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'SVU's' Benson and 'The Beast' face off in a tense courtroom showdown

William Lewis aka "The Beast" returns to 'SVU' this week.
William Lewis aka "The Beast" returns to 'SVU' this week.
Michael Parmalee/NBC.

Eight months after Detective Benson first encountered “The Beast,” aka William Lewis, the two face-off in the courtroom this week.

Having been through a traumatic assault at the hands of Lewis, Benson is still dealing with the continuing aftermath of that ordeal. The trial in this episode, entitled “Psycho/Therapist,” is the next harrowing step for Benson on this unwanted, life-altering, path.

It’s only because ‘SVU’ has been on the air for 15 years that this storyline works as well as it does. On a lesser entrenched show, the assault of a character wouldn’t carry near the weight that it does in this instance. This is solely because of the long-term history that fans have with Detective Benson; the connection that viewers feel with this person that they have literally spent hundreds of hours with.

Detective Benson’s daily struggle with the unwelcome emotions that continue to her bind to Lewis are clearly written all over her face throughout this chapter of the drama. Her search for justice and for the freedom that she used to take for granted are painfully evident.

One of the most heart-wrenching things to unfold in this episode occurs when Olivia must go through the exact type of interrogation that she’s urged other victims to participate in. It’s extremely unnerving to watch the usually steadfast Benson attempt to overcome the fragility she’s now experiencing to do the very thing that she’s pressed countless others into doing. At the end of this chapter, it’s sadly evident that Benson obviously had only a very vague idea of the toll the process would actually take on her.

Because much of this episode takes place in the courtroom with very little action beyond that room, this hour of the series doesn’t zoom by, but this works in the viewers favor as the slow burn that transpires is remarkable to watch. The smoldering tension that rises during much of the interaction between attorney/witness questioning and testimony, expressed in highly subtexted dialogue, makes this episode seem more like a live action play rather than a police procedural drama. And, while that courtroom has often seemed cavernous in the past, there is a kind intimacy this time that’s nothing short of gripping.

Treading delicately here so as to not give anything away, anyone who saw the brutal beating that Benson gave Lewis knew in that moment that somehow those actions would come back to haunt her. This is a central issue in the episode, but the real war is the one that rages within Benson as she exerts great effort to come to grips with what actually transpired during that four day ordeal while trying to control how the intimate details of the assault are revealed, all the while knowing that no matter how the information is disseminated it will leave both her personal and professional life in tatters. Lewis feeds on Benson’s inner turmoil, trying every tactic possible to goad her, to coax her into straying from her steely resolve into the fighter that she was in that cabin when it was just the two of them. This back and forth is both extremely difficult to watch and strangely satisfying at the same time and leads to an ending that is not completely unforeseen but still quite shocking; a dichotomy that’s incredibly difficult to achieve but yet is reached here.

While all of the previous discussion here has been about the fictional characters and narrative, it would be criminal (pun intended) to overlook the actors who’ve made this all quite believable and so utterly absorbing. Pablo Schreiber has taken a role in which he appears in a scant three episodes, albeit three very pivotal episodes, but still just three, and left an indelible mark on this series. He's managed to portray this character as completely reprehensible and remarkably intriguing at the same time in a manner that is not often seen on network television. Sure, there are other villains that have left viewers conflicted, but rarely has there been one who is this vile and yet the audience is happy to see him again. It’s no small task for an actor to pull that off and Schreiber not all does it well but he seems to excel at it as each time he appears as Lewis he takes this fictional character and inhabits him in a way that gives the character more confidence with each outing.

In contrast, Mariska Hargitay has embodied the character of Olivia Benson for a decade and half and yet has never let up on truly toiling to reveal every nuance that lies within the extremely complicated, often conflicted, Benson. In this episode, she amps up her depiction of this extensively complex woman. Her voice, her facial expressions, her stature, her overall demeanor; Hargitay skillfully uses all of it to painfully show how brittle Olivia feels on the inside all the while trying to appear confident in her convictions on the outside. Hargitay makes sure to convey that right now, during this draining experience, this is not the Olivia that viewers are familiar with; that that air of familiarity is all but worn away here and she is currently but a shell of her former self.

By the end of this episode, while the trial is over, there is only a modicum of closure for Benson which, while completely realistic, will still have viewers continuing to ask, as they have many times this season, ‘Where does Olivia go from here?’ That’s the question that keeps on giving; it keeps on giving the writers of ‘SVU’ more avenues to explore, not only with their main character but with everyone in Olivia’s professional and personal life as well. Such in-depth examination could prove to be endless, and it’s pretty safe to say that this is what fans of the show are hoping for.

Shout outs have already been given here to Hargitay and Schreiber for their work on this episode, now attention must be paid to the scribes who've crafted this staggering piece, so hats off to Warren Leight and Julie Martin as well. And finally, this episode in the hands of a less experienced director would not have achieved the level of intimacy that it has. Thank goodness this piece was so skillfully helmed by someone who many in the industry consider one of the best directors currently working in television, Michael Slovis. Slovis is fresh off his outstanding work on another little show that you might have heard of called “Breaking Bad.”

With “Psycho/Therapist,” the stellar 15th season of ‘SVU’ rolls on.

This week’s hashtag = #BelieveBenson

Next week's episode, “Amaro’s One-Eighty.”

“Law & Order: SVU” airs Wednesdays at 9/8c on NBC.