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Law & Order SVU “Totem” featured two powerful guest stars – Jeremy Irons and Elizabeth Mitchell – who made this gripping, heart-wrenching story come to life. The case begins with a missing girl who is found dead, and it leads to a story of an abusive mother who has traumatized both her daughters. It seems at first that Elizabeth Mitchell’s very troubled character, June Frye, is the one guilty of the abuse and murder of the little girl, but as the detectives dig further into the case, they discover June is a victim herself. Mitchell, as always, does a superb job conveying the emotions of her character's anguish over the death of one of her beloved students, her horror of being accused of the crime she knows she did not commit, and her decades-long inner torment from an abusive mother. I found myself wondering how draining that performance must have been for Mitchell because her emotions seemed incredibly real - and I felt emotionally drained myself just watching. It was certainly an Emmy-worthy performance; maybe the Academy should just start engraving her name on that award right now.
Jeremy Irons returns as psychiatrist Cap Jackson, and it’s his unconventional perspective on the case that helps point the detectives in the right direction. Jeremy has one of those voices that can be commanding yet incredible soothing at times. This comes in handy when Cap has to use his smooth talking talents to not only get access inside June’s home, but also to get her to open up to her. I would really love to see Jeremy more on SVU in this role; he has amazing presence and the character Cap Jackson seems to be a nice fit with the SVU team.
The intensity of the episode kept my interest all the way through, and I must admit that I did not see until near the end that it was June’s half sister, not her creepy, abusive mother, who was the killer.
With Munch (Richard Belzer) conspicuously absent again, it seems that Stabler is now getting all the “dry wit” lines, such as “Welcome to the perv parade that leads to nowhere.” But thankfully, the episode steered clear of humor – it would have felt out of place in this intense episode, which is one of SVU’s best of the season. (Kudos to the writers, producers, and casting, who delivered a perfectly executed story.)
Here is the recap:
Two young girls stumble on a duffel bag left in the street outside a church and find a body inside. Later, Detectives Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and Odafin Tutuola (Ice-T), along with ME Warner (Tamara Tunie) are at the scene. They ID the body as Marnie Foster, a girl who had been reported missing. As the girl’s mother Susan (Heidi Armbruster) cries in grief, Fin consoles her.
Later, Benson talks to the press to tell them the girl is dead and they are investigating the homicide and she asks people to call SVU if they have any information. Detective Elliot Stabler (Chris Meloni) approaches Benson and Fin, and tells them the park across the street has a video of the church and they sent him the video. The view of who left the duffel bag is blocked by a truck. Benson tells Stabler that Warner called and wants to meet them, along with Huang, at the morgue.
At the morgue, Benson and Stabler are told by Warner that Marnie was raped, and it seems as if it was done by a foreign object. Marnie was suffocated. When Benson asks with what, Dr. Cap Jackson (Jeremy Irons) walks in and responds that it was with a pillow. The detectives seem shocked to see him. Jackson says that he is filling in for Huang, who gave him some work when his clinic folded. Cap said the person who left Marnie wanted to make sure she was comfortable; she was wrapped in silk sheets. There was also a doll left with the body that looks like Marnie. Warner said she sent DNA found on the doll to the lab, and she also found evidence of sleeping pills in her stomach. They decide to check out the usual suspects. As the detectives leave, Stabler tells Cap they may need his help, but Benson is a little concerned as Cap has never done this before. Stabler says he has a feeling Cap will bring something to the table.
The detectives check with the usual group of offenders, and Cap is surprised they are letting them all go. Stabler says they all have alibis, and tells Cap “Welcome to the perv parade that leads to nowhere.” The name of the doll found with Marnie is Perfect Penny and it hasn’t been on the store shelves in over 20 years. Marnie’s dad is on his way home and they decide to "welcome" him.
Fin and Benson arrive at the Foster home and see a man arguing with Susan Foster and they come to her aid when he shoves her to the ground. The man races off but Fin catches up with him and he takes a swipe at Fin. He then tells Fin his name is Chet Hadler (Doug Wert).
In SVU interrogation, Chet tells Fin that Susan is his girlfriend and she was going to leave her husband and bring Marnie to live with him. He says he never touched Marnie. With Benson, Susan says that is true, and said she told her husband about it and stopped seeing Chet months ago but Chet won’t take no for an answer. Benson tells her Chet has a police record. Fin, meanwhile, reminds Chet of his arrest for touching the daughter of another girlfriend and the girl said he wanted a threesome. When Benson tells this to Susan, she also tells Susan that they know Susan lied about being at work, her boss told them she left after lunch. Susan admits she and Chet were at the Amsterdam hotel, in bed.
Afterwards, Benson and Stabler comment that Fin talked with Marnie’s grief stricken father then discuss the case with Cap. Cap thinks based on how the body was left that the killer may be a woman. The doll was left there, and the body left at the church, to make her feel safe. The detectives find this all hard to believe, but Cap feels confident the killer is a woman.
Later, Benson brings Cap some coffee and he thanks her for the flowers they sent to his daughter’s funeral. She asks about his clinic but he says his peers think he is a charlatan and he violated patient confidentiality. Benson asks if he is sure he is up for this, and he thinks Benson does not believe a woman could have killed. Benson expresses her concerns. Cap says he met two woman who abused and killed their victims and they were later diagnosed as sociopaths. He thinks this killer is different, she showed tenderness, and he thinks she may have been abused herself, and the clue to her psyche is Perfect Penny. He thinks it is a totem for the innocence she felt her abuser stole from her. Benson says they need to talk to every woman in Marnie’s life
At the Foster residence, Benson speaks to the housekeeper who said Marnie had piano lessons that day. Benson then speaks to the piano teacher June Frye (Elizabeth Mitchell) who says Marnie had lessons every Monday for almost 2 years but Susan called and cancelled the last appointment. June says her parents died in a car accident when she was 17 and she hasn’t changed anything in the house since. June, clearly grieving, shows Benson a photo of Marnie at piano practice.
Meanwhile, the detectives and Cap question Marnie's teachers, there seem to be no problems with Marnie and the teachers have alibis. The decide to check out Marnie’s funeral as the person may be mourning her more than anyone else.
Stabler and Cap exit the church after the service while Benson and Fin case the crowd outside and they see nothing unusual. But Benson then spots a woman running through the crowd, and she stops her. It’s June, and June is overwhelmed with grief. June runs off and Benson thinks she is more than the piano teacher.
At SVU, Stabler tells Fin and Cap that June has no record and she teaches piano at the brownstone she inherited from her parents – and Fin adds it is right around the corner from the church where Marnie’s body was found. Cap says June said Marnie’s mother called to cancel her appointment, but Benson chimes and said Marnie's mother said that is a crock – June called her to cancel the appointment. June also blew off a group of students between 3:30 and 4:00. But Marnie never got the message to cancel. Stabler wonders if June’s brownstone is the crime scene and thinks they should get a warrant, but Cap thinks they should just ask her, he thinks she may already know they are on to her.
At June’s brownstone, Benson, Stabler, and Cap arrive and they can hear piano music coming from inside. June answers the door and when Benson asks for her help, she says she can’t and tells them not to come there again. Cap asks if she was playing the Etude #3 and says she makes it sound so easy. He slides his way in, and when he asks for help, she said it is too painful to talk about. He says it may help them find who took her from them, and she lets them in. Once inside, he compliments her on the house and then asks for a cup of tea. Stabler asks to use the bathroom and she points him downstairs. When she walks off to make tea, Stabler tells Cap he is a smooth talker. Stabler tells Cap they can look at anything in plain sight. Based on what they see, it appears time stopped in the house 30 years ago and Cap thinks something happened there that brought June’s life to a screeching halt. Cap sees a lock of hair on some piano music and Stabler picks it up with his gloved hand. It looks like doll hair. Benson warns them that June is returning and Cap and Stabler head downstairs. They see a pillow that looks like the one tucked under Marnie's head and they smell bleach. They decide to check the garbage.
Meanwhile, upstairs, Benson listens to June play the piano while Stabler and Cap search the trash outside. They see a suitcase that matches the set in which Marnie’s body was found. Inside is a wooden spoon. We hear a muffled thud, and then Benson’s voice on the police radio asking for a bus at that address for a cardiac arrest. Cap and Stabler race inside to find Benson standing over June, who is lying unconscious on the floor. Cap tries CPR and Benson finds and empty bottle of pills – the same drugs given to Marnie. Benson said June told her to tell Marnie’s parents she is sorry.
In Mercy hospital, June wakes up to find Benson and Cap there. They tell her what they found, and Cap mentions the wooden spoon and the sleeping pills and the hair that matches the doll. Cap tries to talk her into telling them why she said she was sorry. She says she will die before she talks about Marnie.
Back at SVU, Fin says the lab swabbed the suitcase and the wooden spoon and came back with zip. The bleach June used destroyed DNA. Marnie's fingerprints were at June’s but so were those of many others. They look to Cap to sweet talk June into talking.
Cap walks into the children’s interrogation room with the doll and he questions June about why she tried to end her life. He tells her he is a psychiatrist. She says she does not deserve to live. She talks about her piano playing and that she was an only child. She talks about her mother, and June looks over to the doll, saying her mother called her a princess. She said he father gave her the doll, and June doesn’t want to talk about him. He hands her the doll and she becomes upset, saying he doesn’t know anything about the way she feels. She says maybe she should ask for a lawyer. He asks why she needs a lawyer, they hear a knock on the glass, and June is upset that someone is watching them.
When Cap walks out of the room, Stabler explains that Cap can’t say she doesn't need a lawyer. He says he is a psychiatrist not a cop, but Benson tells him that he is an agent for the police and anything he asks her after he said she does not need a lawyer is illegally obtained. He asks if she can change her mind – legally. When Stabler says yes, he goes back in and tells her that he has to stop. But she seems worried that he has to go, and she asks if she says she does not need a lawyer can he say? He says yes, and she says she does not want a lawyer. She does not want them watching her, and he directs her over to another area in the room.
He tells her about his daughter and that she hated him for 20 years. He explains that she was attacked by someone who worked for him and she died. He tells her about his previous addiction to sex and alcohol and that for years he thought he had harmed her. He said he understands how she feels. She tells him when she was 7 her dad came into her room at bedtime and told her how special she was and he wanted to give her a present. He gave her the doll, and he said the doll reminded him of her because she was his perfect little doll. Cap asks if he got into bed with her and said she knew it was wrong but they could not tell anyone because no one would understand. Cap brings out the picture of Marnie, saying June had to give her the doll to keep her safe. June says this was not supposed to happen, and as June becomes more upset, she asks why Marnie had to come to the house, she told her mother that she was not to come, and that she would be find had she not come to the house. June asked her if she wanted a glass of milk and she put the pills in the milk and she gave it to her and she sat down at the piano and Marnie started to drift off. Cap mentions the wooden spoon and she said that is when Marnie cried and said she was going to tell her mother. She knew she could not let her wake up. She said she got the pillow and she sheets and put the doll in there so she would not be alone. Cap mentions she left Marnie where got could find her. June, sobbing, repeatedly says she is sorry.
While June is still in the room, resting next to the doll, Fin tells the detectives and Cap that he called the ADA to say they got the confession and was told to get June into the system ASAP. Cap is concerned she would be sent to jail, and Stabler said they will put her on suicide watch. But they hear June say “dear lord” and see her kneeling and praying for forgiveness, and asking to comfort Marnie's soul and all of those that needed her comfort and protection that she could not give them. Benson wonders about the “all of those” part and Cap wonders if something triggered a memory. Stabler wonders if there are more victims. He says they should interview her other students.
Later, they interview some of the other students and they all love June. One tells her that June blew her off the day Marnie was kidnapped. She saw June on the street that day arguing with some old lady with a cane.
Back at SVU, Benson tells them that the old lady is June’s mother – her father died but her mother remarried. Her name is Elaine Frye Cavanaugh and she lives in Brooklyn. She ran Jane’s name through the system to find a relative with a limp and her mother popped up. Cap wonders why June would say her mother was dead – and Stabler wonders if her mother abused her. Cap say some girls say their mother father molested them because they can’t face the reality that it was their mother. Stabler thinks Elaine may have already been there when Marnie came over – and Benson wonders if June’s mother killed Marnie.
At Elaine Frye Cavanaugh’s home, they speak with Elaine (Lisa Banes) Elaine laughs when they tell her June thinks she is dead. She said she tried to discipline June to perfection but her husband Roger spoiled her which is why she divorced him. He current husband isn’t current – he died last year and he was as weak and useless as Roger. She says she was a fair and firm disciplinarian, and when Benson mentions using the handle of a spoon, Elaine coldly asks what that means. Benson said she wasn’t teaching June how to bake cookies. Stabler bring sup Marnie, and she asks what they are asking her of. When Stabler asks why she went to June’s house, because it doesn’t sound like June loved mommy so much, and when the detectives continue to press, Elaine gets angry and shouts for them to get out. When Stabler says Elaine abused June one more time by forcing her to dump the body at the church, Elaine’s daughter Katie (Agatha Nowicki) walks in and asks what is going on. Elaine asks them to tell him where she was on Monday and Katie says she dropped her off at a bridge tournament. Katie is upset, and says she did not do anything. Elaine tells her to shut her mouth, but Katie says they do not need to be there and she runs downstairs, screaming she didn’t do anything. As the detectives chase after her, she runs into another room and slams the door, saying no no no. They find her hiding in the closet and cowering. Stabler coaxes her out. She says she didn’t do anything. Benson asks if this is her bedroom and she says yes. But Elaine walks in and tells them to leave her little girl alone and get out of her bedroom. Stabler asks, “Your bedroom? She just said it was hers.” Benson gets a look of realization on her face, and says “oh my god.”
Later at Rikers, Stabler and Cap speak with June. They tell her they know she does not belong in there. June calls to the guard to take her back. They said they know she put Marnie in the duffle but did not kill her, what she did she did out of love, to repay some debt she never owed. Benson walks in with Katie, and Katie asks June why she told them. June says she didn’t, and she hugs Katie. June says mommy wasn’t hurting her anymore and she left her alone with her and she should have stayed to protect her. Bensons reminds June she was a victim, and Cap says none of this is her fault, and turns to Katie and asks, “Is it Katie?”
In interrogation, Katie says she called June and said she was going to her house and she would be out for a while, and that she should let herself in with her key. June had cancelled her first piano lesion, When she got there Marnie was on the porch and she had seen her before having lessons. They went inside and Marnie was so cute and innocent and sweet. She doesn’t know why but suddenly she asked her if she could take her clothes off and Marnie said no and she tried to leave. Katie got real mad but did not want Marnie to feel bad so she went into the kitchen and got some of June’s pills and the wooden spoon, like the one her mom uses. June came home and saw what she had done. June, meanwhile, is watching from behind the mirrored glass and says she does not want to listen any more. Benson tells June she will have to testify against Katie about the abuse she endured, and about her own abuse. Benson tells her Katie would be sent to a psychiatric facility. Cap says they will do everything they can to help her but she will never be free again. June asks about her mother, and Benson said there was only one bed in the apartment that Katie shared with her, so Elaine will be going to jail for the ongoing abuse. June hears Katie call her name through the glass and June walks up to the glass and says to June that she still loves her and she will always be her sister. Stabler tries to get Katie to sit back down and talk more. She does. June said she let her whole family be destroyed and how can she forgive herself. Cap says she will start by letting him help her try. As he walks off with her, Benson looks on sadly as we fade to black.
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