Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Law & Order: Organized Crime closes out the season by recommitting to the franchise’s shortcomings

Image of Christopher Meloni and Mariska Hargitay in Law & Order: Organized Crime
Christopher Meloni and Mariska Hargitay star in Law & Order: Organized Crime
Photo: Eric Liebovitz/NBC

Before it had even premiered, Law & Order: Organized Crime promised a new take on the police procedural. Instead of cases of the week, there would be one season-long investigation. The show, from Dick Wolf, Ilene Chaiken, and Matt Olmstead, wouldn’t simply lionize the NYPD, as so many cop shows (including much of Wolf’s oeuvre) have for much of the last four decades. More specifically, Detective Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni), a walking, talking civil rights violation, would realize that his way of doing things would no longer be tolerated. This time, there would be checks and balances instead of just an exasperated speech by Captain Donald Cragen (Dann Florek) or solemn head shake from Detective (now Captain) Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay).

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The series premiere, “What Happens In Puglia,” briefly gave cause for optimism that Organized Crime wouldn’t just be “business as usual,” that the writers and producers behind this show and others like it might actually want to engage in a meaningful discussion about police reform (abolition is a bridge too far for this genre) and the role that pop culture has played in unquestioningly valorizing the police. But it wasn’t long before Organized Crime fell into the established rhythms of the crime procedural, and its lead character was once again shielded from reproach. Stabler’s killed six people on the job, literally quit because he didn’t want to “jump through hoops” of accountability, and has an Internal Affairs file so large that Chief Garland (Demore Barnes) only had time to skim it for the “lowlights.” Now he’s part of yet another elite team, the Organized Crime Control Bureau, and has yet another supportive partner whose last name starts with a B (Danielle Moné Truitt as Sgt. Ayanna Bell).

The character’s popularity aside, it was a gamble to bring back Stabler at a time when real-life calls for reform and responsibility have only grown in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the hundreds of other fatal shootings by police in the last year. So Organized Crime made a strong case for his return: Stabler, now the NYPD’s liaison in Rome (which is a thing, apparently?), travels to New York to testify against two men who were selling counterfeit PPE. The times have changed, the show seemed to acknowledge—criminals were now trading in black market protective gear and stolen vaccines, in addition to drugs and firearms. Stabler was both the right and the wrong man for the job—he was a horrible loose cannon in the past, but when you have people profiting off of human suffering, the show seemed to argue, you need someone who isn’t a stickler for the rules. Stabler and Benson’s long-time will-they/won’t-they was another draw, one that Wolf et al. have turned into the main attraction on Organized Crime. Most significantly, Stabler was given an unimpeachable sense of purpose: bringing his wife Kathy’s (Isabel Gillies) murderer to justice.

The fact that there’s a whole subgenre of stories about emotionally shuttered detectives trying to avenge their dead wives didn’t dissuade the Organized Crime writers from making big plays for sympathy. As Stabler’s investigation into Richard Wheatley’s (Dylan McDermott) business, legitimate and otherwise, unfolded over the course of season one, he alternately sought comfort from Benson and Angela Wheatley (Tamara Taylor), a brilliant professor and the ex-wife of his prime suspect. But Stabler’s also dealt with more than a few twists (of the knife): In episode five, “An Inferior Product,” he learned that Angela was the one who ordered Kathy’s death (but it’s more complicated than that). It seems Richard told Angela that her son Rafiq who struggled with substance abuse, was killed by Elliot in a raid. Angela didn’t question it because, as she tells Elliot, he’s “one of those faceless officers who guns down young Black men with impunity and expects never to face any consequences.” But by the season-one finale, “Forget It, Jake; It’s Chinatown,” Angela and Elliot are mostly on the same side again (though she’s under arrest for her involvement in Kathy’s murder).

Directed by Fred Berner, who also helmed the premiere, “Forget It, Jake; It’s Chinatown” effectively brings one major plot to a close but ends with Angela Wheatley fighting for her life as Stabler calls out for help. There are some twists in the road, but never any question where it will lead, so there’s very little suspense. The finale is a more of a bookmark than a strong closing statement. Richard’s in jail, but hardly harmless; he tries to evade prosecution for Kathy Stabler’s death by dangling some really big fish in front of the Feds (repped here by U.S. Attorney Vince Baldi, played by Josh Charles). But Stabler and ADA Anne Frazier (Wendy Moniz) all but threaten Baldi not to cut Richard a deal on the murder. Kathy may now rest in peace and Elliot may rest a little easier, knowing that Richard Wheatley is in jail (but the erstwhile Mr. Sinatra is still able to arrange Elliot and Liv’s meetup in the final moments of the episode).

It’s not quite a happy ending, nor is it the last we’re likely to see of the Wheatleys. Richard Wheatley is still calling shots from inside his cell. His son Richie (Nick Creegan) orders the ambush on his father and his FBI convoy; after killing undercover cop Gina Capelletti (Charlotte Sullivan), he’s no longer so worried about keeping his hands clean. Richie’s sister Dana (Christina Marie Karis), the family’s great hope, is in jail, and his mom Angela is in the throes of her second poisoning in as many days. Liv unwittingly faces the other woman who may or may not be in love with Stabler. For much of the finale (and the last two episodes), Bell is iced out by her fellow cops over her wife Denise Bullock’s brutality lawsuit against the NYPD. But, the show suggests, once there are bigger fish to fry, the thin blue line reasserts itself behind her. Finally, Elliot may know who’s responsible for Kathy’s death, but that doesn’t guarantee accountability. As he tells his therapist Dr. Grey (Geraldine Hughes), “I know what justice is. I know what it looks like. I know what it feels like.” And he’s anxious he won’t actually obtain it for Kathy. Once his part is done, it’s then “up for the money and lawyers to twist the truth.” Elliot observes, with more than a hint of disillusionment, that even when someone is plainly in the wrong, they won’t necessarily suffer any consequences. Oh, how the tables have turned.

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Organized Crime premiered as police accountability and reform permeated the national conversation, with a rogue cop character and its own raison d’être in need of an overhaul. Wolf and his team hinted at a new, more enlightened Elliot Stabler, one who understood he couldn’t go off half-cocked all the time. Of course, Elliot immediately and repeatedly lost his cool in the premiere, but gained some semblance of control as the season went on. The show also attempted to engage with the larger cultural conversation by positioning Bell as a counterpoint to Stabler—a level-headed cop who knew much more about injustice than Elliot ever will. Art imitated life as the show tried to use Black people in high-ranking roles (Bell’s OC character and Barnes’ SVU character) to deflect criticism about the deep-seated racism in the legal system.

Illustration for article titled Law & Order: Organized Crime closes out the season by recommitting to the franchise’s shortcomings
Photo: Eric Liebovitz/NBC
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But, just as Stabler is wont to do, Organized Crime stumbled upon its more resonant points. It wasn’t just her anguish that led Angela to believe that her son Rafiq was murdered by a cop; it was the deaths of countless young Black men before him. Pity that his storyline was largely forgotten until the script called for another twist—there was so much more the show could have explored about how Rafiq, a darker-skinned Black man, was treated much more cruelly by the world than his lighter-skinned, biracial siblings. There were hints of it in the premiere, as racist old Manfredi Sinatra (Chazz Palminteri) let his mask fall, but the old man was quickly murdered to give Elliot a reason to go after Richard. Instead, we have Stabler fretting that the odds are staked against him in obtaining justice for his wife’s death. The plot line about Bell’s nephew, whose hand was viciously broken by two cops, while far from resolved, did briefly open up a discussion about the racism Black cops face within the ranks, even if it was by accident. Organized Crime wants us to believe that the reason Ayanna Bell, like Chief Garland over at SVU, is being shunned by her colleagues is simply because she didn’t “back the blue.” Yet when you look at who is wielding influence over whom, there’s no ignoring the power inequity.

As another entry in the Law & Order universe, Organized Crime mostly did its job—fitfully entertaining in places, running each new phrase into the ground (“wine lair,” really?), and blithely ignoring how bad an idea intraoffice romance is. But as an update to Wolf’s ever-expanding franchise, a much-needed dose of reality beyond copaganda, Organized Crime underdelivered. The show didn’t handle racial inequality in the legal system (or the wider culture) with any more nuance than the standard, issues-focused episode of SVU. So, forget it, Jake: Organized Crime is no more likely to change than its protagonist.

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Stray observations

  • I know I’m the one who, in my recap of the premiere, mused about the Benson/Stabler pairing. But show some restraint, Organized Crime writers! Right now, they show all the fervor of Tumblr ’shippers and none of the wit—Richard Wheatley stops mid-perp walk to tell Olivia she’s been sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-NG with Stabler.
  • I would say that Organized Crime also maintains the time-honored Law & Order tradition of misunderstanding how social media works, but after January 6, I’m not surprised to see characters in the show use an online platform to rally support for some questionable endeavor.
  • No official SVU/OC tonight, but Elliot did drop by Fin’s not-wedding in the SVU season 22 finale, “Wolves In Sheep’s Clothing.” In case you didn’t know, Fin fell in love with his former partner Phoebe (Jennifer Esposito). Oh, and—spoiler alert—Rollins and Carisi kissed. But no, Law & Order isn’t pushing the Stabler/Benson relationship on us!
  • Highlights of the season: Chazz Palminteri playing a character named Manfredi Sinatra; Dylan McDermott and everyone around him saying “wine lair” with relish.
  • Hey, Elliot’s finally getting therapy—good for him. Wait, he already did that, sorta, with Dr. Rebecca Hendrix (Mary Stuart Masterson), with whom he also shared a mutual attraction.
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