Law & Ordocki #48: 7 Levels of Hell
Some episodes of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit are immediately infamous, such as the wildlife smuggling episode or the one where Robin Williams is the Riddler (article on that one forthcoming). Others become so retroactively, inadvertently. I would say “Trade” fits the bill, on the basis that its big guest star is disgraced actor and self-confessed pedophile Stephen Collins. But of course when this was shot he was just the dad on that preachy WB show that lasted 23 seasons and, to a lesser degree, Dennis and Dee’s real father on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. “Trade” comes in at the tail end of Season 9, aka the writers strike season that ended with a significant amount of cast upheaval. (With nine people in the main cast this was arguably necessary.) This particular show is about coffee, infidelity, balls, the surveillance state and swan dives. Strap in, it’ll be fun and lots and lots of coffee “jokes”.
Our story begins with an episode of Chicago Fire. Well, a fire. The firefighters find a dead woman amidst the flames they believe has been raped, because her panties are down and her dress is ripped. She didn’t die from the fire; she was already dead, likely from a lamp to the head. Warner appears at the scene to “turn on the world with [her] smile”, as Stabler puts it because he’s a fucking repressed weirdo, and to tell the detectives that victim Jenna Ludlow was pregnant. An exuberant fire investigator explains the fire was intentional, with burnt up drapes acting as an accelerant. The firestarter? Sterno. The dishwasher contains two wine glasses so the detectives conclude Jenna had company over and whoever it is likely killed her. Ludlow worked as a fashion consultant, causing Detective Chester Lake (Adam Beach in a role only slightly more substantial than his turn in Suicide Squad) to snark “too bad she didn’t get to help Munch”. Munch responds with “are you insulting my sartorial splendor?”. There’s your Richard Belzer for the week, folks. Actually, his role in “Trade” is slightly more substantial than expected from this late in the series. I’m not complaining.
That cast is enough to field a goddamn baseball team. It’s absurd.
The case rests on finding out who was paying for Jenna’s lifestyle, because her day job wasn’t cutting it. Style consultant isn’t a real job? The hell you say. This is where famous pedophile Stephen Collins comes in, as his son was engaged to be married to her. Before we tease out that connection we get a patented SVU stupid timewaster when Munch and Fin have to go to Jenna’s angel healer. Look, that ubiquitous thing that some writer’s girlfriend definitely didn’t waste a bunch of their money on needed to get taken down a notch and what better way than a solid lampooning on national television. Heaven Moskowitz (yeah, there are heaven jokes and there are Jew jokes, what a shock) points them towards an Ethiopian with a great body named Pierson at the commodities exchange. I like how this tip is accurate and useful so “Trade” is suggesting there might be validity in angel healing. You may as well have a mysterious fat bearded man visit the precinct and then in the final minutes Benson and Stabler look at each other and say “you don’t think…” as sleigh bells ring and a laugh is heard. Anyway, Pierson isn’t Ethiopian; that and the “great body” refers to the coffee he trades! Oh, Heaven, you cad. I should credit Cleopatra the angel I guess.
There are actually two Piersons, Sr. and Jr., the latter of whom is insultingly dubbed “P.J.”. There’s only one P.J., and he’s the fat kid from Goof Troop. Don’t you forget it. The former is the aforementioned famous pedophile Stephen Collins, whereas the latter (played by Matthew Davis, who had the dubious distinction of twin roles in Urban Legends: Final Cut) was engaged to Jenna and conveniently out of the country when the murder occurred. Or was he? P.J.’s alibi soon falls apart and he once again becomes the prime suspect. A rich white man killing his partner for fiduciary reasons? Perish the thought. A trip to the NPCs (Warner and O’Halloran) reveals it was consensual sex meant to look like a stranger rape after the fact. It’s like how Joker wanted to get caught in The Dark Knight, only more stupid.
Stephen Collins’ greatest acting challenge is pretending to find an adult woman sexually attractive.
An underrated element to “Trade” is the detectives supposing that Jenna probably deserved to die. They don’t go outright and say it, but the subtext is there when they sneer about her job history being a transparent effort to land a rich husband (Ice-T: “when she didn’t find Mr. Right, she’d move on”). They stop just short of accusing the deceased of replacing her birth control with baby aspirin or poking holes in her beau’s condoms to trap them into an 18 year old commitment. It takes two people to be killed, after all: one person to do the killing, and one to be the harlot whore that deserves said killing. I think I got that right. I like it when Ice-T gets VERY concerned when he hears Jenna sued a guy for “breach of promise”. “She could DO THAT?” I rarely give the acting kudos, but a lifetime of Fin Tutuola being shitty to women flashed through one bewildered look, and it’s a credit to Ice-T. A lot of people talk about his incredulousness towards to the most basic of sex crimes, yet few are willing to admit his bold work at “females be trifling” arena. Benson has to remind everyone at SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT that “hustlers deserve justice too”.
ADA Casey Novak duly informs the detective corps that she can’t just arrest someone based on no evidence, so they void it and hope the Bartletts love the sound of their own voices enough to stay for voluntary questioning at 2 fucking AM. Munch tries to hold their interest by asking them what makes a good cup of joe. More jokes about police station coffee. Look, I get it. Municipalities paid for by tax dollars are unlikely to get the latest in roasting technology. It’s cliched, move past it. Answer: water to bean ratio. Of course! Over the course of Munch’s coffee talk (without Linda Richman), the NPCs scrounge up more evidence, such as a charred pre-nup (“P.J. was bringing home the coffee, he wanted to protect his beans” – actual line of dialogue someone wrote) and some cellular confirmation P.J. is the father of Jenna’s unborn. As Stabler grills him, his lawyer comes in: Avery Hemmings (Michelle Borth, Mary Marvel in Shazam!), from the Law & Order school of ridiculously attractive litigators. I’m not saying lawyers are trolls, but a good 16% of them are the spitting image of Saul Rubinek. She normally does SEC violations, so representing P.J. is more of a personal favor. SEC violations, murder, it’s all a spectrum, man!
I don’t trust the palate of a guy who said he wouldn’t be able to resist putting his baby boy’s penis in his mouth, but that’s just me.
Tamara Tunie enters the scene to reveal science was a liar this time, or rather that she “jumped the gun”. P.J. matched the semen whereas none other than Bartlett Sr. is the baby’s father. Benson divulges this as inelegantly as possible, congratulating the younger that “you were gonna be a big brother”. Given his younger sibling was killed during its mother’s brutal murder I’m not sure how sincere that congratulations is. It prompts an in-precinct MAN FIGHT, something that only happens in about half the episodes of this series. If you called Collins pushing a younger man through a pane of glass, you’re more prescient than I. Novak narrows her focus on Collins, saying a paternity lawsuit against him would be akin to winning the “Mega Millions”. More burnt up half-pages of paper reveal Jenna had in her possession an e-mail indicating the Piersons were to buy a plantation in El Salvador, proving the murder was about business after all.
We move to trial, which is a bit wild considering so much of the case has yet to be established. This really is one of those rare SVU instances where 20 minutes is up so it’s time to proceed to the “Order” half. On the stand, Stephen Collins says Novak’s theory of the crime “sounds like something out of a trashy beach novel”. How dare he disparage trashy beach novels by comparing their quality of writing to SVU scripts. It’s at this point I realized Casey’s immediate means of argumentation at court is to yell at witnesses/defendants/what have you until they snap. Like, can a district attorney actually ask a sterile defendant “did you know you were shooting blanks?”. “I’m sorry, P.J. You’ve just got funky sperm” is another ‘winner’. All throughout this opposing counsel is threatening Novak with disbarment and that actually happens next episode, so points to Avery on knowing what the future holds. You really yearn for the subdued restraint of Stephanie March. The judge just allows all of this, reminding me of the theatrics of Futurama’s Single Female Lawyer more than anything else. Diane Neal would’ve fit in that cast.
Dick Wolf’s working title for Law & Order: Trial by Jury was Law & Order: March of Dimes, owing to the smokeshows that work out of the DA’s office and for the opposition.
Of course, her long, vaguely profane account of things turns the junior Bartlett’s denial of Stephen Collins’ involvement in Jenna’s murder from “no, definitely not” to “I don’t know”, which in turn prompts Collins to make a scene and have to be threatened with removal. This is tame by SVU standards; usually for a courtroom sequence to “pop” somebody has to introduce a firearm or firearms (see: “Raw”, just off the top of my head). The one important factoid the prosecution unveils is that Jenna faked the pregnancy before she made the pregnancy, deduced from the age of the fetus compared to when the Bartletts started giving her 10 grand a month. Novak snarls at Hemmings that a first year law student would’ve noticed the fetus age, which is just a funny thing to hear absent context. Look to your left. Look to your right. One of the persons you just looked at will not make it to end of semester because of their unsatisfactory fetus aging judgments.
There comes a certain point, or perhaps when you’ve modified your mental state with enough drugs that the truth of the universe beckons, that the artificiality of Law & Order: SVU begins to stand out. You realize there are no characters, not really. The actors’ job is not to portray persons brought to life by combination of written word and performance but to convey information. Dialogue moves the plot forward, it doesn’t illuminate character. Once you notice it it’s impossible to not notice it. Every script is a template, every choice made to get this shit in the can as quickly as possible so it can be broadcast. I had a similar revelation while high on marijuana and watching Home Improvement, so trust me that all my sacred cows have seen a reckoning. How this relates to “Trade” is this: there are times where the difference between the script credited to Jonathan Greene and that Chatbot AI Twitter loves so much is negligible. Ironically, it’s in moments that seem like the show trying “clever.exe.”, such as Casey Novak calling the Bartletts “Richie Rich and Daddy Starbucks”. These aren’t jokes weathered professionals would make, they’re ones that come out of a writers room that subsists on Chinese takeout and long, long silences punctuated by “what if the baby was the rapist” or “Benson goes undercover as a hooker again”.
A lesser show would’ve had her been ironically strangled to death.
For all of Casey’s bluster, things end in a mistrial, which immediately reads as rotten because juries never deadlock unless there is some form of intransigence. Thanks to a helpful black woman court officer we’ve never seen before and will never see again, the holdout is the single mom of a disabled child, aka the perfect member of the jury with which to tamper. We’re doing jury tampering? Wasn’t this about coffee day trader sperm a minute ago? The single mother gives it up pretty easily, not that it’s hard for the cops to notice a 25K deposit early on in the trial and another right at its end. She tips them off to a private investigator who’s just retired to the Dominican Republic 3 hours prior to their arrival. There’s a photo of him with Stephen Collins prominently placed on the wall. The PI also has a large, and I mean large, cache of photos of P.J. with other women. Over the course of years. So the supposition is that Collins had the PI, who was his former head of security, bribe the juror, with the PI absconding so it’s hard to prove. Okay, so that’s what this is ultimately about, right? They’ll catch him on jury tampering, and there will be some lesson about how even the rich cannot buy justice. There’s only 7 minutes left In the episode. SVU laughs at your expectations. Laughs!
It all comes back to Jenna’s video advertising her services. Stabler watches it for the 1000th time and notes the murder weapon is in the shot, meaning she took the video in her bedroom, yet they recovered no camera anywhere. No one ever suggests she used a laptop camera or anything so here comes Deus Ex Hidden Camera that also happens to be in a position to record all of her bedroom liaisons. The detectives deduce she was blackmailing either Pierson Sr., Pierson Jr. or both. I’m not sure how. Why would the exchange take away their seat if they were caught having consensual sex with a woman in an illegal recording? SVU never really justifies the concern but it’s still seen as more evidence the pair needed Jenna dead.
This consensual heterosexual sex between two people capable of consent would ruin Stephen Collins’ reputation as a sex offender pedophile!
Novak and the cops sit the Bartletts and their respective attorneys down (Stephen Collins’ is played by Mariska Hargitay’s real life husband!). Avery Hemmings isn’t having this video party and departs the room. There’s a reason for that: the SD card still in Jenna’s hidden camera recorded the entirety of her murder, and it turns out Avery did it. “You’re not just gonna let her get away, are you?” Stephen Collins asks, to which Novak smugly replies “front door’s the only way out of here, and I’ve already alerted security. They’re not going to let her leave”. A beat. BEEP BEEP BEEP! An alarm sounds. “Emergency stairs to the roof” Novak notes. These people are fucking terrible at their jobs, aren’t they? “Oh yeah, we’ve got her right where we want her—oops, guess we don’t. Fuck. Mulligan?”
There’s literally two minutes left so “Trade” explains itself at lightning speed. Avery orchestrated the juror bribing, Avery had had the PI tailing P.J.’s dalliances for who knows how long, she did it all because she’s secretly been in love with him since college and “man crazy” is in the DSM, which B.D. Wong would tell you were he appearing in this episode. She divulges this all on the rooftop, threatening to throw herself off. P.J. tries to coax her down by going up on the ledge there with her, but that just leads her to throw themselves off the roof, their bodies hitting a car, their hands poetically splayed in tandem. That’s an SVU “art” shot, folks. The great thing about all of this is there’s no reason why Bartlett Jr. would’ve hired Avery as his attorney, because she did SEC work and he was looking at a murder rap. I want to see the scene in which his old college buddy convinced him to let her represent him. Seems like a stupid plot contrivance to me, but you can’t expect those to appear in an episode of Special Victims Unit. Perish the thought.
I like how the disc menu spoils Stephen Collins’ “my son is street pizza” face.
Since starring in Urban Legends: Final Cut has yet to become a crime (unfortunately), you have to lay the death of Pierson Bartlett Jr. at the hands of Manhattan SVU. There’s a long and storied history of people dying in custody at this shitshow known as a precinct but few cases are as spectacularly gory as the one in “Trade”. Stephen Collins definitely has grounds for a wrongful death suit, especially as letting Avery Hemmings leave the room during the viewing of damning evidence against her had no rationale besides “dramatically it’d be pretty cool, maybe”. I’ve said it before and I’ve said it again: The Shield’s Strike Team is less corrupt. Whereas they do big crimes rarely and then try to cover those up, this shit happens on SVU all the time. The Money Train changed those men’s lives irrevocably, whereas the SVUers call “Trade” “a particularly uneventful Tuesday”. Wait until I get to the Season 8 finale “Screwed”, wherein all the chickens come home to roost and the show’s writing nearly becomes self-aware.
That feeling when everyone is asked back for Shazam! 2 except for you.
This is a good example of the kind of craziness SVU got up to in its middle period, in which there are twists and turns instead of a precise investigation that gathers evidence to determine and ultimately prosecute the guilty offender. Instead with this you’ve got people going on rooftops and detectives talking sperm counts. It isn’t necessarily good SVU, because you’ve got an overstuffed cast, a main “mystery” no one could possibly care about let alone solve without the benefit of brain damage, a bevy of unsympathetic episode day players, and some half-assed even for this show commentary on, uh, the coffee exchange and women be lyin’ and such. Something about network television, specifically before it started trying to mimic the prestige trappings of pay channels and cable, is that sometimes a show exists to pad out the total. “Trade” may not be great, but it does its job of existing, and if there’s one thing this straight white male can empathize with, it’s succeeding by existing.
There have been worse iterations of Romeo & Juliet. Not many, but some…
Adam Beach Watch: he has that line about Munch dressing like shit and disappears. Arguably less pivotal than his role in Suicide Squad. Inarguably, actually; say what you will about Slipknot, he proved the brain bombs were for real. That would’ve been a fitting ending for Detective Chester Lake. He goes rogue so Cragen reluctantly has to activate his brain bomb. Benson and Stabler are shocked to find out they have them too. Ice-T: “That’s messed up!”