Law & Ordocki Season 4 #3 (#34): Stuckey On Me
Remember last time out when I said CSU tech Dale Stuckey would become a serial killer? That’s this episode. I see no reason in hiding the twist; it’s one of the best attributes of the hour. Anybody familiar with SVU will invariably describe “Zebras” as “the one where the lab guy goes crazy”. This is the Season 10 finale and it’s fitting this is how it ends, because the season began with the introduction of the annoying little asshole; it’s up to the final hour to dismiss him with extreme prejudice. Along the way there’s also another serial killer, a guest appearance by a person near and dear to John Munch, and Mariska Hargitay gets to make out with someone.
Definitely not badly Photoshopped!
A guy killed a woman and wrote ‘guilty’ on her forehead. A woman’s infant is unharmed and branded “innocent”. This opening scene explains the title; Dale Stuckey wildly speculates on what happened to this woman and the wise detectives of SVU tell him that when one hears hoof beats, it’s better to think horses than zebras. “Maybe we are looking for a zebra,” Olivia says once they find the innocent baby. After all, a stranger rapist isn’t going to go to the lengths of passing judgment through forehead messages. That’s some Gotham City bullshit. Some photos the victim took prior to the murder suggest parks department workers were possible witnesses, though they turn out to be people working off community service hours. Their supervisor singles out Peter Harrison as an early departure, having cut himself in the course of work.
Nick Stahl (Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines) portrays Harrison as a pitch perfect conspiracy theorist and paranoid schizophrenic. When Benson and Stabler first knock on his door, he assumes they know about the satellite imaging and wiretapping the NYPD is doing to him. Silly Harrison, the NYPD only does that to Muslims. Stabler plays into the delusions by asking him if he’s invoking his right to cease-and-desist NYPD surveillance, and if so that requires filling out a form down at the precinct. Their folder containing the DD5 form is, amusingly enough, a menu for Big T’s Chicken Shack, as Peter discovers when his lawyer turns up to shut down the interrogation.
The NYPD often replaces relevant paperwork with takeout menus. It’s a real problem. You know what other problems NYPD has? Everything else.
Nonetheless, they have a warrant for his apartment, where they find five identical outfits yet six pairs of boots and a laptop full of conspiracy nonsense. Munch is as happy as a pig in shit rattling off the myriad conspiracies the website trafficks in: 9/11 Truthers, Bilderberg and so on. Add Persecute-U.com the laundry list of hilarious fake SVU websites and applications. In my experience these people don’t tend to believe in every conspiracy ever, so Harrison ranting about black helicopters landing in UN controlled space in Central Park rings false. Like, believing the NYPD is out to get you is enough; no need to overseason the crazy.
“Dave’s not here, man”
Stahl is really good playing the role of the paranoiac vagabond. Unfortunately, life has imitated art in that Nick Stahl is most recently known for being a drug addicted vagabond. His most recent project is The Murder of Nicole Brown Simpson, a vile conterfactual that posits she was REALLY murdered by a serial killer who may be influenced or possessed by the spirit of Charles Manson (despite Manson, uh, not being DEAD). It seems his career prospects have dried up to the point that he has no choice but to yoke himself to the scum industry. Fortunately for his fictional counterpart, CSU Stuckey royally botches the evidence when he catalogues separate crime scenes under the same number. The case is dismissed and Nick Stahl is free to go. Judge Donnelly has unkind words for him and Stuckey. “Take your meds, people!” Good advice. To Stuckey: “If this is your idea of doing a good job, you’re in the wrong line of work.”
Munch and Fin tail Nick Stahl in spite of the dismissal, following him to Coney Island. The sight of the two nonchalatantly boarding a haunted house ride is hilarious. They don’t catch up to him, but Stahl does slash another woman and label her “guilty”, and this time he’s left a bloody thumbprint that ought to provide more than enough evidence at a trial. They still have to catch him, though, and that’s when they revisit the Persecute-U site and find a chatroom that’s following Stahl like he’s a folk hero. I know for a fact SVU writers haven’t used a computer since 1993 so their depiction of chat rooms is predictably inaccurate. Munch recognizes one of the names in the chat room and sets up a meeting with her. Season 10 rarely gave Richard Belzer shit to do so relatively “Zebras” is a smorgasbord of Munch.
Separated at birth?
Homicide: Life on the Street fans will be overjoyed to see a rare continuity nod to Munch’s past as Carol Kane reprises her role as his ex-wife Gwen. Of course, this foreknowledge ruins the scene’s twist, but what can you do. He convinces her he’s on the side of the nutjobs, he presses her for information, they talk about old times, the tyranny of cell phone towers, and then there’s the ex-wife reveal to Ice-T. Previously Munch claimed he knows Gwen from a different website; “JFK assassination stuff. She has some great pictures of the grassy knoll that I’ve shared with her”. But now he coolly rebuffs a possible reconciliation with Gwen, despite her insistence she’s thinking of going back on her medication. “Sly dog, makin’ moves on loony lady” says Ice-T, the paragon of mental health sensitivity.
The filler text for Persecute-U is pretty amusing. My favorite is “’all blogs go to Heaven, unless you are gay’ – COMMIEMOMMIE”, though “Manifestival!” deserves mention.
As a season finale the episode has to increase the intensity. Therefore, the suggestion is that Nick Stahl is not only a paranoid schizophrenic with the knife skills to take down a mother of an infant, he’s in effect a Batman villain. His keen usage of a hydrogen sulfide trap lends credence to this interpretation. I’m serious. Stabler and Fin track him down to his basement hideout and he locks himself behind a door and pulls a lever that drops a barrel of poison near our detectives. I guess we’re playing fucking Double Dare now, eh? Everyone survives so the detectives move on and lean on Stahl’s lawyer. It pays dividends because she calls them when Nick Stahl shows up at her office. He’s apprehended but not before the lawyer dies via a boobytrapped car full of poison. Nick Stahl is immediately blamed for the attack, but why would he sabotage her car to kill her if he originally went to her office to talk to her? Had the conversation proved civil, would he have warned her not to start up her car unless she wanted to take a dirt nap?
“His crappy collages are a window into his madness!”
Stahl doesn’t help his case by screaming “DEATH TO ALL BETRAYERS!” as his lawyer dies, granted. Because of the outburst, Benson and Stabler assume traps will be laid out for other people who betrayed him, such as Munch’s ex-wife, his art teacher, and Judge Donnelly. Gwen is not happy to be in police custody, and her throwing a cup of water at John leads to Ice-T’s all time worst one-liner, “Cleanup on aisle three”. Olivia is wonderfully condescending, telling John “I feel sorry for her. For the nightmare she’s trapped in. [points to head] In here.” Never change, Mariska Hargitay. Never change!
Here’s how you know the show is running on fumes by the finale: the “star witness” of the case is a mosquito. O’Halloran, the competent tech guy, found a dead mosquito in the lawyer’s car with a stomach full of blood he reckons belongs to the killer. Occasionally SVU dives into CSI bullshit of getting a fingerprint off a reflection of a raindrop and it sucks. Get it? Sucks? Like a mosquito! Oh, my A material is wasted on you. While waiting on the blood results, Benson and Stabler give Judge Donnelly a visit, as they figure she’s on Nick Stahl’s hit list. Sure, he’s in custody, but he’s got the proportional strength of a paranoid-schizophrenic, who knows what he’s capable of. Hilariously, we’re supposed to believe he stuck a syringe on a chair cushion in her house. How the fuck could he manage that? Well, he couldn’t, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Stabler: “This is not a social call.” Donnelly: “Then this is highly improper. And a pity.” Wait, what? Does Judge Donnelly want to fuck Stabler? Hey, whatever, it’s the finale, go nuts. Donnelly wants to bone Stabler, Cragen trades places with a genie, who gives a shit anymore.
O’Halloran’s computer gives its signature beeping noise to signal completion, and just as he’s looking at the results someone stabs him in the chest. Because SVU has no faith in its audience, when Stabler comes to the lab, one monitor shows a blowup of a mosquito and another shows the blood results: Dale Stuckey. There wasn’t a file photo of him on the screen when O’Halloran bit it, but again, stupid viewers need the most hand holding. Stuckey gets the jump on Elliot and holds him hostage. I don’t like the turn of events because it retroactively makes Stabler right to continuously bully and demean Stuckey. Yes, Stuckey sucked, but his crime was being annoying. He didn’t really fuck up at his job until “Zebras”. You know, it becomes “oh well, it’s all right he treated the guy like shit because he was a budding serial killer unbenownst to everyone”. It’s like Stabler cut off a guy in traffic and he turned out to be a pedophile. It’s dirty pool in my opinion.
So yeah, Stuckey goes megalomaniacal supervillain pretty fucking fast, even calling himself the titular “Zebra”. Unless he’s going to go all out, wear some sort of striped fur he has no business calling himself the Zebra. Apparently Zebra killed the woman at Coney Island, killed the lawyer, killed O’Halloran and tried to kill Judge Donnelly. His plan is to execute Stabler too and, after wiping away the evidence, claim “one of [Nick Stahl’s] paranoid pals” did it. The way Stuckey slashes at Stabler’s chest, there’s a homoeroticism there. I’m not imagining that shit.
“You think I’m stupid, right?” Stuckey asks Stabler. Well, he proves that supposition once Benson shows up. She and Stabler adhere to the Riggs-Murtaugh Principle, which is that any seasoned detective pairing can improvise a situation and the other will understand immediately. She spins a yarn that Stuckey is really stupid for believing: let’s kill Stabler together and I’ll tell Cragen to make you my new partner. Liv imagines the headline: “’SVU Hero is killed in the line of duty’”. She slaps Elliot around a couple of times and tells Dale “if you knew half of what this prick has done…someone needs to take him out”, which is true, but having a triple murderer do it seems hypocritical. Sure, Stabler beats suspects half to death and wipes his ass with the Bill of Rights, but he didn’t stab a beloved-ish supporting character in the chest, now did he? Finally, Mariska Hargitay earns herself some hazard pay by kissing Noel Fisher to buy Stabler enough time to literally kick him in the ass. Then Liv uppercuts him and Dale is ready for Rikers. “What a way to end”, Elliot says in what is a final line loaded with meaning. I imagine it’s a direct quote from Richard “Dick” Wolfenstein himself. Add a couple of exclamation points maybe. Made of cocaine.
“It’s like kissing a lungfish,” Hargitay later remarked.
As foreshadowing for the eventual plot twist, “Zebras” lays on Dale Stuckey’s obnoxiousness and ineptitude thicker than usual. They really overdo it. In addition to his mistake – bigger than any of his in prior episodes – even his lines of exposition drip with idiocy. To his credit, Noel Fisher is really good at playing someone you want to punch in the face until there’s no longer a face. At one point, Stabler manhandles him, saying “you are an obnoxious little jackal”. When Stuckey tries to tattle to Cragen, Cragen has the great line ”if Elliot puts your head through a wall I’m gonna have to do a lot of tiresome paperwork”. When even the peaceable sea turtle finds you vexing, that is evidence the show wants you to hate the character. Then there’s the miscellaneous inanity, throwaway lines that nonetheless aggravate. For instnace, the squad finds out a baby is the sole witness to his mother’s murder. Stuckey stupidly observes “man, if only babies can talk, right?”. Fuck you, kid. We already had that, it was called Baby Bob, and it sucked.
True to form, I don’t think O’Halloran’s death is ever mentioned or acknowledged outside this episode. Look, it doesn’t matter if you appear on a recurring basis for 53 episodes or you’re a main character: once Dickory Wolf is done with you, you’re fucking done. How many times did the original mention George Dzundza after he got his brains splattered all over the morning paper? The Dick Wolf universe operates under a sort of solipsism, such that if you’re not on the show, you no longer exist. Maybe you’re lucky. Maybe you’re like Kathryn Erbe and your guest spot means you get to exist again. But most others don’t have the luxury. My theory explains the utter lack of consequence with “Zebras”; an NYPD lab tech going on a killing spree that includes another NYPD lab tech might be front page news…but not if it never happened. It’s a shame, because I think of the several characters created for the sole purpose of delivering exposition and explaining technological concepts to the superstitious and cowardly boomer audience, Mike Doyle’s O’Halloran was one of the more tolerable ones.
Director: “Mariska, do your best ‘DOYYYYY!!!’.”
Overall, Season 10 is paradoxically one of the strongest and weakest seasons of the show. Viewed through a critical lens it’s absolutely terrible: preachy, didactic, unrealistic, over the top, inconsistent with unlikable two dimensional characters on moral high horses. For those same reasons it’s a blast watching while in an ironic or inebriated mood or both. The “dude, you gotta see this” factor is high with Season 10. Plotlines included lead paint on Chinese toys causing a man to kill, the detectives running afoul of an AIDS denialist played by Martin Mull, a woman marrying her own rapist, and of course the infamous zoo animals on wheels episode. In fact, this might be the most SVU season of SVU; the only way it could be more characteristic is if one of the characters turned out to be a time traveling cyborg or a werecreature. Maybe Munch becomes Sherlock Holmes on the precinct holodeck. Whatever. “Zebras” by the metric of insanity is the perfect finale for this year of Special Victims Unit. I recommend it to everyone who wants to waste close to an hour on a former John Connor speak about “operatives”.