves. Why should a little sex-on-the-side be bothersome?

      • Alenna says

        In my office we do polygraphs on maybe 2 or 3 generals a year (for security clearance purposes). I’m not a polygrapher – I do the admin/setup part of it. The 4-stars are usually exempt though, unless they “volunteer” to take one. Some of them actually do volunteer – to set an example for their employees.

  7. Dawn Stone says

    I realize this is an old episode(caught it on Hulu) but I had to chime in. I was shocked they allowed mom to take the fall. I get why mom would do it. I would too. But ethically? Yeah,I wonder if this would really happen? Hannah killed a person in a fit of passion. I’d hate to be the guy dumping her. And yeah,the sweet teenaged killer bit IS getting old.

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