SVU Episode #14-19: Born Psychopath

Most nights, SVU explores the nightmare of someone terrible hurting your family. But what if the terrible someone was part of your family? What if he was your son?

Recap: A rich, beautiful Upper West Side couple is living the perfect Manhattan life, until their adorable four-year-old daughter, Ruby, goes to the school nurse with bruises on her abdomen. At first, the buxom blond nanny is suspected.

But the detectives soon learn that the real culprit is Ruby’s ten-year-old brother, Henry, who pushed his sister down the stairs because he was curious about how she would fall. Henry’s mental issues are bad enough that B.D. Wong flies in for special guest appearance and determines that, although Henry is smart, he feels and understands no emotions. Wong ruminates, “I hate to label a ten-year-old a psychopath. But…”

Henry’s parents resist the horrifying diagnosis. Their son won’t be able to get into a good middle school with that label. But Henry gets worse. He pulls a knife on his mom and slices her hand. He asks to hold Amanda’s gun while nibbling strawberries in what was possibly the most menacing organic-fruit scene in TV history. And when his parents tell him they’re sending him to a treatment facility, he locks mom in the laundry room, ties Ruby to a bed, and sets the apartment on fire.

Henry then proceeds to his friend’s apartment, where he ties up his friend and locks him in a closet, drowns his friend’s dog in a tub, and steals a gun, which he uses to take another kid hostage in the building’s playroom. Nick saves the hostage, but then Henry turns the gun on him! “If I shoot you,” Henry says in his cold voice, “will there be a lot of blood? Will your brains come out of your forehead?” Nick reaches for the gun, and Henry shoots him in the chest!

Luckily, Nick is wearing a bulletproof vest, as he conveniently mentioned in the first scene, when he spoke at Career Day at his son’s school (posing as the boy’s uncle, of course, since the son doesn’t know Nick is his dad). It all turns out okay because: (a) we get our first glimpse of the good detective’s truly impressive abs, and (b) Nick’s babymama realizes life is precious and uncertain, and allows Nick to reveal his paternity to the boy. (Purists might squirm at this soapy detour from our crime plot, but I have to admit: I’m loving this storyline.)

Anyway, now that Henry has attempted to kill a cop, there’ll be no more organic strawberries or nannies with lilting Latvian accents. He’ll be processed in the juvenile justice system, and sent to a treatment facility til he’s eighteen. Mom and Dad sobbingly bid him goodbye. For the first time in his life, Henry says that he loves them – but with such a hard look in his eyes, we know the declaration is just one more manipulation.

Verdict: B+

What they got right:

The question of whether children can be considered psychopaths is being hotly debated in the medical and legal communities. Last year, the New York Times magazine ran an excellent article about the phenomenon of “callous-unemotional” children. CU kids exhibit a lack of affect, remorse, or empathy and are considered at risk of becoming psychopaths as adults. According to the magazine, “a growing number of psychologists believe that psychopathy, like autism, is a distinct neurological condition — one that can be identified in children as young as 5.”

One real-life CU boy amputated his cat’s tail bit by bit over a series of weeks, with scientific detachment, before his parents noticed. Another pushed a toddler into a motel swimming pool, pulled up a chair, and watched the child sink to the bottom, because he was curious about the act of drowning.

The good news is that scientists believe that early diagnosis, intervention, and treatment might modify the child’s behavior, although it can’t “cure” the underlying lack of empathy. Such behavioral modification could have a huge impact on crime rates. Psychopaths are estimated to constitute 1 percent of the population but make up 15 to 25 percent of convicts responsible for brutal crimes.

The show tonight achingly portrayed parents’ dilemma when faced with the possibility that their own child was a psychopath. For another heartbreaking real-life take on this, read this remarkable article called “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother,” written by a woman with a mentally-ill son, about how she struggles to love him and control his violent outbursts, even as she knows that he will soon be able to overpower her.

What they got wrong:

At the Children’s Advocacy Center, Henry pointed to a concealed camera, and asked Nick and Olivia, “Are you recording this?” Interviewers at real-life CACs usually inform the kids right off the bat that they’re being recorded. (In my view, that’s only fair.) And it would be unusual to have two detectives questioning the boy – the whole point of that cheery, child-friendly room is to put the child at ease.

A nit about Henry’s arson. This family lived in a palatial Upper West Side with two-story windows, a floating staircase, and billion-dollar views. And yet, when the house was filled with smoke, the only reason anyone knew was because Henry called Olivia’s personal cell? Didn’t that posh apartment come with a smoke detector?

Finally, while there are cases where a CU kid does one or two horrible things, I’ve never heard of a case where a kid goes on such an incredibly productive and creative crime spree. I think the writers took every CU incident in the world and gave it to this one incredibly deranged kid. Chalk it up to dramatic license.

What do you think, SVU fans? What would you do if you thought your child was a psychopath? Should such diagnoses be given to kids so young? And how will Nick’s son react to learning that Uncle Nick is really “Dad”? Leave your comments!

Comments

  1. “psychopathy, like autism” I was about to start ranting at you before I noticed that coma

  2. OT: what is going on with Jeremy Irons? Given his role on SVU, are you surprised about his remarks about a father being able to marry his own son? What are the implications of gay marriage being passed in the US in regards to our current incest laws?

  3. They might as well have put clown make up on the kid and had him ask Nick “Have you ever danced with the devil by the pale moonlight?” This is what is becoming frustrating to me about SVU, they are sacrificing opportunities to tell an interesting story about a serious issue and show that they actually take it seriously, and going for sensational and illogical plot twists and characters.

  4. Heartlover says:

    I suppose I’m aging myself, but I kept wondering if anyone in the SVU “universe” was at all familiar with “The Bad Seed”? I’m most familiar with the film, but it was first a novel and then a stage play (and based on an actual, horrific serial killer). But I also suppose that if it were my child, the last thing I would be willing to believe is that they would/could purposely and stoically cause harm. In any case, this episode kept reminding me of the movie.

    • Interesting. I think the debate about nature v. nurture — and the corollary of whether some people are just born bad — is one that has captivated us for a long time, and is played out in a lot of compelling fiction.

  5. Achillea says:

    Jonathan Kellerman has an interesting (albeit small) book on this topic, titled “Savage Spawn.”

Speak Your Mind

*