“We’re going back into the heartbreak.” For the eighth installment of season 17 of “Law & Order: SVU,” Executive Producer made this bold statement to me when we spoke recently. Explaining further he said, “If you look at this season, our first three episodes were pretty tough, then we had the Rollins’ family drama, and the self-contained episode about the Baker family [“Patrimonial Burden”], but now I have to say that it’s true – we’re going back into the heartbreak.”
Getting into the details of the episode, entitled “Melancholy Pursuit,” Leight revealed, “There’s a missing a teen-aged girl and at first everyone thinks it’s a ‘Romeo and Juliet’ type of thing – that’s she’s just run off. But as the as the episode progresses we run out of possibilities as to where she is.”
At the center of the investigation is the new guy on the SVU team, Sergeant Mike Dodds. Leight admitted, “We had a name for this one internally – ‘The Education of Mike Dodds,’ because what he goes in thinking he knows and what he learns is the beginning of seeing whether or not he’ll be able to handle what goes on in the Special Victims Unit.” Clarifying why the character Dodds is featured in this episode, Leight explained, “I like that he’s very green at this point. The first couple of episodes we’ve seen with him it’s pretty clear that that he’s trying too hard or his tone is wrong. It was pretty telling where he is when he said in the ‘Baker’ episode [which involved catching a predatory pastor preying on a religious family] ‘I thought we’d be in the street taking down rapists, not at churches.’ He really wants to get out and bring down the bad guys.”
Leight confirmed that Dodds gets what he wants when it appears that there’s a suspect who’s ‘a really bad guy.’ “It becomes this incredibly frustrating pursuit. They have his DNA and it’s in the system and there’s a familial match in the system and now you’re trying to figure out who this guy is related to and just how to get to him. As the story moves forward, peeling every layer of this onion reveals another sad tale.”
The setting of the piece plays a large role in the storyline as well, said Leight, “We set this in a place that’s this insular remote community where bloodlines are think, and where secrets may have stayed buried for a long time.”
As the pursuit progresses, Leight revealed that the investigation takes its toll on Dodds. “ This guy wanted a horrible crime and now he’s got exactly that and what does he do to solve it? This is what’s at the heart of this episode.”
Leight cites another critically acclaimed series as inspiration for the episode. “I think this one is our throw back to the way Homicide used to do things in a way.” He went on to say, “This is a tip for the hat to [fellow Executive Producer] Julie Martin. Then he laughed a little as he said, “In her super long, successful television writer career, that was one of the stops on her train.” (Martin has worked several shows, including “St. Elsewhere,” “Homicide: Life on the Street,” and “L.A. Law.”)
Faithful fans of the show have expressed concern that this episode is so Dodds heavy given that he’s the newest member of the squad, to which Leight responded, “I understand where that’s coming from. Early on with [Detective Nick] Amaro’s character we had a small little moment in the morgue with him talking about how his dad knocked his mom around and it was pretty clear that the viewers just didn’t care yet. We sort of learned that a character has to be on a while before he or she earns interest in a backstory, but what we’re doing with Dodds is not so much about his backstory as it is about watching this guy try to get his footing within the department.”
Leight also wanted to take a step back and those address fans who voiced criticism of Lieutenant Olivia Benson’s actions in the episode entitled “Community Policing” that featured a storyline about fellow officers shooting an unarmed black youth. “That one really caused a lot of conversation about what’s true to Olivia’s character, who she would side with in such a case and things like that. But, what I want to say to that is what we’re doing with Olivia is showing that is she’s a very three-dimensional character. We all adore her but she’s not flawless. She’s a real person with a lot of responsibilities to carry. Where she’s in her life right now is she’s a mature, experienced, more world-wise and slightly more world-weary person than she was when she was Stabler’s partner. I like watching a woman in charge of that squad room. To me, she remains a remarkable character but I feel our intent is to bring more and more dimension to her. She’s a savior but let’s remember that saviors have a lot of weight on their shoulders.”
Following “Melancholy Pursuit’, the next installment of “SVU” features a callback to the 300th episode, “Manhattan Vigil,” which aired in 2012. In that episode, a decades out child abduction case was closed with the arrest of a suspect in the murder of a young boy. Now in “Depravity Standard,” as Barba tries to prosecute the offender he faces off against a former SVU colleague, Dr. George Huang. The episode also brings back three other characters from “Manhattan Vigil” – Alex Karpovsky, Mili Avital and Jenna Wolfe. “We like to use the history of the series when we can to tell a good story,” said Leight. “This one is multi-layered in that respect and I think people will really appreciated the way this unfolds.”
After this episode, which airs on Wednesday, November 18th, the next new episode of “SVU” will air on Wednesday, January 6th, 2016. This season of “Law & Order: SVU” will contain 23 episodes in total.
“Law & Order: SVU” airs Wednesdays at 9/8c on NBC.