Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Law & Order SVU “Hell” Burns Into You (Recap and Review)

All Photos NBC

This episode of “Hell” was a very dark and somewhat unsettling episode. It deals with a young girl who was left for dead, who had once suffered at the hands of a murderous African warlord. And while solving the case of the girl’s attack, there are some major unintended consequences. Someone who cares very deeply for her and once worked to save her in Africa makes the ultimate sacrifice to avoid deportation, and also to help tell the story of criminals on that continent and how children are used and abused in some countries.

The appearances of Mariska Hargitay are spotty and inconsistent in the episode, since this episode is the one they were filming when she had to return to the hospital for further treatment for her collapsed lung. As a result, we had Fin thrown in there on occasion, and a little more Munch, which seemed not to affect the telling of the story. If, however, the episode had been originally written this way, the constant detective changes would have made the show seem too choppy. But I will cut them some slack here!

The acting for all the guest stars was gripping and very effective. Sadly, Cicely Tyson’s appearance was somewhat wasted. But the real crime with this show was all the hype about filming at the United Nations, and as it turns out, whoever decided the camera shots and locations did a horrific job of choices of how to frame the shots. Without the scene where Alex walks up to the outside of the building, you would never really know they were even there. They should have included more long shots to get more of the outside of the building in, not just the row of flags. They could have picked a better interior location. I recall seeing the United Nations when I visited there as a child in 1969, and I was hoping to see more of it. While this didn’t totally ruin the episode for me, I really feel like I had been cheated, and that the big deal about this being the first TV show to be allowed to film there was just a bunch of empty hype.

A few other nitpicks. Why was Stabler the only person who went to pick up Serumonga? I would think you’d want to being some backup when you go to question or arrest a warlord. And is this ER doctor the only one in town that handles their cases? It seems like we see him all the time, and NY is a big place with lots of doctors. This guy must be on call for all the boroughs of New York.

On the lighter side, Munch was in rare form in this episode. I think that the darker the subject matter, the funnier Munch seems to be.

Despite my criticisms, I felt this was an excellent episode with a very moving ending. It does make one think, and it’s rare that I watch an SVU episode and feel that it delivered an important message worthy of reflection.

Here is my recap:

A homeless man pushes a shopping cart, full of his belongings, down an empty street, He talks to his cat, which is sitting in his cart. He walks into a fenced area, the gate open. He complains about the trash there, saying people live like pigs. Underneath a large piece of cardboard, he finds young girl lying there, mouthing for help. We then see her in a hospital, with Detectives Stabler (Chris Meloni) and Tutuola (Ice-T) present. The doctor (Stephen Gregory) tells them her trachea had nearly been severed, and she did not bleed out because of the cold temperatures outside, which caused hypothermia and slowed her heart rate. There was evidence of chronic sexual abuse and beatings, and she may only be 10 or 11 years old. She should regain her speech once she heals. When the doctor asked who hurt her, she drew a picture of someone that looked like the devil, holding a bloody knife. When Fin says, “The devil,” Stabler answers, “Welcome to hell.”

At the SVU squad, Munch (Richard Belzer) rattles through all the various names for Satan, and Stabler tells him not to forget Ryan Seacrest. Munch responds, “I wish I could,” They have not been able to ID the victim as yet. She had no bag or purse. They can interview her in the afternoon. The homeless man took off. Capt. Cragen (Dann Florek) tells Munch to check recent police reports and 911 calls for devil references, and he responds, “I hear and obey, my lord of darkness.” Fin says that the canvas may have turned up another witness, a guy from a bodega recalls a kid who matches the victim.

At the La Poquita Bodega, the owner thought she was a “booster” so he threw her out. He checked her panda before she left to make sure. Stabler didn’t know what he meant by the panda reference, and the owner clarifies it was her style of backpack. Later in the alley area, they look for the panda but find nothing. Instead, they see a makeshift shrine with a stuffed animal and flowers, with a message written, “The majesty and burning of the child’s death. I shall not murder.” A homeless man comes in an asks them to move away, but they realize he is the homeless man who found the body. He left the area after calling 911 as he does not like crowds. They asked him about the note, and he said Thomas wrote it – Dylan Thomas, the poet. He said it is not a confession, he just steals from the best. They find the panda in his cart, and they find her wallet with a metro card.

Back at the squad, Fin tells Cragen that the metro card is only two weeks old, with a few bus rides and subway trips on it. She swiped the card last night at 10:34 on a State Island bus, and then a subway to Manhattan uptown. She apparently went straight to the bodega. They assume she lives on Staten Island and Cragen tells him to start checking around the Stapleton area where the metro card has a lot of use. Fin complains about what a large area this would be to check, and Munch adds that he can narrow his search. In his “journey through the paranoid underworld of the Satanic” he pulled a bunch of reports about demonic activity in Stapleton. When Fin says that is the secret gateway to hell, Munch quips, “That would be Toledo, but Stapleton runs a close second according to a Mrs. Doris DiNuzio” who is a concerned citizen who made 39 reports to her local precinct that the local priest is a devil worshipper on the down low.

With Fin and Stabler at the home of Doris DiNuzio, she identifies the priest as Father Theo Burdett who is shacked up with a woman, and the constant chanting, drumming, and weird language. He had chicken and goats running around the parish house and then one day they were gone, and she saw Father Theo with a machete, covered in blood. They ask her is she has seen the victim, and she says the girl lives with him, she showed up a few months ago but she hasn’t seen her around lately.

They arrive at the church, looking for Father Theo Burdett (Robert Wisdom). He approaches them and asks if he has done something wrong, also shouting at Mrs. DiNuzio that she is a hypocrite. He asks what she complained about this time, and Stabler tells him it’s slaughtering animals and virgins. He tells them the parish has changed, and some people can’t get used to the fact that the church is now African American and they follow their ways of worship. He does slaughter animals for community meals, but does it humanely. He is simply honoring their heritages. He does have a wife, as he was an Episcopal priest and already married before he got ordained, the Vatican allowed him to remain married. They show him a picture of the victim, and he says it is Miriam. They tell him what happened to her. He asks to be taken to her, and when they ask his relationship to her, he says she is their daughter.

Father Theo visits with Miriam (Julyza Commodore) at the hospital, his wife Ondine (Cicely Tyson) also there. He says they met Miriam when they were doing relief work at a camp Kenya. They say she remembers nothing of her life at the camp. She was 8 or 9 when strangers brought her in to them, he was half dead, surviving many rapes and beatings. Detective Benson (Mariska Hargitay) tells them they have seen the evidence. They adopted her to give her a better life. They did not know she was missing, she was supposed to be at a youth camp in Spring Lake. Father Theo says he has no idea how she wound up in Harlem, although Ondine looks downward, as if she does know something. She then tells her husband that Miriam asked for permission to see “him” yesterday, and Father Theo gets very upset at hearing this, telling Ondine that Miriam was not supposed to let them alone. Ondine answers that they are good for each other. Father Theo says she is a little girl and he is almost 30. Stabler interjects for them to tell them who “he” is. Ondine says they both walked through jungles and land mines to freedom, and did he think she could really stop them from being together? Father Theo says he is the one that attacked Miriam, but Ondine says he couldn’t have, he is a gentle soul, but Father Theo disagrees. Stabler continues to press on the identity of the man, and Father Theo says it is Elijah Okello and he believes he did it because he has killed before.

Afterwards, Stabler asks Father Theo why he let his murderer hang around his little girl, and Father Theo says he really isn’t a murderer. He says when in Uganda, Elijah was forced to be a soldier when he was a child, and then came to the US. He showed up at St. Adrian’s in the fall, many refugees make their way to them. He says Elijah was forced to sin, he is also a victim. He shares an apartment with other refugees from Uganda.

Benson and Stabler are at the residence of Elijah Okello. A man answers the door, and they ask for Elijah. He says that he is in the kitchen. As the detectives walk in they see a man in the kitchen washing dishes. They ask “Elijah?” and are told that no, he is Nathaniel, didn’t Elijah let them in? They realize they had been tricked and run to catch up with Elijah, but he’s gone.

Back at the squad, Stabler is in the men’s room at the urinal and Cragen walks in, chewing Stabler out for going there without a having a picture of the suspect. Stabler said no one had a picture and he has no driver’s license. He admits he screwed up. They went over his apartment and found nothing. He and Benson are going down to the hospital to see if they can talk to Miriam, but Cragen tell him to try St. Adrian’s, Miriam was awake so the Burdette’s took her home.

At St. Adrian’s, Benson is there with Miriam and Ondine. Benson gives Miriam a pad of paper so Miriam can write her answers as she still cannot talk, but her mother says she never learned how to write, but she can sign, it’s a pantomime that she learned. Miriam signs that she went to the boat – the Staten Island Ferry, and he went to Elijah’s house. He didn’t  go with her to the store, and the last thing she remembers is being with Elijah, but Miriam seems to be shaking her head no when her mother says this. Ondine says Miriam said he would never hurt her, he loves her. Benson tries to find out where Elijah is at, and Miriam indicates it is the library, and Ondine says Elijah was taking courses at Hudson University.

Stabler and Father Theo are walking outside the parish home, and as they approach the street, someone throws a Molotov cocktail at a car, causing it to burst into flames. Later, inside, Father Theo is appalled this would happen in Staten Island, and Ondine says now Miriam is scared and won’t talk. She says it is all her fault, she thought Elijah’s friendship would make her better. Afterwards, Benson and Stabler catch up with Elijah (Gbenga Akinnagbe), sleeping on a couch in the library. Benson notices he reeks of gasoline, and he says the shirt belongs to his roommate who works at a petrol station. They arrest him.

Now at the SVU squad, Elijah says he was a soldier for many years., but it was long ago and it was another life. Stabler tells Elijah he was a Marine, and he never forget what he learned in boot camp, he still uses those skills on occasion. Elijah says he doesn’t scare him, to get him to join the LRA they shot his mother in front of him. Stabler asks how many mothers he shot and he said he didn’t know, he just basically held his weapon in front of him. Stabler asks if he has killed, and Elijah says yes, in the past.

Stabler asks him if he was with his friend Miriam. He says yes, they took a walk, and he had t go see someone, and he told her to wait in the store, and when he returned she was gone. Stabler comments that is convenient, and Elijah asks what has happened to Miriam? Stabler comments that Elijah almost sounds sincere, and he insists he is sincere – she is his special friend. Stabler alludes that he wanted a special friendship last night but she didn’t want to give it. He says she is a child. Stabler yells that he was murdering people at her age. He says it wasn’t his choice, they made him do it. Stabler asked if they made him rape, as the group LRA used rape as a weapon. Elijah said some did that, but he would never force a woman, and Miriam suffered enough already. He swore she would never cry again. Stabler gets forceful and asks how did she go from taking a walk with him to dying in a dirty alley with her throat cut? Elijah asks if Miriam is dead, but Stabler tell him it is a miracle she is alive. Elijah says it is all his fault, he touches everyone he loves…and “have mercy on me.”

Stabler begins to recite what sounds like the act of contrition, and Elijah begins to pray along with him. Stabler tells him to confess to him, it is the only way to save his soul. Elijah says he has killed so many, he stabbed them, shot them, burned them, and he can still see the bodies. They come to him at night, asking, “Why did you kill me Elijah?” He doesn’t have an answer. He dreams of his mother begging him to save his life and he does nothing. He sees her die every night and he is a coward and a murderer. He says he cannot bear the pain. Stabler quietly presses him to tell him what happened last night. Elijah says he went to take a life, but it wasn’t Miriam’s. He doesn’t know his name, Miriam calls him the devil. For three years she was his sex slave.

Afterwards, Benson tells Cragen and Stabler that Miriam spotted the man she calls the devil at a wedding two weeks ago, she followed him to his apartment in Harlem, which is close to the bodega, and then told Elijah about him. She was supposed to signal Elijah when she saw the man coming home from work. They think she ran into the man after getting kicked out of the bodega, and he recognized her and tried to silence her. Cragen says he though Miriam didn’t remember anything from her days at the camp, but Elijah believes seeing the man triggered her memories. Stabler believes Elijah, and Cragen asks if that is because he prayed with him? Stabler and Benson believe he would hurt Miriam, but Cragen tells them that’s just their gut feeling. Munch enters, saying he has a possible lead on a bad guy. The building that Miriam tracked the man to had three apartments, two registered to women and the third is registered to Samuel Mbazzi. He is originally from Uganda, came to the US for asylum and just applied for citizenship. He lists his occupation as janitor, and Stabler states sarcastically that is because they don’t have a box for warlord. He says they will go pick him up, but Cragen says they have no probable cause. Stabler wants to go talk to the guy, and Cragen says to say hello and nothing more.

At the residence of Samuel Mbazzi (Mike Colter), they tell him he is from immigration and they have some follow up questions. He says he was a teacher, and now he works as a cleaner at a law firm. He said he stayed home last night, as he had the touch of the flu. He says that he still isn’t well and says they should do this at another day, and he moves back into the house. Stabler and Fin leave, and Stabler is frustrated that they can’t do anything. They can’t prove he is a warlord, and Stabler says One PP won’t authorize a fact-finding trip to Kampala. Fin says maybe they don’t need on.

At the United Nations, Alex Cabot (Stephanie March) is meeting with someone named Reggie, who is with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. She tells him she is investigating a Ugandan man who may be involved in war crimes, he is in the states and may be here under a false identity. Reggie says the UN is not a law enforcement body and they don’t have files on individual citizens. He says the International Criminal Courts has been prosecuting war crimes in Uganda, and they have survivor testimony and other files that are available to the public, but they are at The Hague. She asks him if there is any way those files can magically get to her.

Later, Cabot and Stabler are looking through the files. Stabler sees a picture with someone who looks like Mbazzi – and his real name is Joseph Serumonga, a rebel commander wanted for war crimes by the ICC and he disappeared right before his indictment. He locked and entire village in a church and set it on fire, and that act earned him the nickname “The Devil of Gulu.”

In a restroom, Serumonga is mopping the floor, and Stabler enters, saying he is glad he is feeling better. Stabler brings up the church massacre, and Serumonga says he has the wrong man. Serumonga attacks Stabler with his mop, trying to choke him. Stabler gets his gun out and points it at Serumonga, saying “Give me an excuse! Give me an excuse!” Serumonga backs down, and Stabler cuffs him.

Back at the squad, Benson tells Cabot that Serumonga hasn’t said a word. Cabot says they don’t need a confession since they aren’t going to trial. Benson reminds her that the search warrant turned up Molotov cocktails and a box cutter that had blood on it that will match Miriam’s DNA, what else does she need? Cabot says immigration is taking custody and The Hague is taking him to trial. When Benson asks what about justice for Miriam, Cabot tells her The Hague will get justice for 10,000 Miriams.

Back at Miriam's home Benson comes to see Miriam, and tells her and Ondine that they know Elijah didn’t hurt her. She tells her Elijah also told them about the devil.- and when Benson mentions Joseph Serumonga’s name, Miriam gets very agitated, her mother trying to calm her. Miriam makes a sign that she wants to go see him, and despite the fact that Miriam’s parents have concerns, they take her to see him at the squad. The open the blind to the interrogation up room, and Miriam sees him. She walks into the room and approaches him, spitting on him, causing Serumonga to flinch and pull at his handcuffs, which are locked to the table. Miriam leaves the room and smiles, and Benson tells her “You’re welcome.” She also tells her there is someone in the squad room, waiting for her. It’s Elijah, and she runs to him and they embrace. Miriam’s parents tell her that Elijah will also be coming home with them. As the family leaves, Cragen comes in with Regional Director Brett Trask (Sean Cullen) of Immigrations and Customs, and says they have the transfer of custody for Serumonga. He also asks if Elijah is also in custody an Stabler tells him he has bee cleared so he was released. Trask says that is OK, they will pick him up, as Elijah’s asylum claim was denied last year and they have a warrant for his deportation, he is a war criminal like Serumonga. When Stabler protests that Elijah was a child, Trask tells him that Elijah fled the LRA when he was over 18, making him an adult and accountable for his action. He tells Stabler to stick to his beat and leave the war crimes to him.

Later, Cabot tells Stabler there is nothing she can do, he was still fighting with the LRA as an adult. Stabler continues to argue the point, saying this all started when he was a very young boy, and if he is not a special victim, she should tell him who is. Afterwards, Cabot goes back to the UN and to Reggie. Reggie says by the UN standards, Elijah is a victim, he is not responsible for his actions before he was 18 and this is why the criminal court would not prosecute him. She argues that the US is trying to deport him and can’t he help? But he tells her they have to respect the US laws and they can’t trump the US court. She says as soon as they find Elijah they will deport him, and Reggie says unless he is somewhere where they can’t touch him.

Inside the United Nations, Cabot suggests to Stabler that Elijah stay at St. Adrian’s as sanctuary. While they discuss the situation, Stabler gets a call from Fin and the look on Stabler’s face means bad news. Fin told him that the Fed’s tracked Elijah down at St. Adrian’s and served him with deportation papers. Elijah flipped out at the news and he grabbed an ICE agent’s gun and is holding hostages.

At St. Adrian’s, police and ICE are on the scene. Trask says SWAT already had an attack plan and it doesn’t include them. Stabler and Fin ask for a chance to talk him down, but Trask says this is a Federal operation. Stabler screams for a chance – and Trask gives him 10 minutes. Stabler and Fin run into to the church door, and Elijah tells them to get away from the door. Stabler says they just want to talk, and they enter. Stabler tells him that this is not the way. Elijah tells them he though they would be grateful he brought the devil to justice and is angry at what they now want to do to him. He says he was a fool, they now call him an undesirable, Father Theo says to show them they are wrong, and Elijah says they want a monster he will show them a monster. Stabler begs for them to let the children go, and Elijah tells them to go outside, including Miriam. This leaves Father Theo and Stabler in the church. Fin opens the door and the children race out, Miriam runs to her mother. Back in the church, Elijah has a gun pointed at Stabler, and Stabler asks for the gun. But Elijah points the gun at himself instead. The continue to try to talk him down. Elijah says that he was promised if he went to school and study hard he could have a good life. If he has to go back, the LRA will hunt him down and kill him. He says God has forsaken him, but Father Theo reminds him about God’s son. Father Theo seems to be ill, and he sits back down, in pain. Stabler tells Elijah that Father Theo needs a doctor, and Elijah tells Stabler to take him out. He asks Elijah again for the gun. Elijah said they said the gun was their only friend, their mother and their father and it would make them feel strong. Stabler asks how it makes him feel now, and Elijah says dirty. Stabler reaches for the gun, and Elijah gives it to him. Stabler yells for them to go.

Stabler opens the church door and announces their exit. They begin to walk down the steps, holding up Father Theo. Elijah holds up his hands to surrender, seeing all the law enforcement people there, along with reporters and cameras and a crowd has formed. He makes a move to a nearby federal agent and pushes him, and then begins to run as Stabler yells ‘Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!” But it is too late, as they are already firing on him, and Elijah falls to the ground. Miriam runs to him as he lay dying. Stabler pulls Miriam away, and Father Theo begins the last rites. Stabler asks Miriam if she can tell him what Elijah said to him, and she whispers that he commented that he had to die, to make her to foresee (I think that is what she said) other child soldiers.

Back at the SVU squad, Stabler is looking over the war photos from the file they got from the UN. Father Theo approaches, saying “Suffer the little children” and they look on the pictures of the children at war. When Stabler asks what is the answer, Father Theo says to tell Elijah’s story, pray that someone will listen. As they gaze on the photos, we fade to black.

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John K. said...

I rather liked your commentary, particularly the ER doctor being everywhere. Haha.

Could you please transcribe what Munch said about flight schools and immigration allowing the terrorists the visas to do so? I think it was whenever they discovered about the warlord. Thank you. If not, no worries.

All Things Law and Order said...

When Cragen made a comment about Mbazzi getting a clean bill of health from immigration, Munch says “You mean the same guys who gave visas to a bunch of jihadists so they’d go to flight school?"

John K. said...

That's fine. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I think Miriam whispered in Stabler's ear "He had to die, to make people see the other child soldiers." Thanks for this page!

Laura said...

I know it's been awhile since this episode aired, but I just found your blog earlier this year and got this season of SVU on DVD a few days ago. I hadn't seen this episode before and wanted to read your recap to get your take on it. I remember the guy at the UN mentioning that Alex's obituary was run in the Crimson and that her return was the talk of the ten year reunion. Is this the first time in the series that they mention she went to Harvard Law? Just wondering. BTW I love your L&O blogs and think you do an excellent job.

All Things Law and Order said...

I don't recall it ever being mentioned before this episode that Alex went to Harvard, but I can't find anything that indicates for certain if it came up before. The series has always been a little stingy with the personal details of the characters so it would not surprise me if this was the first time that her college education came up.

Laura said...

I inferred that she went to Harvard because the guy she knew at the UN mentioned that her obituary was run in the Crimson and that her return was the talk of the ten year reunion.

Jillian W said...

Why didn't Stabler tell him to stay inside the church?