‘In the End, We’re All Just Passing Through’

On the ‘Law & Order: SVU’ season finale.

Law & Order: SVU finished up its seventeenth season with a series rarity: the death of one of their own. Other than the late ADA Sonya Paxton (murdered in Season 12, Episode 17) and CSU forensics tech Ryan O’Halloran (murdered in Season 10, Episode 22), the show has seldom written off a character by way of death. One of the program’s greatest charms is its ability to bring back cast members long after their departure, even if only for a single episode guest appearance, by simply having them transfer units, move to the West coast, temporarily go into Witness Protection, get censured from the bar, arrested for murder, or even just retire, among many other non-fatal exits.

A master of artistic exit strategies, showrunner Warren Leight “ran” and co-wrote the season closer, “Heartfelt Passages,” which was his final episode with the series. Leight is the man who took command beginning in Season 13 after the sudden departure of Christopher Meloni (Elliot Stabler, the partner of Olivia Benson), a risky endeavor which more than paid off. He managed to revamp the program yet maintain its integrity, surpassing his initial hope to just “survive the transition and make a compelling case for why people should continue to watch the show and come back to the show.” He was smart in his planning, bringing back two of the original and most beloved ADAs, Alexandra Cabot and Casey Novak, played by Stephanie March and Diane Neal, respectively. The duo took turns trying cases for the first Meloni-less season, a lovely balm of a beginning for “SVU 2.0.”

Hargitay and Leight on the set of the ‘Law & Order: SVU’ season 17 finale. Image Credit: Mariska Hargitay, Twitter.

It’s because of Leight’s track record that viewers knew that the finale would be high caliber; however, people were still shocked with the shooting of and subsequent hospital and funeral scenes for the newest squad member, Sergeant Mike Dodds (portrayed by Andy Karl). Despite the fact that the squad has been through an unusually high amount of cumulative traumatic events, SVU has always prided itself on realism, with beautifully flawed characters and “ripped from the headlines” cases. This sought after realism is what genuinely caught fans of the program off guard. In the season’s penultimate episode, “Intersecting Lives,” viewers (and the squad) learn that Dodds will be switching to the Joint Terrorism Task Force, which Detective Fin Tutuola remarks is where “you can get yourself killed.” Everybody knew that the kind sergeant’s time in SVU was only temporary, a stepping-stone in his career with the force, so this guaranteed departure allowed people to let their guard down, priming us for the true blow. The beauty, I later realized, was in the fact that it was realistic to be this jarred by a death. Dodds didn’t just get shot and die; we thought he was going to live. Despite appearing to be “out of the woods” he suffered a stroke, was put on a ventilator, and ultimately wound up dying.

Every painful minute of this episode was pure art. Mariska Hargitay’s performance made me wonder (as it often does), how she only has one Emmy. After an emotionally hard-hitting scene between she and Peter Gallagher, who plays the father of the deceased, Deputy Chief Dodds, she delivers one of the most heartbreaking moments of the series, simply with actions.

As Benson comes down the too-white, pristine hallway of the ICU, the members of her family—Amanda Rollins, Sonny Carisi, Fin Tutuola, and Ed Tucker—look to her for some indicator as to the fate of their sergeant. Any background music, or noise in general, that might have helped shoulder some of the weight for Benson fades out into an almost sickly silence, suspending the moment until she manages to shake her head, too torn up for anything else. It’s a domino effect as each person registers the action, grief hitting them in various waves, which reflects on yet another highlight of the Law & Order universe: the franchise’s accurate depiction of how its characters “deal.”

Any background music, or noise in general, that might have helped shoulder some of the weight for Benson fades out into an almost sickly silence, suspending the moment until she manages to shake her head, too torn up for anything else.

After Dodds’s death, ADA Rafael Barba comments that “in the end, we’re all just passing through,” before asking about Benson, who’s visiting her therapist and struggling to voice some of her thoughts and feelings of guilt. At first, she just feels culpable for Dodds’s murder, and gets stuck in the abyss of “if only”s. She tries to rationalize that if it had been her handling the suspect—“I have more experience”—then maybe she could’ve gotten everyone out alive. Dr. Lindstrom, the therapist, points out the irrationality in her argument before getting to the heart of the matter: Benson’s guilt “for feeling relieved that [she] survived.”

Captain Ed Tucker (played by Robert John Burke) and Lieutenant Olivia Benson (played by Mariska Hargitay) with Noah Benson (played by Jack Nawada-Braunwart) in the Season 17 finale. Image Credit: NBC/Michael Parmalee.

The final scene of the season opens with Benson (Hargitay) walking alongside her boyfriend, Captain Ed Tucker (Robert John Burke), with her son, Noah, between them, each clasping one of his small hands. The scene, a private, plainclothes outing on some nondescript pier, is a slight shift in the usual tone and setting of an SVU finale. While walking, the once guarded and cynical Tucker announces that he’s planning to transfer from Internal Affairs to Hostage Negotiation, citing his change of heart in his newfound trust in Olivia.

Tucker gets down on one knee, and it almost seems like he’s going to propose, but instead reaches for Noah and tickles him, before commenting, “We have a good thing going, the three of us.” He then suggests that the family take a trip to Paris together, in light of everything that had happened over the past few days (the past year, really). This was the ultimate romantic gesture, the “proposal” that Benson deserves. Paris holds so much significance for Olivia. In Season 13, Benson briefly dates Executive Assistant District Attorney David Haden (Harry Connick Jr.). At one point Haden and Benson discuss places they wish to visit (hers is Paris), and later on when she declines his invitation to dinner, he remarks, “Don’t wait too long to see Paris.” She’s finally getting her Paris.

The death, funeral, and accompanying final scenes were raw and epic examples of elegant storytelling. Despite the “heinous” nature of SVU’s crimes, the show has sustained its status as a true class act for seventeen years, and (in my opinion) will continue to do so for the duration of its run.