SVU’s Season 15 Premiere: “Surrender Benson” and “Imprisoned Lives”

Okay, I was skeptical of Law & Order: SVU’s Season 15 premiere. After the Season 14 cliffhanger, in which a handsome serial rapist burned off his own fingerprints, branded and raped an adorable grandma, and took Det. Olivia Benson hostage, I was prepared for more over-the-top shock gags. But tonight’s double episode was a lean, razor-sharp exploration of one woman’s struggle to survive – and thrive. And Mariska Hargitay’s harrowing performance deserves Emmy consideration.

Recap: In “Surrender Benson,” we return to Olivia’s apartment and find her duct-taped, bruised, blacked-out and tied to a chair. As she regains consciousness, the leering face of her sex-offense defendant, Louis Williams, comes into focus. She tries to negotiate for her freedom, but he sees through her techniques, taunts her, and then knocks her out again – but not before she warns him that NYPD hell will rain down on him. “Let it rain,” he sneers.

If Olivia Benson ever envisioned her own personal hell, it probably looked a lot like what followed. Louis wraps her in a blanket and stuffs her in the trunk of his car. He tricks his smitten defense-attorney girlfriend to invite him to her parents’ house on Long Island – then kills her father and rapes her mother while forcing Olivia to watch. He steals another car, then kills a cop who pulls him over and asks about the tarp covering Olivia in the backseat. He goes to a hardware store and buys rope, more duct tape, and a hand-held blowtorch. Then he breaks into an empty beach house, handcuffs Olivia to the bed, and starts slicing through her clothes with a knife.

Meanwhile, the SVU squad and Olivia’s cop boyfriend Cassidy are one fateful step behind Louis at every turn.

Olivia tries seducing Louis, but when that fails, she breaks down crying. She wants to live. Louis is distracted by a maid at the door. When he returns, Olivia seems stronger. She asks why he hasn’t raped her yet. Is he afraid of her? To prove he’s not, he unzips his pants – and she uses the opportunity to beat him with the rickety iron bedpole to which she’d been tied. They both lunge for his gun, and Olivia gets it! She points it at him as he creeps closer to her. “You don’t have the guts,” he says. (Was I the only one yelling “Shoot him!”) Olivia hits him on the head.

When he awakes, Louis is now the one handcuffed to the bed. Olivia is staring at herself in the mirror, trying to decide what kind of person she is. She wants to shoot him. He wants it too, and taunts her, honing in on her weakest spots: Elliott and her father. Her anger overpowers her ethics, and she bludgeons him some more with the pole. (He lives, barely.)

The police arrive, and Nick drapes a dark blanket that might as well have the word “victim” printed on it over Olivia’s shoulders, and leads her out of the house into a crowd of waiting officers. She looks overwhelmed. She isn’t used to seeing the world from this side of the crime-scene tape.

Later, Cragen assures her that she’s a hero. But as she walks through the squad room, her colleagues stare at her with the pity reserved for a victim. She goes home and chops off her own hair, looking into the mirror with loathing.

Two months later, she’s taking karate, having flashbacks, and seeing a therapist. Revisting her apartment – the crime scene – is especially hard. Even before the assault, she realizes, “I hadn’t thrived there.” Her therapist wonders if Special Victims is the right place for her now. “He doesn’t get to take that from me,” Olivia says. But her next case will test her.

“Imprisoned Lives”

With a pale little boy rushing to hug a big furry monster on the street, the second half of this double-episode started with a head-fake about the guys in knockoff Sesame-Street costumes harassing tourists in Times Square. But it was really about a man who kidnapped three young women, held them in chains for decades, and fathered that pale little boy with one of them.

This episode was a dramatic mashup of the real-life cases involving the kidnapping of Jaycee Dugard and the kidnapper Ariel Castro, with a dash of the brilliant novel, “Room,” thrown in. (That book is told from the point-of-view of a little boy who’s lived his entire life in a shack; his father is his mother’s captor.)

Like the character Kayla, 11-year-old Jaycee was kidnapped by a pedophile and his wife, who held her captive for many years. The man raped her repeatedly and twice impregnated her; the woman pretended to be the babies’ mother. And like “Pa” in tonight’s episode, Ariel Castro kidnapped three girls, held them in chains in his home for decades, repeatedly raped them, fathered a child by one – and then said at his sentencing that all of the sex was “consensual” and they were a happy “family.” Castro has since killed himself in jail.

In this episode, Olivia struggles to investigate the case while having flashbacks to her own abduction. She uncharacteristically yells at one of the women who helped “Pa.” Ultimately, Olivia finds her core self – and all of the abducted girls. In counseling the one who gave birth to the pale little boy, Olivia rediscovers her own strength. “People who’ve gone through unfair, horrific experiences – they have this will,” she says. “And when they get support, they can not only survive, they can thrive.”

It was a strong message to take away from a strong story.

Verdict: A

What they got right: Olivia’s emotional arc was pitch-perfect. At first, she couldn’t believe what was happening to her. Then she tried to bargain with Louis, using some good solid hostage negotiation techniques (like implying that this was a temporary crisis that could be solved safely). Then she got angry, then cagey, then desperate and pleading. And then she kicked some ass.

Olivia’s subsequent psychological reaction was accurate too. Survivors of terrible trauma often have PTSD, which includes the kind of flashbacks, anger, and guilt that Olivia experienced tonight.

And the Castro-inspired plot hearkened to the best of the ripped-from-the-headlines formula that has kept SVU fans clamoring for more for a decade and a half. If this is any indication of the writing for this season, Season 15 might be the best one yet.

What they got wrong: Detectives do sometimes get taken as hostages. But this is Olivia’s sixth time. Enough said?

What did you think, SVU fans? Were you shouting “Shoot him!” too? Will Olivia ever be the same? And was this Mariska’s best performance ever? Leave your comments!

About Allison Leotta


  1. I swear the actor playing Olivia’s therapist was a bad guy in a previous episode? I can’t find info on imbd.

  2. Totally agree, Allison. Last year’s episodes were hit and miss at best and I had real concerns that would carry over to this year–especially with the continuation of last year’s last show. But the writers and Mariska hit it out of the ball park with this one! Great content and great performances all around.

    Here in a recent interview with Mariska

    she talks about being really excited about the new season and that it feels like a new show to her, and certainly a new character to play after 15 years. If the first two part episode’s any indication, she’s right.
    Hope you had a great summer Allison. Glad to see you’re doing the reviews again. I learn a ton from them.


    • Hi David! Great to hear from you. Yeah, I have high hopes for this season. Olivia will be a different character, given what she just went through. It will be interesting to see how Mariska plays that. Hope you had a great summer too, and are enjoying this beautiful fall weather.

  3. Carl N. Brown says:

    We finished the episode last night, wife and I. Am I the only one who wonders about the relationship between the “smitten defense-attorney girlfriend” and her widowed, raped momma? That must make future holidays awkward, especial Mother’s Day.

    Ethically as an officer Olivia could not execute Lewis/Louis handcuffed, since he was no longer a physical threat, and officers are duty-bound to bring ‘em in alive for the legal process anyway. In real life badness of characters is often not that clearly delineated, so ’tis best to insist on erring on the side of restraint. I speculate that such a manipulative SOB as Lewis/Louis would represent such a clear, present and future danger to others that it would be hard to fault Olivia (as a victim) for shooting him dead. In the end, though, she denied him what he tried to manipulate her into giving him: a bullet in the head (and a total compromise of her ethics) — his last effort at controlling her.

    Anyway, here’s hoping for a more consistent this season. Last did feel hit’n’miss.

    • Hi Carl — Good point, it is going to be one very awkward Mother’s Day at that defense attorney’s house! I agree that Olivia showed restraint by just beating Louis instead of shooting him. But she still blames herself for losing even that amount of control. So it will be a challenge for her to both recover from her trauma, and her reaction to it.

  4. ALLISON, if she’d just admitted to beating that guy do you think anything would have happened charges and/or reprimand wise?

    I mean she’s a decorated police officer, and he’s a prolific serial killer rapist who kidnapped her?

    • She might have been reprimanded — it does violate police policy to beat a handcuffed man — but that would seem incredibly cruel. But it would have put her supervisors in the uncomfortable position of *not* reprimanding her despite an admitted violation.

      • James Pollock says:

        “it does violate police policy to beat a handcuffed man”

        She was off-duty when it happened; it’s hard to see how police policy applies. I would think that she’d be treated under the same rules as a civilian for beating a man in handcuffs. (That rule being “there’s no way you could get a conviction, so don’t bring charges.”

        Now, the NYPD just MIGHT have a case for reprimanding her for losing physical control of her duty weapon, which was used to kill another officer.

  5. Hello Allison,
    Long-time reader, first-time poster. I love reading your reviews of the episodes. Not living in the States, they allow me to compare the legal system of your country and mine. It’s fascinating.
    I know I’m a bit late as they just aired the 5th episode, but I just watched the first and second ones.
    First episode was difficult to watch. She was so emotionally raw that it just hurt. Mariska Hargitay really deserves more awards. She’s just so sincere in all her performances.
    In the second episode, as soon as the boy started talking, I thought of “Room”. The way he referred to House convinced me. That novel is not a light read, but so good.
    Thank you so much for these reviews, they really are enhancing the SVU experience.

    • Carl N. Brown says:

      I notice you say Allison’s reviews allow you to compare the legal systems between countries. As a layman, I find the NYC police and court procedures in the L&O universe foreign to my observations locally in Tennessee. I learn more from Allison’s what they got right and wrong than I learn from the scripts. :)

      (EG: here an officer involved shooting routinely gets a state bureau of investigation shooting review and presentation to the grand jury for a verdict.)

      • I live in a small European country, and laws here are national. A case tried in one part of the country will be tried according to the same laws at the other end of the country.
        It is true that L&O only gives me a view of the NYC police department and legal system, but I guess there are other procedurals on the air if I want to know how the police handle a case in Texas or wherever (even though I’m not sure there are many procedurals taking place in other big cities right now).

        • Enza, nice to “meet” you at last. Thanks for stopping by and for commenting. I’m so glad you’re enjoying the blog. I agree that Mariska’s performance deserves an award, and that Room was an amazing book.

          What small European country do you live in? Do you watch the show in English or another language? Do tell!

          Carl, now I will know to read your comments in a slow, southern drawl. :)

          • Hello Allison!
            Thank you for taking the time to reply :)
            I am in Belgium, mostly known for its beers, chocolates, and fries (yup, French fries are actually Belgian).
            I watch this show (as well as other shows and movies) in English. In the French-speaking part of Belgium (where I grew up), they tend to dub the actors, but it makes it impossible for me to really enjoy an actor’s performance. And what better way to learn English than to watch TV shows?
            Looking forward to reading your reviews for this season, and many more to come, hopefully!

  6. I’ve noticed a different Olivia but can’t pinpoint what the difference is. Has she gained weight, has anyone else noticed a change in her appearance or/and demeanor?

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