<i>SVU</i>'s Surpisingly Awesome Season Premiere

Wednesday's double episode was a lean, razor-sharp exploration of one woman's struggle to survive -- and thrive. And Mariska Hargitay's harrowing performance deserves Emmy consideration.
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Okay, I was skeptical of Law & Order: SVU's Season 15 premiere. After the Season 14 cliffhanger, in which a handsome serial rapist burned off his own fingerprints, branded and raped an adorable grandma, and took Det. Olivia Benson hostage, I was prepared for more over-the-top shock gags. But Wednesday's double episode was a lean, razor-sharp exploration of one woman's struggle to survive -- and thrive. And Mariska Hargitay's harrowing performance deserves Emmy consideration.

Recap: In "Surrender Benson," we return to Olivia's apartment and find her duct-taped, bruised, blacked-out and tied to a chair. As she regains consciousness, the leering face of her sex-offense defendant, Louis Williams, comes into focus. She tries to negotiate for her freedom, but he sees through her techniques, taunts her, and then knocks her out again -- but not before she warns him that NYPD hell will rain down on him. "Let it rain," he sneers.

If Olivia Benson ever envisioned her own personal hell, it probably looked a lot like what followed. Louis wraps her in a blanket and stuffs her in the trunk of his car. He tricks his smitten defense-attorney girlfriend to invite him to her parents' house on Long Island -- then kills her father and rapes her mother while forcing Olivia to watch. He steals another car, then kills a cop who pulls him over and asks about the tarp covering Olivia in the backseat. He goes to a hardware store and buys rope, more duct tape, and a hand-held blowtorch. Then he breaks into an empty beach house, handcuffs Olivia to the bed, and starts slicing through her clothes with a knife.

Meanwhile, the SVU squad and Olivia's cop boyfriend Cassidy are one fateful step behind Louis at every turn.

Olivia tries seducing Louis, but when that fails, she breaks down crying. She wants to live. Louis is distracted by a maid at the door. When he returns, Olivia seems stronger. She asks why he hasn't raped her yet. Is he afraid of her? To prove he's not, he unzips his pants -- and she uses the opportunity to beat him with the rickety iron bedpole to which she'd been tied. They both lunge for his gun, and Olivia gets it! She points it at him as he creeps closer to her. "You don't have the guts," he says. (Was I the only one yelling "Shoot him!") Olivia hits him on the head.

When he awakes, Louis is now the one handcuffed to the bed. Olivia is staring at herself in the mirror, trying to decide what kind of person she is. She wants to shoot him. He wants it too, and taunts her, honing in on her weakest spots: Elliott and her father. Her anger overpowers her ethics, and she bludgeons him some more with the pole. (He lives, barely.)

The police arrive, and Nick drapes a dark blanket that might as well have the word "victim" printed on it over Olivia's shoulders, and leads her out of the house into a crowd of waiting officers. She looks overwhelmed. She isn't used to seeing the world from this side of the crime-scene tape.

Later, Cragen assures her that she's a hero. But as she walks through the squad room, her colleagues stare at her with the pity reserved for a victim. She goes home and chops off her own hair, looking into the mirror with loathing.

Two months later, she's taking karate, having flashbacks, and seeing a therapist. Revisting her apartment -- the crime scene -- is especially hard. Even before the assault, she realizes, "I hadn't thrived there." Her therapist wonders if Special Victims is the right place for her now. "He doesn't get to take that from me," Olivia says. But her next case will test her.

"Imprisoned Lives"

With a pale little boy rushing to hug a big furry monster on the street, the second half of this double-episode started with a head-fake about the guys in knockoff Sesame-Street costumes harassing tourists in Times Square. But it was really about a man who kidnapped three young women, held them in chains for decades, and fathered that pale little boy with one of them.

This episode was a dramatic mashup of the real-life cases involving the kidnapping of Jaycee Dugard and the kidnapper Ariel Castro, with a dash of the brilliant novel, "Room," thrown in. (That book is told from the point-of-view of a little boy who's lived his entire life in a shack; his father is his mother's captor.)

Like the character Kayla, 11-year-old Jaycee was kidnapped by a pedophile and his wife, who held her captive for many years. The man raped her repeatedly and twice impregnated her; the woman pretended to be the babies' mother. And like "Pa" in tonight's episode, Ariel Castro kidnapped three girls, held them in chains in his home for decades, repeatedly raped them, fathered a child by one -- and then said at his sentencing that all of the sex was "consensual" and they were a happy "family." Castro has since killed himself in jail.

In this episode, Olivia struggles to investigate the case while having flashbacks to her own abduction. She uncharacteristically yells at one of the women who helped "Pa." Ultimately, Olivia finds her core self - and all of the abducted girls. In counseling the one who gave birth to the pale little boy, Olivia rediscovers her own strength. "People who've gone through unfair, horrific experiences - they have this will," she says. "And when they get support, they can not only survive, they can thrive."

It was a strong message to take away from a strong story.

Verdict: A

What they got right: Olivia's emotional arc was pitch-perfect. At first, she couldn't believe what was happening to her. Then she tried to bargain with Louis, using some good solid hostage negotiation techniques (like implying that this was a temporary crisis that could be solved safely). Then she got angry, then cagey, then desperate and pleading. And then she kicked some ass.

Olivia's subsequent psychological reaction was accurate too. Survivors of terrible trauma often have PTSD, which includes the kind of flashbacks, anger, and guilt that Olivia experienced tonight.

And the Castro-inspired plot hearkened to the best of the ripped-from-the-headlines formula that has kept SVU fans clamoring for more for a decade and a half. If this is any indication of the writing for this season, Season 15 might be the best one yet.

What they got wrong: Detectives do sometimes get taken as hostages. But this is Olivia's sixth time. Enough said?

What did you think, SVU fans? Were you shouting "Shoot him!" too? Will Olivia ever be the same? And was this Mariska's best performance ever? Leave your comments!

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