Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Law & Order SVU “Stranger” Not Strange at All

Let me get my review of the episode out of the way first, and the recap will follow. This episode was actually pretty good, maybe up until the last few minutes. What was good about it was that it made good use of the entire cast, with each of the top billed actors getting some face time. The episode opens with what appears to be the return of a missing person, but unfolds into a case of false identity and a case of kidnapping and abuse. But while many SVU episodes in the past that seem to be make these transitions in a disjointed fashion, this episode seemed to move smoothly through the slight twists and turns. The last few minutes seemed to take a corny turn, when they uncover that fact that the real missing person was murdered by her own sister. I found myself wondering why no body was ever found. Even though she was pushed into a chimney stack, wouldn’t a body have caused either a clog, or a problem with a furnace or whatever was at the bottom? If it was just a vent stack it would have clogged the vent, and I would think if it were a furnace below there would have been a smell from a burning body, no? I could be missing something here, after all maybe one can drop an elephant in one of those big chimneys and one would never know the difference. But why did it appear no one suspected family involvement before in Heather’s disappearance?

Somewhat obvious from the promo tease that NBC aired for this episode was the faked tense exchange between Benson and Stabler that had shippers thinking that maybe Benson was turning against some advances by Stabler. Experienced Law & Order franchise viewers know that you can never trust those NBC teases because they are never what they seem. Still, it was funny when, after the scene where Benson threatens Stabler with sexual harassment, that Cragen states that it seemed a little too real. I think that was wishful thinking on the part of the writers, because the ploy of “partner turned against partner” in the interrogation room is overused by the SVU people and can be spotted a mile away.

Despite a decent story and well-executed supporting roles, there was just something about the investigation process that just seemed a bit off. I think it had something to do with the fact that they were unable to identify Kristin’s true identity sooner. I know that not all families fingerprint their children now, but it seems to me that once her identity came into question that possibly they should have looked at other missing person cases matching her age in the country and not wait for a DNA match. Maybe there are just too many for them to do this visually, which I suppose indicates the sad and scary reality of the volume of child abductions. One thing is for sure, Munch's hunches about Nikki turned out to be heading in he right direction. They need to listen to him more often.

Sometimes the use of “repeat offenders” in the Law & Order franchise is a bit of a joke. Lindsay Crouse has just been used too many times in the franchise over the years. At one point she already played a judge who eventually dies from something her husband did to her (in the Law & Order episode “DNR”) so it is almost laughable to see her as a judge again. My wish is that once someone dies in the Law & Order universe that they stay that way for all the shows in the franchise.

I also find myself wondering why Tamara Tunie and B.D. Wong get billing in the opening credits when they are rarely used for more than maybe one or two short scenes with little dialog. Both are fine actors, but I guess I just don’t see what warrants the top billing. Sometime the TARU and CSU agent get more face time then Tamara and B.D. One good thing - we got very little of the wooden Michaela McManus as ADA Greyleck didn't have much to offer.

OK, enough of my nitpicking. Here’s the recap:

At an apartment where a family gathering seems to be taking place, the doorbell rings for what they think is a pizza delivery, and Mrs. Hallander (Tess Harper) goes to answer it. But rather than the pizza man, there is a young woman at the door who seems surprised that she is not recognized. She says, “It’s me.” When the daughter Erica (Kate Baldwin) sees a tattoo on the girl’s wrist, she states that it is Heather, her sister, and the mother’s daughter. Mom looks shocked.

Later, SVU detectives Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and Elliot Stabler (Chris Meloni) arrive and are told that Heather Hallander (Ellen Woglom) disappeared when she was 14. It initially looked like a runaway situation but that turned out not to be the case, she had been living as a sex slave during the time she was gone.

Heather's parents say that Heather didn't give them any details about where she had been. The detectives try to start a dialog with her as she stays behind a locked door. Nikki (Natalia Payne), who is Heather's sister - “The screw up middle child, not the sainted older one” - tells Benson and Stabler that she blames herself for her sister's disappearance, probably because she called her “Heifer” and not Heather. This gets Heather to open the door, who said she doesn’t blame Nikki. Benson comments that Heather already showered, and Nikki angrily states she did, three times, and there’s no hot water left.

Heather tells Benson and Stabler that a man, who she had to call “daddy”, kept her in a concrete room and that when he got drunk and forgot to put the padlock on the door she ran away. She came out from a basement and ran until she couldn’t run anymore, so she doesn’t seem to know where she had been held. She said he sexually assaulted her yesterday. Stabler sees clothes on the floor, and when she tells them those were the clothes she wore yesterday, he moves to examine them. But there is no underwear as he wouldn’t let he wear any. Later, while she is being examined by the doctors, she recounts her abduction and that she woke up on a concrete floor, in a pitch black room. There was a mattress there, and there was a combination lock on the door. The man abused her and threatened her with starvation. There was no water except the occasion garden hose the man lowered down to her.

Heather takes the detectives to the area where she says she ran through from after she escaped to try to help them try to find the location where she was held. She recalls a funeral home at the end of the block, but there isn’t one when the go to check the location. She seems very tense and stressed, and they try to calm her. She wants to go home, so they take her back. Benson tells Heather she has a Vitamin D deficiency from lack of sunlight. Suddenly, the press – The Ledger - arrives with cameras and questions, and Stabler, annoyed, goes after the cameraman when he continues to snap photos. The cameraman falls back and breaks his camera as he hits the ground.

Back at the squad, Captain Cragen (Dann Florek) tells Stabler they have to pay for the camera, and the Ledger wants disciplinary actions taken against him. Fin (Ice-T) enters and says Heather's sister Erica arrived at the squad, and she is angry that Heather's photo is on the front page news. She says they are worse than the missing person’s detective who only called once a month to see if they had heard from her. She had to start her own website to ask for tips. She said she was at the apartment the day it happened, and ran right past her as she left. Erica regrets not going after her and she leaves.

It seems their trip out with Heather is off, she’s seen the paper since her other sister Nikki slipped her a copy. Munch (Richard Belzer) wants to bring “the brat sister” in for a sit down. Since Nikki was sent to go after Heather after Heather ran out, Munch thinks she may have seen Nikki get in the van, and she seems to be acting guilty. Benson says that is no DNA on the rape kit but they found semen on Heather's clothes and will work up a DNA profile of the captor. Munch tells them he just got a tip - “divine intervention”.

Later, Fin and Munch work the tip, which came from a priest at St. Francis Cathedral who recognized Heather's picture in the paper. He says that she has been at Mass the last four Sundays, accompanied by a middle aged man. The man is not on their membership rolls.

In Heather’s room, Benson asks Heather if her captor took her outside of cell and she says no. When asked if she has been at St. Francis Cathedral. Heather says that she doesn't know what Benson is talking about. Benson says that she doesn't believe her, and that someone recognized her at the church. Heather gets upset and tells Benson to leave.

Back at the squad, Dr. Huang (B.D. Wong) talks about Heather’s situation but there is some skepticism from the group - maybe it was a boyfriend who took her, and Munch states that sunscreens are causing vitamin D deficiencies as well. Huang tells the group that it is possible that Heather's captor established complete control over her. Heather may be suffering from extreme Stockholm Syndrome. Benson thinks Heather might be willing to do anything to protect her captor. Benson gets a phone call, and says that Heather slit her wrists.

At the hospital, Benson finds that Heather is alive but she has lost a lot of blood. The next day, Benson visits Heather and apologizes to her for previously upsetting her. Heather says that she is afraid of being a burden to her family. When Benson tells her she can get better with counseling and by helping to bring justice to he abuser, she agrees to cooperate.

Elsewhere in the hospital, Stabler asks Heather's doctor if he noticed anything odd with Heather. He tells him that when he ran the blood check he found that her parents are not biologically related to Heather.

Later at the squad, the detectives chew over this new piece of information. Benson said Heather’s parents says she was not adopted. Munch says this leaves one possibility – that Heather is not really Heather. He overlays a current photo with one taken before her abduction and notes that certain facial features does not match. When they zoom in on the tattoo, they find they are mirror images and not a match. They suspect Heather is a con artist and Heather may have tried to kill herself when she thought she would be found out. Benson decides to go talk to her.

At the hospital, Benson brought ‘Heather” her clarinet, but Heather says she doesn’t think she remembers how to play. When Benson questions her about the tattoo, Heather says that she got the tattoo at a parlor. Benson informs her that the real story is that Nikki's boyfriend got a tattoo machine on eBay and convinced the real Heather to get a tattoo. Benson tells her they will run a comparison of the DNA from the real Heather's toothbrush to see if it matches the DNA from her rape kit. The fake Heather caves and admits that she wanted a real family and saw that she chose the Hallanders because she resembled Heather. Benson is outraged and tears into the fake Heather.

Later, as Elliot talks to the family, Erica calls the fake Heather “a rancid bitch” and they are clearly upset. Nikki says she had some suspicions. Stabler tells them they do not know the girl’s real identity. Stabler tells them she got some information about the real Heather from the internet, and more information from heather’s own room when she stayed there. The family tells Stabler that they want her arrested. He tells them they believe the fake is an”EDP” – an emotionally disturbed person.

Later, at arraignment as “Jane Doe”, the judge asks the fake Heather for her real name, and she refuses. Bail is set for $20,000. While the fake Heather is being taken away to Bellevue for psychiatric evaluation, Erica makes an outburst and asks her to tell her where the real Heather is. Erica can’t control herself so the judge has her removed.

Back at the squad, Erika tells ADA Greyleck (Michaela McManus) that she knows the fake Heather knows where the real one is. But Munch shows her what they found – all the information on Heather can be accessed by the public on an internet missing person database. He assumes the fake Heather looked for a person that matches her in the New York area, found more information on the family website, and copied the tattoo from the internet photo. Erica seems crushed that she may have been the person to give the fake all the information she needed to pull off the con.

As Stabler tells Erica they are taking over Heather’s case, Benson is on a call. She says she found where the fake Heather got her tattoo – at Tito’s Tats. Benson suspects that man could have been abusing the fake Heather. The tattoo was paid for with a credit card owned by a man named Carl Vasko (Peter Lewis). They go to Carl's house and say they have a warrant for his arrest. He tries to run, and Stabler yells out “Got a runner!” Fin is there at another exit door to stop him with a punch, saying “We got a dropper”. Meanwhile, Benson enters Vasko's basement and finds a locked room that matches the description that the fake Heather gave.

While the detectives allow Vasko to pace in interrogation, ME Warner (Tamara Tunie) enters and tells them Carl's DNA matches the semen found on the fake Heather’s dress. They got Vasko’s DNA from the blood that Fin got on him when he punched Vasko. Warner says the fake Heather’s real name is Kristin Vuslik from Ohio. Kristin's mother Marcy reported Kristin missing 6 years ago, and she suspected her former husband – Carl Vuslik of kidnapping her. The photo Warner has shows that Carl Vuslik is none other than Carl Vasko, and he is Kristin's father. Benson assumes Carl kept Kristin in his basement and repeatedly raped her.

In interrogation, they confront him with all the information. He has nothing good to say about his ex-wife Marcy, and says she got custody of Kristin because she filled everyone’s heads with lies about him. During the questioning, it seems that Stabler and Benson are creating some phony hostility between themselves. Stabler asks Benson if she is going to let the man talk or will she keep up with the smart ass remarks. She says “screw you.” Stabler shouts, “Let the man tell his story!” When Benson goes silent, Carl continues that Marcy was raising Kristin to be a shrew like her and she couldn’t let that happen, and she’d be better off with him. He had to hide her. When Benson begins to question him about raping Kristin, he says she’s a good girl now and wouldn’t say anything bad about him. He said she had the power to leave at any time. The tattoo was his idea, she showed him a picture and she wanted him to have it for good luck. Benson said she needed it to pass herself off as another person and she ran to a family of complete strangers. She calls Vasko a disgusting piece of filth. He demands to see Kristin. Benson says she’d like to see him castrated with a rusty steak knife and that neither are going to happen but they can both dream. Stabler tells Benson that she needs a sick day because obviously she is on the rag. He touches her arm and she pulls it away in anger. She says, “Touch me again and I’ll sue you for sexual harassment” and she walks out.

Outside the room, Cragen tells Benson “That was a little too convincing.” She says, “It was brilliant. Elliot’s gonna sucker a full confession out of that idiot. “ When Cragen asks her what she’s planning on doing, she says Kristin’s 72-hour pysch hold is going to be up and she wants to get the Hallanders to drop the charges before she gets transferred to the tombs. But Cragen says he checked, Kristin is already on her way there. Munch and Fin went to talk to the Hallanders, and Greyleck is tracking down Judge Andrews at a black tie event. She tells Cragen that after seeing that basement, she can’t let the girl sit in a cell all night.

At the Manhattan Detention Complex, Benson meets with Kristin and tells her she is working to get her out of there and the nightmare is over. But Kristin is not sure there is any good in the world. All she wanted was to be with a real family. Benson says it will get better. Kristin says Carl gave her more freedom last year, but threatened that if she ran, he would find and kill her. She didn’t turn him in because the Hallanders thought she was their daughter. Kristin tells Benson her mom died 3 years ago, and Benson tells her Carl lied to her about that. Kristin is later released and reunites with her real mom.

Back at the squad, Munch relays the good news that Carl was denied bail at the arraignment. Benson tells them that Kristin is going home to Ohio with her mom, and places a call to tell them about Carl. But she looks a little surprised when she asks for Marcy, and then asks, “when is she due back?” It seems Kristin told her mother she needed to talk to someone before she left. The Hallanders are the only people she knows. Marcy and Kristin’s flight home leaves in an hour and she never came back.

Benson and Stabler go to the Hallander home, but Kristin is not there and Mrs. Hallander says she has not been there. Erica asks her mom what she is talking about, she saw her leave the house with Nikki. She said no, Nikki was in her room, she couldn’t have heard was Kristin said to them. When Benson calls her on her lie, Mrs. Hallander says Kristin came there to say Nikki had said some bad things to her. When pressured by Erica and Benson, Mrs. Hallander says Nikki supposedly said she knew she wasn’t her sister and she’d better leave before the same things happened to her that happened to the real Heather. When Erica is shocked that this may mean Nikki killed Heather, she also realizes her mother knew. Mrs. Hallander admits she didn’t know until later but she didn’t want to do anything because she didn’t want to loose two daughters. Benson tells Mrs. Hallander that if Nikki does anything to harm Kristin she will be charged as an accessory to that murder as well. She says she doesn’t know when Nikki took her, and when Stabler asks if she knows where Nikki killed Heather, she must know something, because we are taken to 679 West 49th Street.

At this location, on the roof, Nikki is trying to get Kristin to climb a chimney ladder to see where Heather was killed. Nikki says she wanted her to see the view, but Kristin says that Nikki forced her to come there. Nikki says that Kristin came there of her own free will. Erica argues with her about Heather, and Nikki insists it was an accident. But Erica says they know the truth and that she must have pushed Heather into the chimney stack. Nikki says Heather caught her doing drugs and was going to tell her parents. Kristin climbs down the ladder, and they ask Nikki to come down but she climbs higher up. But, Erica says she does not want to lose her too, and she climbs down. She tells Kristin that the police gave up on looking for Heather a long time ago, and asks “Why did you pick us?” and she is lead away as they fade to black.

“Stranger” Two Minute Replay

“Stranger” Clip

Teaser for ‘Stranger”

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John K. said...

Psst, Crouse also played a judge in "Red Ball." Different characters, of course. Same as here, I believe. Either way, I do agree with you.

Anyway, good recap. I'll give a more cohesive reply later.

Miedy said...

I agree with you about the corny ending but I am glad they back to deal with "special victim" again, the reason why I am watching the show at the first place anyway.

Jamha said...

Rewatching this episode -- you're right. Detection-wise, Munch runs rings around the other detectives this entire episode. He was always at least ten minutes (real time) ahead of the others at figuring out what's going on.

TheRNJR said...

This blog is effin awesome.

Rhonda Bowman said...

No matter how old the episodes are in the L&O universe, I always come to this website and read the recaps and comments. You are right, this site is awesome.

kriselda gray said...

I know this is an older post, but I recently learned about the real-life case that inspired the episode and thought I'd go ahead and post about it in case anyone who reads this later might be interested.

Nicholas Barclay went missing when he was 13 years old. Three years later, his family got a call saying he'd been located in Spain and had been abducted and used in a child sex ring. There were some questions about the Nicholas who returned to his San Antonio home as his hair and eyes were darker, but he explained that his captors had chemically dyed them to make him harder to identify.

After about 3 months, it became clear that this wasn't really Nicholas. Instead, it was a 23-year-old Frenchman who had become known as "the Chameleon" for his ability to take on different identities. Authorities estimated he'd had around 500 fake identities.

It's still unknown for sure what happened to Nicholas, but a private investigator who'd been involved in the case and some of the police officers familiar with it believe Nicholas was murdered, most likely by his older brother, Jason, who committed suicide not long after it was clear that "Nicholas" was a fake. They - and Frederick, the imposter - also believe that his mother knows the truth, but there's not enough evidence to bring her to trial.