Friends, we start this cold open with my favorite thing in the SVU universe—when they have “a runner.” Unfortunately, I think the cast is sick of running because all we got was Carisi using some Hulk-strength and pulling himself up to the fire escape to stop the runner from jumping, which honestly? Yes, please. I don’t know why, but I am team Carisi this season. 🤷
So, like the title said, this is a trafficking episode. We haven’t had one of these in a while but since this show is 20 years old, of course we’ve had a similar episode in the Stabler-years. You’ll recall Ming Na Wen’s guest starring appeared in 2004’s “Debt” where a woman was murdered and her two children were left alone in the apartment, for days, because she was trying to pay off her sister’s debt to human traffickers.
There’s no Ming Na Wen this episode, but our very special guest star this time is Margaret Cho (!), who plays the Madame of the whole operation named Mama-San. She brings young women over from China and forces them to do sex work in order to pay off their debt to her for bringing them over. This all goes down when the SVU squad are undercover to take down Mama-San’s massage parlor syndicate which is really a front for sex trafficking. (This is an SVU episode, afterall.) The runner moment happens when they raid the brothel in the cold open, and one of the trafficking victims makes a beeline for it. Now we’re cooking with gas.
Once back at the station, everyone has to wait for translators to get there, except for new Detective Kat Tamin (I’m not on a first name, or last name, basis with this new character… yet.) See, she speaks some Mandarin, Cantonese, and Hakka. I’m pretty sure we saw her speak Spanish in another episode, so I am most definitely going to keep track of how many languages our Detective speaks, going forward. Although that may be for naught, because Finn says at the end of the episode “She’s not going to make it [here.]” Is this foreshadowing?!
This is a fairly straightforward episode. There are no diversions to “guess what? You thought you were monitoring a human sex trafficking ring, but what you were really monitoring was an illegal cheese ring where they smuggle non-pasteurized cheesed into New York in massage oil jugs, and now that cheese has killed the Comptroller’s son. Dun dun.”
Naturally since this is an SVU episode, someone has to die, and that death comes in the form of one of the key witnesses in the original raid (and the only one willing to testify) trying to escape out of the courthouse bathroom and falling. The SVU Death Gods are once more appeased…until the next episode, of course. They must extract their toll in blood.
In the immortal words of Yoda, though, there is…another, and her name is Mei Mei. She’s the runner at the beginning of the episode, and the detectives encounter her at the dead woman’s funeral. She’s pissed, and wants this all to end, so she’s willing to cooperate with the squad. Primarily so she can pay off her debt and go live with her brother in San Francisco.
So the squad soldiers on. After Saint Olivia threatens Mama-San’s daughter’s college admission into UC Davis, because colleges won’t accept money from human traffickers, Mama-San rolls over and gives up the name of her rich backers—the Changs. (BTW, that’s it for Margaret Cho in this episode and honestly, I feel like when you have Margaret Cho on as a guest star, you use Margaret Cho as your damn guest star! Total wasted opportunity, here.)
Also, this confrontation takes place at a Mahjong club, which methinks someone on the show saw Crazy Rich Asians at some point and decided to pay homage to it, which I’m not mad about.
(I wasn’t the only one who thought of this, right?)
Now we’re in the end game of the episode. The Changs get arrested, and Mrs. Chang takes the fall for her and her husband. After weakly trying to cover her ass by saying that the trafficking victims were freelance employees, Mrs. Chang breaks down and admits that she had nothing when she got to America and did what she had to, to make a life for herself here. Furthermore that she tried to help the young women that she trafficked, but that she got off course, and now she must atone.
Cut to the court room, Carisi and ADA Hadid are there. Side note: Hadid most definitely said earlier in the episode that she wanted to prosecute the trafficking victims, too, to “break the cycle” and there are only two directions they’re headed with this character. Either she’s corrupt AF, or she’s going to finally see the light and become a champion for the SVU squad and possibly go down with the ship to cover their asses, but I digress. The lawyer side of the show have made a plea deal with Mrs. Chang, and just as they’re about to finalize it with the judge, the feds swoop in and take over custody of Mrs. Chang, who ultimately gets released because her confession has nothing to do with the Fed’s case, and thus, won’t be used.
If SVU has taught me anything in the 20 years its been on the air, it’s that the feds always mess things up. Always. Even when you think they won’t, like Marcia Gay Harden’s character, FBI Agent Dana Lewis, and they lull you into a false sense of security with her multiple episodes over multiple seasons, a fed will still mess it up. Remember, Dana Lewis turned out to be a damn, common murderer. The only character this does not apply to was my beloved George Huang, noted FBI psychologist, profiler, and frequent voice of reason to the SVU squad.
Anyway, the episode ends with Kat being super pissed that justice wasn’t served, Finn telling Liv that he doesn’t love Kat’s chances for staying with the squad, and Mei Mei’s debt being forgiven and her getting the hell out of New York to go live with her brother in San Francisco.
I failed to mention that the title of this episode was “Forget it Counselor, it’s Chinatown” which honestly, is biting off more than it can chew, here. That was a movie with an amazing WTF twist at the end. There was no “twist” here, but you know what? This is still the best episode of the season so far. Why? Well, for starters, there was no Noah Benson (who is the worst.) I didn’t have to hear about Rollins’ child care arrangement or her bitching about how Carisi has changed, and like I said, we had a runner. I’ll take it!
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