I always worry when there is too much hype over any episode of Law & Order SVU, being burned many times by those who over-promise and then under-deliver. But not this time. “Pursuit” was an excellent episode with an interesting case, a solid and well written story, and a death that may have shocked some. (Some of you who were following the sneak peeks I’ve posted here. and showrunner Neal Bear’s Twitter feed, were able to figure out who died without even watching the episode.) This episode featured guest star Debra Messing, playing Alicia Harding, the host of a TV show who traps and exposes predators. She also had a sister who was murdered years back. Christine Lahti, playing Sonya Paxton, the prosecutor some of you love to hate, worked the case, but it had gone cold long ago. When Harding appears to have a stalker, the SVU team works to identify him. In the process they stumble into several murders and now believe the stalker is also a serial killer. Things take a tragic turn when Harding taunts the stalker/killer on national TV, and in retaliation, Sonya Paxton is later found brutally murdered in the rest room of a church hall, where she had been attending an AA meeting. Some viewers disliked Paxton, but I always thought Christine Lahti injected a spark into every episode in which she appeared. She made the perfect retort to Benson’s comment that Harding should not be digging into her sister’s murder. Sonya was right - Benson carried the baggage of her mother’s rape for a long time, and Benson should be showing more understanding toward Harding and Paxton and their own desire to find the answers to an old, and cold, case. It was easy to see, though, that Paxton regretted her own bluntness. We also find that Sonya’s alcoholism stems from a promise she made to find Harding's sister's killer and her inability to close that case.
There was a lot of excitement about the previewed embrace between Stabler and Benson, but to paraphrase a Freudian concept, sometimes a hug is just a hug. I’m not an Olivia/Elliot “shipper” so I read Stabler’s embrace of Benson as more of a consoling, supporting, and reassuring hug to a very close, beloved friend. I know many people want that hug to mean much more between those two, but I’m fine with them being two adults who love each other as very close friends.
There was only one scene that seemed questionable; it was when Benson went alone to the apartment of Donny Spencer, who was a suspect in Harding's stalking. I could understand any detective going alone to question someone if they were going to a place where other people were around, but not to someone’s apartment. I never really pay attention to how many times the detectives go to question someone alone, but it seems that they usually go in pairs if they think that they have a viable suspect.
Despite the very tense nature of the episode, it wasn’t without some light spots, like Fin, talking about Benson, telling Stabler, “I actually watch her back and not her backside” and Harding telling Benson “Has anyone ever told you you’re a manipulative bitch?” That actually made me laugh, seeing that I've long ago lost count of the number of times Benson has been called a bitch. At least they found a slightly nicer way of doing it this week.
My guess is that they should just box up the whole episode and send it to the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for their consideration for an Emmy.
Here is the recap:
A young girl lets an older man into the apartment. It is clear his intentions are not innocent. But it’s a set up. Alicia Harding (Debra Messing), host of “Neighborhood Predator” is there waiting and cameras have captured the man’s lecherous behavior. Detectives Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay), Odafin Tutuola (Ice-T) and Sonya Paxton (Christine Lahti) also monitor the activity from another room. Harding confronts the man as SVU readies to move in. He tries to flee and SVU moves in, but before they get in the room, Harding subdues the man with a taser.
Later, Fin demands that Harding turn over the taser but the police have already taken it and Harding senses Fin does not like her. A package arrives for Harding and when she gets blood on her hands from it, Benson opens it to find a bloody scarf, which Harding identifies as her lucky scarf which was last seen on her bed that morning. Benson declares that Harding has a stalker.
At SVU, Benson and Paxton speak to Harding about the possible stalker but Harding seems unruffled, despite receiving other threats. Harding is still working on leads from the abduction of Harding's 13 year old sister Vanessa who went missing 25 years ago. The scarf that was delivered in the box was Vanessa's. The abduction was Paxton’s case and it is still open. They ask Harding about her sex life, whether she’s fired anyone recently, but Benson thinks it is someone Harding knows and trusts and wonders how the person could have access to her private email. Harding does not know and Benson offers to find out.
Outside the room, Fin tells Captain Don Cragen (Dann Florek) that the lab is still working on the scarf, the blood is human and no more than 2 days old. Cragen thinks that Harding doesn’t report the news, she makes it. Benson does not think Harding used the scarf of her dead sister for a hoax. They also believe the stalker impersonated a cop to deliver the package. Cragen says he forwarded the threatening emails to Stabler to work on while he is off training at Quantico. He tells Fin and Benson that in order to find out how the person got into Harding’s house to go there with CSU.
At Harding’s apartment, CSU found the perp’s panties soaking in the sink, in chlorine. No signs of forced entry and there are no security cameras. They see a wall full of photos of her sister and book with DD5s, lab reports, and crime scene photos from Vanessa’s case, and wonder how she got all this information. They wonder, as Paxton has been close to Harding and the case, if she handed the files over to Harding. They wonder if the Feds may have someone who matches the perp’s profile.
Back at SVU, Benson speaks to Stabler via a live feed. He looked through Harding’s emails as did the behavioral guys at Quantico. They think this is the worst kind of stalker, he’s smart, he resourceful and experienced. They think he was set off because Harding is a high profile target and while she hunts down predators she’s never met one. They think he is a hard core predator and will show himself soon, and if he can’t get Harding he will go for someone else soon. Stabler tells her to make sure it is not her. Fin approaches and Stabler says that Fin may have her six but “he’s definitely is not me.” Fin retorts “I’m better. I actually watch her back and not her backside. See ya” and he shuts off the monitor. He then shows Benson crowd shots from a neighborhood predator sting, and one face keeps sticking out – an IT engineer names Scott Laskie who got caught in a Brooklyn net last year. Fin had him picked up and he is in interrogation.
In interrogation, Laskie (Scott Parkinson) invokes and is hostile about Benson’s questions. He denies involvement with Harding, calls Benson “peaches” and tells her to try again when his lawyer gets there. Later, Benson talks with Cragen and Paxton about Laskie and they wonder why the Brooklyn charges were dropped against Laskie. Fin shows them video of the sting, and is seems Laskie is more concerned of the young girl’s age and that she is alone, and he tells her to call the police, and she can’t send men emails saying she will get naked and they can touch her. Neighborhood Predator aired an edited version which makes Laskie out to be a pervert. Despite the doctored footage, Paxton still thinks they guy arrived there with bad intentions. They wonder who else Harding framed.
Later, Laskie is there with his attorney Hashi Horowitz (Joe Grifasi) as Benson and Paxton enter the room. When it is clear they have no evidence, Hashi says they are leaving but Laskie won’t go unless they promise to leave him alone. It seems Laskie had called the police about the girl from the sting but they didn’t respond. Laskie says he worries about his kid on the internet and when he saw that site, he was concerned about what the other men were saying. He didn’t want to stick his neck out but wondered what if it was his kid? He admits to hacking into the server to get her address and Horowitz says the questioning is over unless they read him his rights or decline to file. Paxton says she doesn’t want the paperwork and to tell his client to obey the law from now on. But Laskie says the law wasn’t going to protect the girl – he went there only after he went to a precinct and handed the chat logs to a desk sergeant who called him a kook.
Later, Benson and Paxton review this with Cragen. Fin is talking to the 7-2 precinct where Laskie tried to first make the report. Paxton wonders if they are blaming Harding for this and she gets defensive of Harding and reminds them Harding is the victim. Benson tells Paxton she may be too close to judge. Paxton says many things have changed since the sister’s murder occurred. She tells Benson if she thinks she held Harding’s hand too long, or gave her too much information, that’s tough. Benson says she should not be digging into her sister’s murder and it’s not healthy. Paxton retorts, “And how long did you search for the man who… raped your mother?” Both Cragen and Benson get mildly shocked looks on their faces, and Paxton looks down. Fin walks in and says that Laskie’s story was corroborated by the sergeant but they arrested him anyway based on the tape. Benson is still glaring at Paxton, who looks uncomfortable. Cragen tells Fin to void the arrest and then go shake Alicia Harding’s tree. Benson leaves, clearly pissed.
At the offices of Neighborhood Predator, Harding’s assistant Rachel (Ashlie Atkinson) tells Harding that she changed Harding’s locks, and Benson tells her no one else gets copies of those keys. After Rachel leaves, Benson asks Harding who else has her keys and when Harding mentions much of her staff, Benson asks for names. Benson asks her how many people she railroaded and Harding admits some mistakes were made but there were no others. Harding explains that the night Laskie showed up more men kept coming. The cops brought them in before she could interview them. She says she did not doctor the footage and a producer did it and she did not know. She fired him 6 months ago and has since rechecked all the footage. Donny Spencer was the producer and Harding tells her to get the address from Rachel.
At Spencer’s apartment, Benson asks him about Harding and he says Harding altered the interview and now she is sandbagging him, saying the bitch has to be stopped. He denies stalking her and when he complains Benson is in his face over a couple emails, she tells him she never mentioned emails.
Later, at SVU with Spencer in cuffs, Benson tells Cragen to tell Harding she found her stalker, Spencer confessed in the car that he sent the emails. Cragen isn't so sure, he tells her that Harding brought in another email with an attached photo that looked authentic so they had it processed - it was of a body dump of a young girl.
Fin shows Benson, Cragen, Paxton, and Stabler (via live feed) the photos of the location of where the body is dumped. The source was from an internet café and the person paid cash and there are no surveillance cameras. Stabler says the picture is real and is similar to a dump in Maryland. Harding walks in and Stabler wonders if they should be talking about it in front of a civilian. Paxton says Harding needs to know what she is up against. Stabler says that the perp is a sociopath and she deals with teachers diddling their students. Harding asks if knowing the dead girl’s location earn her a seat at the table? She tells them the location is the photo is the last place her sister was seen alive and says she interviewed a woman who saw Vanessa in that park. It was one of the thousands of calls into the tip line that the cops couldn’t get to. Paxton wonders why Harding didn’t call her about it, and Harding is upset, saying it is a cold case and she’s the only one working it. Paxton says she’s also been chasing the bastard. Harding says the man is stalking her but Benson says it is not the same guy, this guy is fixated on her not her sister. Stabler says the analysts there says the guys is in his early 30s to mid 40s which makes the guy too young to have killed Vanessa. But Harding cites other big cases where this was not the case and his analysts don’t know dick. Cragen asks her where is the park, and when she says she can show them, he says that is not gonna happen. She says good luck finding the body without her. They either take her with them or follow her there.
They arrive at the location with Harding and Paxton and as Fin and Benson search the area, Fin finds the body and calls out. Paxton says she will call the Staten Island DA to tell them they are here. But then they find two more bodies of young girls.
Later in the morgue with Benson and Paxton, ME Warner (Tamara Tunie) is reviewing the bodies of 5 young white females found at the dump site, possibly dumped over 3 months to 2 years ago. She is looking for stab wounds, and has a 6th Jane Doe which died 3 days ago from three stab wounds. Paxton says the wound pattern matches Vanessa’s. The stab wound on the recent body shows she was paralyzed from the first stab wound. The girl was repeatedly raped but no fluids. Warner says the stab wounds were precise, and Benson thinks the person has police or forensics or medical knowledge. Paxton says unless he makes a mistake they won’t get close. Paxton walks out and Benson follows her and Paxton says she will not stop until she gets him. She said she made a deathbed promise to Harding’s mom before she died that she would catch the guy. She admits she let herself get too close and knew she was in trouble when she started drinking just to face them. Now she is sober and she has another chance, the case is not cold now and thinks Harding is right, it is the same killer. Benson asks what was the last lead Harding followed, and Paxton says 3 months ago Harding appealed to the public for the whereabouts of the kid who found Vanessa’s clothes for an interview. His name was not in the file. Benson wonders if the person may have been a volunteer helping the police on the initial search party, Benson suggests they get those sign in sheets – maybe one of them was the eager killer. If they compare the sign in sheets to the witness list, they may find the killer. Paxton says if the prick is in there, “he’s mine. “
Back at SVU, Benson and Fin work the lists. Cragen wonders why, if this other guy is stalking her why Donny Spencer confessed. Spencer did send a threatening email – a message saying he is watching her with photos taken from a distance. She got another message with photos taken at a closer range. The killer found out about the threat when he got access to Harding’s email and then he slipped into her house to check her murder book. The body dump may be misdirection – murder trumps stalking. Benson thinks if they focus on Harding they will find the killer, and suspects he got her personal information from someone on the show. Cragen wonders if he works there but Fin says employee backgrounds all check out. Benson thinks it is an outsider with access. Cragen tells them to check the security log and every male visitor they find.
At Harding’s office, Benson and Fin speak with Rachel and find that Harding taped a message the night before to the guy stalking her. They play the video back, and see footage of the crime scene people working on the area where all the bodies were located. Harding says the man murdered the girls the same way her sister was killed. She says she knows the man is watching her and calls him a deviant suffering from erectile dysfunction so severe he has to rape with a knife. She says state prosecutor Sonya Paxton believes he should be put away for life, but Harding thinks he’s not worth it and he should be put down like a rabid dog. Benson is worried that Harding is setting herself up as bait. Fin calls her a dumbass who belongs in jail for leaking 6 open homicides. Rachel tells them it will air in about an hour and Benson hopes Cragen can get the network to hold it.
Back at SVU, the network won’t stop airing the footage and Cragen tells Benson and Fin that the Chief of Ds is on the way and they have a new task force. Fin says they are putting a show on for the public, and Cragen says that’s what happens when a news feed goes national. Cragen asks them how Harding managed to record all of the details of the crime scene, and Benson says she took her cell phone but Fin says she did not take Paxton’s. Cragen tells them to find Paxton and he will handle it from there.
Fin and Benson arrive at Harding’s apartment and they chastise her. It was her idea to bait him. Harding says she had a back up phone, and adds that Paxton wanted a drink but she went to a meeting instead and Paxton is not happy with her either. Fin asks her where the AA meeting is being held.
At Saint Avila Church, Benson and Fin arrive and she isn’t in the group but her car is outside. Benson goes to check the ladies room and sees a broken mirror and then is horrified to see Paxton on the floor, bleeding from her neck. She yells for Fin, who calls for a bus and a BOLO for someone in the area with bloody clothes. Benson attempts to tend to Paxton, and Paxton whispers it will be OK, she got him. She dies and Benson is clearly shaken.
Later, with Warner and crime scene people on the scene, Benson tells Warner the place was trashed and thinks Paxton fought back hard but she says he got him. Her cell phone is broken in the sink, and Benson thinks Paxton went down swinging. Benson thinks Paxton knew she was going to die so she went for DNA and bit her attacker. Warner opens Paxton’s mouth and finds a hair in her throat and will swab her mouth for DNA and check her stomach for his blood.
As Benson leaves the room, she sees Stabler approach and he runs to her. She says “I’m really glad you’re back” and as they console each other with a long embrace, he says, “I should have come back sooner.” She says she is fine, and he says, “Like hell you are.” She asks him if he checked the security logs from Harding’s office. He checked on every male who signed in the last 6 months and one name rang a bell, David Adams, but he doesn’t exist. He’s been coming to see Rachel, Harding’s assistant.
At SVU, Benson and Stabler speak with Rachel who says David is a good guy and she has been seeing him for months. She admits she did not sign him in all the time. She seems clueless that he was likely conning her, and Stabler says only David can straighten this out, and he asks where they can find him. She says she will fax them his address and says he does not have a phone. He calls her and checks in every day. As Benson and Stabler leave the room, Benson wonders if Rachel will call him. Stabler comments that Rachel is in love with the sick bastard, what does she think?
Later, Fin tells them he set up a trace of Harding’s office lines and on Rachel’s cell. They see she calling out to a burn phone, and they get an address.
Benson and Stabler wait in the car, watching Harding’s home. They radio in to tell someone to send Harding out. They think the killer is rattled enough to make another mistake. They get out of the car and see a man rounding the corner and walking behind Harding. She turns around and glares at him, and then lunges at him. She starts to flail at him and he restrains her, and she yells at the detectives to shoot him. As Stabler pulls a gun, the attacker pulls out a knife and holds it at Harding. Benson is also there with a taser. Benson gets a shot and tasers him and Harding breaks free. He drops to the ground moaning.
Back at SVU, the man is indentified as Adam Grafton (Christian Hoff), a physicians assistant. He lived 8 blocks away from the Harding’s and he spent 5 years in Lorton for rape an aggravated assault. The victim was a prostitute, and Benson suspects the other bodies were also working girls. Stabler thinks Grafton won’t talk to them, and Benson wonders if he will talk to someone else.
At Harding’s apartment, she appears to be packing to move. She says she can’t stay there as he was in her bed, touching himself. Benson tells her to make sure she burns the mattress. Harding says the killer is caught and there is nothing left to do, but Benson reminds her they still have to identify the other victims. Harding says they have their work cut out for them, and says she doesn't have the stomach for it anymore. She is upset over Grafton’s light sentence while his victims rot. Benson begs for her help, but Harding refuses. Benson says at least Harding has closure, the other victims don’t. Harding says she will not have closure until she gets Vanessa’s remains home and he likely won’t tell her where she is. Benson reminds her of the families with missing daughters, and asks if she forgot what this feels like. Harding laughs, and says, “Has anyone ever told you you’re a manipulative bitch?” Benson stares at her but does not respond.
At the Rikers interview room, Benson and Harding speak with Grafton who says he has nothing to say. Harding says she can do the news segment without him, but he says she is there to find out about her sister. Harding coldly glares at him and says her sister is dead and he killed her, Benson adding that he planted the clothes so he could find them later. He says that does not mean he killed her. He says maybe Vanessa just ran away. Harding says she is not interested, she wants to hear about the six women he dumped in the field and asks where did he meet them. Benson brings out a recorder and sets it on the table. He comments that Harding usually works with a camera crew. She says after she hears what he has to say, and then check her facts, and adds that he needs a shave. He laughs and asks if this is real, and then says he will give them names, dates, and location and then Harding should tell his story. Benson adds if he cooperates and tells them the truth. He says this could take a while – there is one for each year he has been living. He took them in clumps, some years he did not hunt at all. Benson asks if he killed 43 women, and he says 44, if you count the lawyer. He says the meat sack was asking for it. Benson says it was because she beat him, and says Sonya Paxton is the reason he is going to death row. He retorts that he will die of old age first. He said the only reason he did her was because Harding told lies, and she had to pay. Harding calmly asks him to start with the names of his New York victims and then move on to his Maryland dumping ground. He comments – so you know about that? She says she’d like to know more – whenever he is ready. He smiles, and says it was mostly girls, runaways, a couple he snatched. None of them put up much of a fight. He asks if she wants him to go in order, list them from front to last, and the says her name was Annie Pruitt..and as he goes on, Harding sits with a numb look on her face as we fade to black.
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