Olivia Uncovers for 'Undercover"
This episode of Law & Order SVU – “Undercover” – delivered an intense episode that seemed a clear vehicle for an Emmy bid for Mariska Hargitay.
The episode opens with a red herring (smart to get them out of the way early) where a crazed man with a machete (played by the ever creepy Matthew Cowles, best known for playing “Billy Clyde Tuggle” years ago on All My Children). A policeman very conveniently stumbles into the situation and finds an injured Ashley Tyler (Shareeka Epps) lying nearby. Of course, crazed machete man has nothing to do with the matter, but Ashley’s attack opens up a whole new matter. While Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and Elliot Stabler (Chris Meloni) investigate who attacked Ashley, they uncover a possible problem with drugs and abuse in the women’s Sealview Correctional Facility. Olivia goes undercover in an effort to expose prisoner abuse and Ashley’s rape, as Ashley's mother is a Sealview prisoner who has some connections to the crime. Complicating matters, Ashley’s mother appears to have been murdered – staged to look like a suicide – possibly to silence both of them.
Olivia’s prison experience brings her to the harsh reality of prison life, although I would think that working in law enforcement as long as she has, none of what happened to her as she went through “orientation” should have been a surprise. A little heavy handed was the voice-over narration by Dr. Huang (B.D. Wong) as Olivia goes through the process. And of course, we get the gratuitous shot of the undressed Olivia, with her hands covering the appropriate places. Well, at least two of them.
Lucky for Olivia, Fin (Ice-T) has also been planted inside the prison as a guard, in order to keep a watchful eye on her.
Olivia quickly tries to establish that she needs drugs in order to get an in to the drug process and the people in charge. Of course, we see what we think is the clichéd nasty prison guard (played by the also creepy Todd Stashwick, a Criminal Intent repeat offender from the episode “Zoonotic”). We also meet who seems to be the protective prison Captain Harris (Johnny Messner), which I thought screamed, “Look out, he’s the bad guy!”
Olivia quickly makes herself the bait to try to flush out the corruption and abuse. During this time, Ashley becomes ill with multi-drug resistant tuberculosis. ME Warner (Tamara Tunie) finds that this is not the first case of MDR TB connected with the prison, and it gives an excuse to test prisoners and guards for the disease. While it’s discovered the source of Ashley’s TB is not from the prison, the testing continues as there still were too many cases of the disease at the prison. During this process, Fin gets detained waiting for his test, and Olivia decides to create an uproar, which causes a near riot with the female prisoners. It gets Olivia what she needs but soon regrets: getting pulled away by whom she possibly thinks is a protector. Of course, it was long obvious to me this guy was up to his eyeballs in the abuse, and Olivia was being let to her very own up close and personal encounter.
While the “woman in peril” plot device is overused, I thought that to tell this particular story it was needed and they did a very good job with showing the danger to Olivia, without completely crossing the line. Lucky for Olivia, Fin comes in and saves the day, but things did progress far enough where Olivia got to see a distinguishing mark on the prison captain’s “privates”.
Meanwhile, back at the squad, Olivia does what all rape and near-rape victims seem to do on this show – she clams up about it. Why she did not tell anyone what she saw that would clearly identify the attacker was confusing to me, in fact, why this guy managed to get released was confusing to me. Sometimes the law - and the Law & Order SVU Universe – works in mysterious ways. But, armed with information from her personal experience, Olivia manages to get Ashley to speak about her attacker, asking if there was anything special about the man’s “privates”. Funny, no one asked this girl this information sooner. Wouldn’t it have saved a lot of time and helped them to identify the attacker? If they had this on record, when Olivia was attacked, she could have easily confirmed the ID.
Despite the cliché of prison guards always being corrupt or abusive (at least in the L&O Franchise Universe), and the cliché of a prison suicide that’s really a murder, and the cliché of the female lead star in peril, I really liked this episode. I thought the acting of all the key players and guest stars was top-notch and Shareeka Epps did a fantastic job playing Ashley Tyler. In fact, I think her performance certainly was Emmy-worthy. One good thing is we only got short exposure to Chester Lake (Adam Beach), but it was still obvious that he just doesn’t fit.
But this episode was all about Mariska, and I believe she delivered on of her best performances. And yes, it could very well be Emmy worthy. And as Olivia says at the end of the show – which may be prophetic about her Emmy chances - “It’s the closest I’ve ever been.”
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