Law & Ordocki Season 4 #2 (#33): To Vax Or Not To Vax
Law & Order: SVU is a program of the moment; it’s meant to be as disposable as a tissue or an issue of a tabloid. When going back to an episode after many years the bulk is often indecipherable. What current event compelled the writer to pen this? What are they reacting to? What was the cultural moment? I always try to research what headlines Dickory Wolf and co. ripped from for their episode of television and it is easier said than done in the majority of cases. Crimes from 1990 and 1991 tend not to stay in the public consciousness. Sometimes, though, the purveyors of this watchable trash will unintentionally create a timeless piece of shit that makes just as much sense 10 years from its airdate as 1 week from its airdate. “Selfish” manages to combine the stone cold classic murder of Caylee Anthony with parents who just don’t want to vaccinate their kids. While Casey Anthony’s trials and tribulations are still occasionally recorded in the tabloids, this vaccination/no vaccination shit is bigger than ever. I didn’t think of all the triumphant returns we’d be witnessing in the 21st century it’d be measles, but here we are. Throw in the patented twists and turns of the SVU narrative and some impressive stunt casting and you’re cooking with gas.
Be on the lookout for this disclaimer. You see it before an episode and you know you’re in for a good time.
Things start inauspiciously enough, as Stabler has finished all his paperwork for what he says is the first time in five years. Me, I have trouble picturing Stabler doing paperwork. His method must involve screaming at the paperwork and threatening to have it sent to a shredder. Before he and Benson can leave, a woman (Gail O’Grady, NYPD Blue) comes in about her missing granddaughter. She hasn’t seen Sierra for four days, the mother Ashley has been back for one, and grandma’s car which she lent to Ashley to go to Atlantic City with smells like a dead body. We meet her (as portrayed by Hilary Duff of “Hilary Duff gives a blowjob after being proposed to” photos fame) as she’s hosing off the borrowed car’s trunk. Never a good sign. She claims the kid is with her sitter, but when they go to Maria’s address they find no Maria lives there. “She stole my baby!” Ashley screams, referring to either Maria or Yolanda or maybe just Hispanic people in general. This has all the makings of a Lou Dobbs wet dream.
The investigation goes down many dead ends, like when Ashley’s vague description of Maria’s car nets an Hispanic male ferrying his boss’ kid across town. Elliot looks in the back to see if it’s Sierra and says “look, I don’t know if it’s her, she can’t talk”. Apparently he is a baby racist who thinks they all look alike. (Next he’ll be saying babies ought to ‘have their own schools’.) It isn’t Sierra, though. They eventually do track down Maria, but not only does she not have the kid, she belongs to what I like to call the SVU Throwaway Crazy People Hall of Fame. Inductees to this prestigious collection are one-off characters who suffer a memorable mental disease (or “crazy”) and are promptly discarded from the plot when their utility is exhausted. Examples include the Italian Who Can’t Sleep from “Bombshell” and the Homeless Stockbroker Who Can’t Talk from “Choreographed”. Maria’s son died, so she replaced him with a doll and goes around the park, pushing a stroller containing a faux child, asking to look after other people’s children. Ice-T and Stabler do threaten to send the thing down the incinerator to give her incentive to talk. Indeed, Maria is just a tangent, her only connection to the case being that Ashley stole her credit card to purchase a shovel and a tarp. Wait, what?
“Selfish”’s primary drawback is that the family it follows is stereotypical white trash and that means a lot of public yelling and fighting. (A proper family represses everything until it all comes out in glorious, hideous detail once grandma has more than two glasses of peach schnapps.) Every scene with the grandmother, Ruth, was like nails on a chalkboard to me, and Hilary Duff does an effective job portraying a flighty, self-centered young woman. The grandfather (Mike Pniewski, who was also on Criminal Intent as the Chief of Detectives at this time) is a lot more mellow but that’s due to sobriety. He jumps off that wagon soon enough, doing the old drink beer while watching home videos routine nostalgic drinks are so fond of. Since this episode deals with children and Benson has yet to adopt Noah, Stabler understandably takes center stage. Ice-T has a kid too but he doesn’t give a shit about him. So when Ashley claims to be a good mom, Stabler will seethe and say “your Facespace tells a different story”. (Try reading that in Meloni’s style of delivery without laughing. You can’t!) No pictures of Sierra on there, just ones of her partying in Atlantic City! Ashley contends just because you have kids doesn’t mean you can’t still have fun, but Stabler clearly proves opposite. He hasn’t had fun since 1984 or ever.
Watch out, that drunk’s nostalgic!!
It would be a mistake on my part to delve into “Selfish” without discussing Season 10’s primary recurring character, Dale Stuckey. He plays a minor yet pivotal role in these proceedings. Stuckey is a CSU (crime scene university) tech whose job it is on the show is to be annoying as possible to justify Stabler bullying him. In this episode Stuckey fucks up an alarming number of times relative to his screentime. He’s never onscreen unless it’s to say or do something obnoxious or detrimental to the case. He invites the press to the site at which the cops are digging for Sierra’s body. He clumsily digs at the ground, nearly damaging the remains. He yells to signal the press they found something. Noel Fisher (the Michelangelo from the Michael Bay Ninja Turtles movies), who I’ve only seen be an irritant, is likewise a twit on SVU. He even has a catchphrase, “bing bang bong”, that wears out its welcome immediately. Dale’s presence is yet another oddity about Season 10. Who put him in a recurring role and why? Possibly the character is supposed to be a swipe at the CSI franchise, though he doesn’t strike me as parodic or derivative of anyone in particular. I suppose overall he makes the point that crime solving ought to be left to detectives and not lab geeks, because lab geeks are ginger social hazards instead of buff civil rights violators with the stern features of a bird of prey. That’s something. The character of Dale goes on to become a serial killer like three episodes from now. No, I’m not joking. With a show this insane why the hell would I have to make shit up?
“Look, I’m an economically comfortable white woman. Why would I *ever* be wrong about something?”
Ashley begs off the shovel and tarp as gifts to her dad, and the shovel’s got gasoline dirt (fuck you I’m not looking up the scientific term) on it. This brings them to a former gas station Ashley and her friends would get drunk at whereupon the little girl’s body is found. Nancy Grace will finally be satisfied: proof Casey Anthony killed her daughter. Or is it? We’re only 20 minutes in so “Selfish” needs to pivot into something. That something is the vaccinations debate; Sierra died not from abuse but from measles, and she was too young to receive a vaccination herself so the fault doesn’t rest with Ashley. Their effort to find patient zero involves them pointlessly in the personal drama of an Amish father and son. The dad’s going on about “the devil’s music” and calling women “harlots” and there’s not one shred of irony. Ice-T lucks out at the playground and finds Monica Stewart, whose son recently had measles. She’s pretty fucking smug, convinced she’s in the right to oppose “Big Pharma” since her son recovered from measles within two weeks. Other kids are not her problem.
They’re on the “screen printed memorial t-shirt” stage of grief.
Now we get what I consider the frosting on the cake, the Squad Room Debate Scene. Most episodes about pressing social or political issues have one, with characters yanked into either pro- or anti- camp, regardless of how little sense it may make. To wit: Benson and Munch are anti-vax, or at least anti-vax-curious. When Munch notes immunizations aren’t compulsory, Benson chimes in with “maybe he’s right, El. Sometimes parents know what’s best for their kids.” “Telling parents how to raise their kids, that’s a quick slide down the slippery slope of government tyranny” says Munch. I fucking love it. If the topic was heliocentrism, the show would have Ice-T saying where he’s from, the streets, the Sun revolves around the Earth. (Yes, Munch being anti-vax makes sense, but Olivia? Come the fuck on.) ADA Cabot brings up that it’s an election year and basically that vaccination practices is a topic that will only grow more important as time goes on, so go arrest Monica Stewart. Meanwhile, Ashley and her family opt to sue the city of New York for allowing Sierra to come across measles in a public park. There’s a press conference and everything!
“No, I don’t quite know why I’m in this episode either. Perhaps an earlier draft of the script had Monica Stewart as part of the Amish community, and the plotline was irresponsible single moms vs. the weirdo devout people who hate electricity?”
SVU realizes it can’t really make vaccinations a balanced issue; Tamara Tunie’s testimony that measles was wiped out until you idiots stopped taking your shots says as much. Monica offers “I believe with all my heart God wouldn’t want me to do this”, clinching that she’s a damn fool. Another reason I like these seasons of SVU is that the writers really let the prosecutors grandstand to levels Jack McCoy would be proud of, such as when Monica says of doctors “their science is just another opinion.” Cabot fires back “your opinion killed a little girl.” OH NO SHE DIDN’T!!! The guy from NBA Jam really needs to be commentating these trials. She’s heating up! She’s on fire! Boomshakalaka! Regardless, Monica is found not guilty because the jury found her more sympathetic than Ashley. Speaking of, she sinks into tear-filled depression in the restroom. “How could I have been so selfish?” (More episodes need to drop the title in dialogue.) This period of self-reflection lasts literally 90 seconds, as next thing Ruth has convinced her to file a civil suit against Monica and throw a brick through her window. Her father goes one further by running into Monica’s house and blowing his brains out. His final words: “Now you’ve killed two people.” I’m always going to support an episode of SVU that kills off someone in the last minute, especially by suicide. It’s a brazenness I respect in these episodes, that the final minutes litter the place with corpses and refuse to provide you the viewer with any real closure.
Getting roasted in the New York Pos–I mean the New York Ledger is the SVU equivalent of being lampooned in MAD Magazine: it is an honor and a privilege.
Stabler takes center stage this episode because as stated before he’s the character most associated with parenthood and children. (Caveat: sometimes they give absent/bad parents to Benson because then she can angst about how her mother was a rape victim and an alcoholic, but more often than not kids are El’s territory.) The dripping subtext to most of the scenes is that he’s pissed off with the case because it involves someone parenting wrong; this becomes explicit when he confronts Ashley’s dad and the situation morphs into a dad off. Ashley’s dad is the Goofus of dads: overly permissive, drunk, pathetic, whereas Stabler represents Gallant, the one who gets angry at injustices against children and probably knows all of his kids’ names. Stabler is right about vaccinations not out of any scientific knowledge but because he’s a father. Unlike his childless colleagues, he knows children get sick and therefore everyone needs a vaccination. That barren bitch Olivia is all “hey, whatever, let everyone do what they want, I’m pro-choice so I probably want kids less than 12 months old to die”. All Stabler’s knowledge comes from being a dad. Okay, maybe 5% of it is from Catholicism. But the rest? The eternal wisdom transcribed throughout the generations by dads.
“Ladies and gentlemen of the juries: lookit the baby!!!!”
I liked this one. More episodes of SVU should take high profile murder cases in which the defendant is definitely guilty and then swerve and make the culprit something else, some other pressing societal concern. Imagine if that terrible Chris Brown/Rihanna episode pulled off a twist that all of faux Rihanna’s injuries stemmed not from faux Brown’s abuse but killer bees. Not only do mash-ups cover more ground, ground being “the breadth of society’s ills”, they’re less predictable. If this was a straight riff on Casey Anthony the jury would find her either guilty or not guilty and then maybe the actual killer would be one of her parents. Instead the writers have to wring out all sorts of new possibilities via the vaccination twist. For a show as long in the tooth as SVU this is vital.
His last word was “Measlesbud”…