Thursday, January 8, 2009

Law & Order “Chattel” A Sad Story Well Told (Review and Recap)

It’s been a long time since I have watched a Law & Order (NBC) episode that actually made me feel sad. And I felt very sad at the end of “Chattel”. In this episode, it starts like a typical run of the mill Law & Order murder, but it becomes far more complex. It seems that divorce lawyers with a conscience – something unheard of in the Law & Order universe – wanted to blow the whistle on a child slavery ring. They were killed because of it, not by the parents who benefited from the ring, but at the hand of the children of one of those parents.

The episode had a dark overtone to it. Children being enslaved is a depressing subject. But what made the subject it hit home even harder is that during the investigation and the trial, the disgust of everyone involved in working the case was made evident by all the actors in the key roles. Linus Roache did a great job in the grand jury room as Patrick testified by showing his frustration, and maybe concern for his case when Patrick was clearly lying on the stand. Things got much worse when Patrick’s mother had Cutter pinned to the ropes when she testified. I think that Michael Cutter became much more real to me in this episode than in most others, as it seems Roache brought what seemed to be real emotion to the surface during the grand jury scenes. And nothing can match the anger and disgust on the face of Sam Waterston as Jack McCoy when he saw how many people were involved in using these children for their personal housekeepers. That deep frown on his face telegraphed perfectly how everyone involved in the case felt about what had been going on.

Very said was the ending scene where Patrick realizes he will not be free. It seems that he may not be even sure what he did was wrong. But seeing this boy who so badly wanted to get out of a bad life of slavery and has now found himself in a new kind of captivity was very moving.

This season, Law & Order seems to be reaching a level of excellence we haven’t seen in quite a few seasons. The first half of the show seems to have a little more meat to it, and the Sisto and Anderson roles appear to have more substance to them. This was the one element that was missing with the show last season – maybe because there were a few changes on the detective end of the show – and now things are smoothing out. This helps a great deal because if the set up in the first half is dull, it detracts from the second half.

Here’s the recap:

The episode opens with a husband and wife getting ready for bed, the wife trying to fix the air conditioning because it seems to be staying on. As they get ready for bed, the wife mentions she is concerned they could get disbarred for what they are doing. The husband reassures her, telling her that they are doing the right thing, and then they turn out the lights.

The next we see of these divorce lawyers Fred and Liz Bellamy (Paul DeBoy and Maureen Silliman) they are lying dead, brutally murdered in their beds. Detectives Lupo (Jeremy Sisto) and Bernard (Anthony Anderson) are on the scene, investigating. Since the AC was on at full blast, the time of death may be hard to determine. The maid thought they were at work, as the alarm system was on when she arrived. There are messages from “Valerie” on one of their cell phones, who was clearly waiting for the Bellamys to arrive, and when one of her messages ends with “Love you” Lupo quips “Lovable divorce lawyers. It’s like killing an endangered species.”

They also find that one of the windows was pried open and the alarm sensor broken. They also find the Bellamys have a son, Gary, and they bring him in to the 2-7. He assumes there was a burglary, but the detectives tell him nothing appears to be missing. He also explains that the room was used to interview children in custody disputes as it makes them more comfortable. He also tells them that he warned his parents to fix that window before. They ask about any problem clients, but Gary says they took privilege very seriously.

At the offices of Bellamy & Bellamy, they talk with an assistant who balks with giving them any listing of clients. Bernard wants to ask Rubirosa for a subpoena, but Lupo nixes it as a bad idea. They head to the office of a New York County Clerk, who also balks at giving them the information. But, he offers the clerk help with a copy of a legal outline, telling him he’ll never pass without it. The clerk decides to help them and gives them a print out, and helps them single out any malpractice or ethics complaints where the Bellamys were involved.

At the 2-7, they bring Lt. Van Buren (S. Epatha Merkerson) up to speed, and highlight a video deposition of William Carter; Liz Bellamy was representing Ann Carter. They were fighting over custody of three children, 2 boys and a girl. In the deposition, William Carter (Steven Friedman) is having a fit about accusations from his wife. But. it seems Carter suddenly settled with his wife two weeks after the deposition, and maybe his wife had something on him, and they wonder if it is a child molestation accusation.

They talk to Ann Carter (Mary Beth O'Connor), and she denies threatening her ex-husband with anything. Bernard tells her that they suspect her husband molested their daughter, and that the Bellamys knew, and that’s why they are dead. She continues to deny it, and when they ask to speak with her daughter Isabel, she says her daughter went back to Haiti. They wanted to adopt another child, and with the divorce, since the adoption was no final, they had to send her back.

At the Haitian Consulate, they are told that the Bellamys came in to inquire about Isabel, saying she was returned to Haiti by mistake. When Bernard tells the consulate rep that they think it was an attempt to cover a crime against the girl, he says they have no other record of her whereabouts past her arrival back in Haiti. He said someone from a credentialed adoption agency took her, and have not been able to locate her after that. He tells them he told Bill Carter that the Bellamys were looking for Isabel.

Back at the 2-7, they tell Van Buren of their recent findings. There is no record that Bill Carter owns a gun like the murder weapon, and they can’t get near the other kids without the mother’s permission and she won’t cooperate. But Van Buren suggest that if she blackmailed her husband with information, they can get her assets as proceeds of a crime, and use that fact as leverage for her cooperation. Lupo finds that the settlement comes as part of a bank loan Bill Carter received from Eric and Miriam Johnson (Tom Gilroy and Jessica Hecht), listed as family friends.

They visit the Johnsons, and while they are talking, two kids arrive, one a white girl, the other a black boy. When the kids walk off, they confirm that the son is also adopted from Haiti, they lived there for three years and took him on at that time. When they ask the Johnsons to help Ann Carter to allow them to talk to the kids, they balk, as the divorce was hard on the kids and they heard one of them, David Carter, contemplated suicide.

When Bernard wonders how they can get around the issue to talk with David, Lupo tells Bernard that they can talk to David since he now seems to be “the suicidal boy.” They catch up with David, who says that the suicide thing is not an issue anymore, he didn’t mean it. He tells them he noticed the Bellamy’s broken window when he was there. He tells them Isabel didn’t speak English, but she would talk to the Johnson’s son, Patrick.

They ask ADA Rubirosa (Alana De La Garza) to help get a material witness warrant for Patrick, but she suggests they go to talk to the family first. They are reluctant to do so as they think it will cause them to cover up. They do get the warrant and take it to the Johnson home, and the parents are not home, just their daughter. She says Patrick is not there, and they head to his room, which is very tiny, almost like a closet. Lupo sees a picture on the wall of Marcus Garvey Park, and they head there. Bernard sees Patrick (Thuliso Dingwall) and calls out to him, but he takes off. Lupo catches up with him. He says he is afraid he will have to go back, and says he is a “restavek”, and a bystander translates to “slave”.

They take him to the 2-7, where Van Buren brings Patrick some food. He denies he said he is a slave. But they tell him they translated the word he used and that is what it means in Haiti - a child sold to a family as a servant. He says he is their son, and doesn’t know about Isabel. He says he does not go school, he learns at home and does chores. His fingernails look like they are dirty and maybe damaged from housework. He asks to go home.

Outside the room, Van Buren tells them to contact Child Services and let them know what is going on and call the DA. The Johnson’s arrive, looking for Patrick. When Van Buren says he is being put in the custody of child services, Miriam Johnson says that Patrick is theirs, to which Van Buren says with disgust, “Yours.” She also tells them they have a material witness warrant and they should get a lawyer.

Van Buren is in DA Jack McCoy’s (Sam Waterston) office, while Rubirosa reads to Jack and Cutter (Linus Roache) the details about Patrick. Cutter is disgusted and wants to take action. It also seems the same situation was going on with Isabel, and this is what Ann Carter used as leverage in the divorce, and explains why the Johnsons lent Bill Carter $300,000 and why they are keeping their mouths shut. When McCoy tells them to charge them with endangering the welfare of a minor, Cutter says with sarcasm, “ An “A” misdemeanor? I’m quaking in my boots, Jack.” When McCoy reminds him that New York has no slavery statute, Cutter reminds him there is a kidnapping statute that they can use. When Rubirosa says she'll get going on it, McCoy tells her to hold on, that they aren’t arresting anyone on charges they can’t sustain, that they need to convince a grand jury first.

In the Grand Jury Room, they have Patrick on the stand. He tells them while in Haiti, someone gave his mom money and he was taken to a nice home – the Johnsons - and to live with the white people there and do what they said. He did all the chores for them, all day long. When asked if he was punished if he didn’t do his chores, he pauses, takes a long look around, and says no. When Cutter asks about his life in America, he says he did not do chores all day, he also played and studied. Cutter is looking frustrated, as this is not going the way he wants. Patrick tells Cutter he has his own room, it’s very big and he has his own bed, with TV and video games, with ice cream and cake. Cutter is about to have a cow now. Rubirosa shows the jury pictures of Patrick’s room, which doesn’t match Patrick’s description, and asks why he is not telling the truth. Patrick drops the photo to the floor.

Outside the grand jury room, someone hands them paperwork from the Johnson’s lawyer, a notice of intent that Mariam Johnson wants to appear before the grand jury. Later, Miriam is on the stand talking about their life in Haiti. She says they wanted to save one child. She seems to have explanations for all Patrick’s chores, and says he eats what they eat. But when Cutter asks if anyone else in the family has vitamin deficiencies as Patrick, she rebuts that with the fact that no one else spent a good part of their life in Haiti, eating one meal a day and living in squalor. When Cutter asks about Patrick’s medical care in America, Miriam’s lawyer Mr. Marks objects and Cutter reminds him he has no standing there, yelling for him to be quiet. He pressures Miriam about Parick's medical care and schooling. He refers to his room as a “cell.” She talks about Patrick’s life in Haiti, but he says this information is not relevant to his life in America. She seems to have Cutter on the ropes. Of course, it only took the grand jury 20 minutes to “no bill” the indictment.

In Cutter’s office, he discusses the case with McCoy over an alcoholic beverage. Rubirosa enters and says they may have another crack at an indictment for the Johnsons, this time for murder. Mariam Johnson has testified that her husband took measures to protect the family in Haiti, and when they talked with people Eric Johnson worked with there, they found he bought a 22 caliber gun, the same type that killed the Bellamys. Johnson also maintains a bank account in Haiti, and there have been 16 wire transfers to that account, each for $30,000 from various New York individuals.

Later, at the Klassen residence, they are told by the Klassens the wire transfer was legit, it was for a startup for a software company in Haiti. As they are talking, they hear a noise coming from the downstairs part of the house. They said the noise was from the kids…or the dog. Bernard asks to see the dog, and makes a move to the basement. When Mr. Klassen tells him he can’t go there, Bernard reminds him that they were invited in, and continues downstairs. They see a young girl there, doing ironing, which seemed to have fallen over. He gets the girl out of there as Rubirosa makes a call. Bernard tells her “her working days are over.”
At the 2-7 in interrogation, the Klassens tell the detectives that Eric arranged everything. It seemed the Johnsons helped with a bunch of adoptions. Later, the 2-7 is in a bit of pandemonium as they appear to have many families in there who were involved in the same set up. Cutter enters with McCoy, telling McCoy they recovered 16 children and 14 couples, two of the couples are away on holiday and they are having the planes met. Cutter points out the Johnsons to McCoy, saying they are being indicted for murder. McCoy looks on the group locked in the cage in disgust, then moves to look on the children in another room. Van Buren tells him, “This plantation is closed.”

Later, the Johnson’s lawyer is discussing the case with Cutter and Rubirosa with the Johnsons present. He tells them the Johnsons were out of town when the Bellamys were murdered. When asked about the location of his 22-caliber gun, Eric says they can’t find it. Later, Rubirosa tells Cutter that the alibi seems to be valid, and they begin to wonder if Bill Carter somehow got the Johnson’s gun, seeing as their kids go to the same school. They question the Johnson’s daughter Karen, and she tells them when she told her parents about David Carter wanting to kill himself, she said he was in the house and told him about her dad’s gun. He found it and said he felt like shooting himself, but made him put the gun back. He’s been back a few times when her parents were out and she thinks he went into their room.

At the 2-7, David Carter admits he handled the gun, but he put it back. Cutter asks if someone else took the gun. He said Karen was worried her parents would get busted because of Patrick. He also told her about the broken window in the Bellamy’s home. Outside the interrogation room, Bernard tells Cutter, Rubirosa, and Van Buren that they found reside in the shoebox where the gun was kept, indicating it was put there after being fired. They think Karen shot the Bellamys and put the gun back. Van Buren recalls that Patrick’s fingernails were very dirty when they picked him up, maybe he buried the gun in the park? Later, they take metal detectors to the park and find a spot where the gun is buried. At another location, they are telling Patrick what they found and what they know. He tells them his sister says bad people wanted to hurt the family, and said no one would take care of them. She said he had to kill them, she took him to the house, and they went to the house and went inside. He killed them both. When they tell him he can’t stay there, he becomes concerned because he likes it there. But they tell him he must come with them.

Back at the 2-7, Miriam Johnson is there with Karen, who says Patrick is lying. The Johnson attorney refers to Patrick as a “semi-literate feral child” and that the interview is over. But Cutter disagrees, and tells the detectives to take them to booking.

In arraignment court, Karen gets remanded to detention. Patrick Johnson is up next for murder. The judge enters a plea of not guilty for him. Cutter makes a strong argument to have Patrick held and not returned to the Johnsons because of the current charges against them and the fact that Patrick is a key witness. The judge asks Patrick’s opinion, and he says he wants to be free. He remands him to secure detention. Later, Patrick asks Rubirosa and Cutter why he can’t go home to Haiti. But Cutter tells him he committed a very serious crime, and they take him away in chains along with the other prisoners. He says, “I will never be free” as the camera pans along the long line of prisoners, with Patrick standing at the back of the line, leaving Cutter and Rubirosa sadly looking on.

Clip from “Chattel”

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samfan said...

I LOVED this episode, I hated the ending, but loved the episode, if that makes sense. I think the entire cast did great!!! I LOVED having Van Buren in more then two scenes! Jack's expression in the 2-7 was unbelievable and summed up the whole story up until then. I didn't like the ending, but it was and awesome episode, I really enjoyed the whole cast, and I think that the detectives are getting better every week.

jhjenn said...

I agree entirely. Watching this episode I took in the "meat" of every regular character. Linus Roache has been a fav of mine for a long time and I'm thrilled that he's character is finally getting some real passion (not just bucking the system).

Anonymous said...

Ya! Best season since Orbach left. Sisto and Anderson are the best detective combo since Brisco and Curtis. I still don't like Cutter tho and don't think he's gonna make the cut. I think they need an ADA who can be more of a hardass. The occasional group meetings w the ADAs, Lt.Van B & McCoy are great.