Sunday, April 10, 2022

REVIEW: 'Law & Order: SVU' - A Sex Trafficking Case Takes on Personal Significance for Velasco in 'Once Upon a Time in El Barrio'

NBC's Law & Order: SVU - Episode 23.17 "Once Upon a Time in El Barrio"

Velasco asks Benson for help finding three girls who were trafficked from his hometown to New York City.

"Once Upon a Time in El Barrio" was directed by Oscar Rene Lozoya II with story by Bryan Goluboff & Denis Hamill and teleplay by Denis Hamill & Monet Hurst-Mendoza

Two episodes in a row attempt to offer personal agency to Velasco. It's a fascinating creative decision. It had to come as a result of Octavio Pisano being promoted to a series regular. More details about Velasco's life had to come into focus. The narrative can still largely be focused on the job and the work the squad does every week. However, it's more meaningful to actually understand the characters at the heart of these investigations. The show got rid of two developed characters at the start of the season. Velasco was brought in as new blood. It's been frustrating as he hasn't particularly shaken up the environment for the people who have been here a long time. In fact, his reckless impulses even feel familiar to several former characters when they first started at the job. He disobeys Olivia's order to take the night off. Instead, he works undercover and winds up spending the night in jail. He recognizes the punishment as fitting his actions. That awareness is present. He still carried out the action. That was still a focus of the storytelling. He takes this case more personally because if involves people from his hometown. He has close ties with the community in Juarez, Mexico. He escaped for a better life in New York. He is one of the lucky ones. He followed a path that produced all of the promises that were made. Others are so desperate they are willing to accept any deal believing life in America is better than what they are escaping. That's not inherently true. It leads to a trio of girls being trafficked and forced to work as prostitutions to pay off the insanely high debts their abductors have set for them. Olivia has been at SVU for over two decades. She yearns for progress to be made within the police force and the criminal elements in the world. Not a whole lot has changed. That's startling. It can make any rational person desensitized to it all. It can be depressing to realize one's hard work doesn't dramatically change anything. And yet, the work of the squad saves several lives. That must always remain the focus. It doesn't matter how frequently the show has produced episodes just like this. It shines a spotlight on the humanity that must always be central when detailing these cases. The victims deserve to be heard and respected. They can't be abused even further because they were forced into a life of sex work. That wasn't their choice. Olivia leads with compassion. It takes awhile for Velasco to get on the right page. He presents as a key ally though who helps bring this case together.

Of course, the story also makes the more consequential twists play out for another police precinct altogether. SVU has had plenty of turmoil over the years. Olivia continues to clash with McGrath over the best way to carry out the official policy of the squad. It's required more stability than Olivia would like. She is accustomed to that because Fin and Rollins are trusted detectives capable of handling any case that comes in. The audience expects stability. Every episode delivers on a solid formula. When a dirty cop enters the proceedings, it is only the focus for that one particular episode. It's not like Organized Crime - which is currently examining toxic police culture and what is still acceptable amongst the ranks of officers. With this show, the lines are very clear. Captain Kubiak is a criminal who is aware of the trafficking ring and protects it for his own personal benefit. One of his trusted detectives gets killed in trying to help SVU with their investigation. She is the beating heart of her community. She is gone in an act of senseless violence that comes from greed and ego. SVU understands they have to work to build trust with the people with key information. They have the ability to keep them safe from the various threats out there. Not every police office can be seen that way. This country simply has a reputation of being cruel to immigrants. It's a fair assumption whenever one comes into the room demanding answers from those who don't have certain documents. Not everyone can be a success story like Velasco. He received the benefit of an entire community. He maintains those close connections. He doesn't exactly have anything in New York that can match that significance. He doesn't have much of a personal life. He knows how to get information on the streets. He doesn't know the community he is now tasked with protecting. That doesn't make him a bad detective though. It should. It easily could present him as someone lacking the empathy to understand the complexity of life in this specific place. Instead, Velasco relies on his shared experiences elsewhere to inform his actions. It's meaningful character work. It's more successful than the personal hour. And yet, the audience is probably just as desperate as Olivia and Fin are to have Rollins and Carisi back as soon as possible.