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"Law & Order: SVU" - Episode 15.01 - "Surrender Benson" - Review

Mariska Hargitay as Det. Olivia Benson in the Season 15 premiere, 'Surrender Benson,' of 'Law & Order: SVU' with co-star Pablo Schrieber as her captor William Lewis.

By DEB SAINE
For SpoilerTV.com

Step aside, ladies!

The 2014 Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress In A Drama belongs to Mariska Hargitay for her gut-wrenching performance in the 15th season opener, “Surrender Benson,” of NBC’s “Law & Order: SVU.”

And while members of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences are handing out statuettes next fall, put ones aside for the series’ executive producers Warren Leight and Julie Martin, who co-wrote the episode, and Michael Smith, its director.

Fans of the series have been waiting months to learn the fate of Hargitay’s character, Det. Olivia Benson, who was abducted by serial rapist and murderer William Lewis (Pablo Schreiber) at the end of the 14th season finale, “Her Negotiation.” They had witnessed what heinous “sexually-based offenses” her captor was capable of committing.

Adding to viewers’ anxiety was the fact that Hargitay’s contract expired after the episode’s original airdate in May, leaving not only the actress’s future with the show in question but also that of her character’s.

When Hargitay announced via Twitter a few days later that she’d be returning for at least one more season, pessimistic and squeamish viewers were able to open one clinched eye in anticipation of Benson’s return.

But promos for the premiere still had many fans afraid for the senior detective who could be seen tied to a chair, duct tape covering her mouth and sporting a blackened left eye, her hair stringy and her face and chest glistening with sweat.

This isn’t the first time the SVU detective has been victimized, however. After posing as a prisoner in a correctional facility in Season 9’s episode, “Undercover,” Benson admits to Medical Examiner Melinda Warner (Tamara Tunie) that she came the closest to being raped as she’s ever been.

The following season, in “PTSD,” the trauma of the sexual assault continues to haunt her. While breaking up a fight between a suspected rapist and another man, she pulls a gun and puts it to the back of the suspect’s head.

Later, the other man, a Marine, tells Benson’s partner, Fin Tutuola (Ice-T), that Benson is suffering from PTSD because he “would recognize that glassy-eyed look anywhere.”

One difference between “Undercover” and “Surrender Benson” is that it’s Tutuola who rescues her in the 2007 episode while it’s the detective who saves herself in this season’s premiere. The most unsettling difference, however, is that Benson is brutally and repeatedly tortured over four days.

Although she struggled to break free throughout the premiere, Benson garnered the most strength and is finally able to escape after Lewis has lured a housekeeper and her young daughter into the home where he’s been holding the detective captive. His intentions are clear, and it’s her concern for them that pushes her to break free.

After turning the tables on her captor, Benson seemed to keep it together. But Lewis’ incessant taunting caused her to finally snap. It’s as if he’s read her file. He goads her about her former partner, Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni), the “macho” partner who would’ve known what to do with Lewis, and how she continues to have strong, unresolved feelings for him. He goads her about her inability to shoot him because she’s a “nice girl.” He goads her about “what daddy did” to her. And he goads her about being a victim.

Later, he asked her if she knows what she wants, and she tells him she knows “exactly” what she wants: a bullet in his head and him in the ground because nobody will miss or mourn him.

She pointed the gun in his face and looked as if she were about to pull the trigger but eventually moved away. Her breaking point came a few seconds later after Lewis said, “I knew it. You don’t have the balls.”

Benson grabbed one of the bed’s irons and brought it down on Lewis over and over and over again. She’s surprised later when Tutuola tells her Lewis is still alive. “I don’t know how,” she said.

Hargitay recently told Huffingtonpost.com that the episode was “the hardest thing I’ve ever done, without a doubt,” which is saying plenty. She’s always portrayed Benson as professional but empathic, primarily because her character is the product of a rape who witnessed the life-long grief and struggles her mother had endured.

After tonight’s show, she’ll be coming to her role as a character who will never be the same.

“She’s never been in this much danger,” Leight recently told TV Guide. “At various points, he’s drugging her, and he’s pouring alcohol down her mouth. He’s torturing her psychologically and physically. It takes her a long while to accept the fact that this is happening to her. She bargains with him, she gets angry with him.”

It’s also, perhaps, Hargitay’s best work in the role she’s inhabited and embraced since 1999 in more than 300 episodes. She’s come a long way since the pilot. In an interview that aired Monday with Katie Couric on Couric’s ABC talk show, Hargitay told Couric that after she was cast as Benson, she’d ridden along with detectives in a sex crimes division and spoken with countless sex crimes victims.

She also told Couric that she had been overwhelmed at the time by the response to her character from actual victims who applauded her work and for giving them a long-overdue voice.

In 2011, Hargitay was nominated for her eighth Emmy five years after receiving the award. Also in 2011, the actress was nominated for the sixth time for a SAG in the category of Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Drama Series. She earned her second Golden Globe nomination for Lead Actress in a Drama Series in 2009 after winning the award following her first nomination in 2005.

While the show’s opening disclaimer states the “story is fictional and does not depict any actual person or event,” long-time viewers know differently. They know that what happens to Benson has happened to actual victims and that her story is their story.

They also know that Hargitay is bringing to this episode all that she has learned not only from her portrayal of Benson all these years but also all that she has learned as a victims’ advocate through her Joyful Heart Foundation, with its mission of raising awareness and helping survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse.

It’s a difficult hour to watch, and it’s Hargitay’s performance that makes it difficult. In what has to be a rare occurrence, viewers were probably grateful for every commercial break. This is a character fans have gotten to know and to love. The actress rises to the challenge and more that was presented to her by Leight, who runs the show.

“It’s one thing to write these scenes,” Leight told Huffingtonpost.com, “but I think the harder job, obviously, was acting them.”

“This show has dealt with stories like this for a long time, but I felt like with Season 15, ‘I’ve got to do something to jolt the audience ...’ I felt like this show could not get taken for granted ... And, I also thought, for Mariska, ‘Let me write the most challenging scenes I could write.’”

In the same Huffingtonpost.com article, a tearful Hargitay said, “(P)eople go through harrowing experiences like this, and I want to honor that, and I want to honor courage and being brave and the costs to be brave and courageous.”

Because she accomplished her goal tenfold, come next September, it is Hargitay who should be honored not only by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences but also by SAG, the Golden Globes and the People’s Choice Awards.

Leight told TV Guide something I’m sure the audience witnessed, too. He said, “There are scenes in this episode, when you look at them, I don’t recognize her. I don’t recognize her voice. I don’t recognize her face. It’s almost as if what her character goes through and what she had to go through as an actress changed her.”

Deb Saine
Totally right brained and in love with all of the arts.


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