After 20 years on the air, Law & Order: SVU still manages to surprise me.
From the previews, Law & Order: SVU Season 20 Episode 21 looked like yet another story about teenagers from other countries lured into a sex trafficking ring.
But that wasn't what happened at all. The only thing predictable about this story was that exchange host Richard was a pervert.
I knew from the beginning something wasn't right with Richard.
When Benson and Rollins met him at the hospital, he seemed controlling and defensive, and throughout the hour I lost track of how many times the girls begged the cops not to tell Richard.
Plus, he seemed more of an adoptive father than someone temporarily hosting the girls, which was weird.
Amelia: Richard proved it.
Benson: How did he prove it?
Amelia: I don't want to talk about it.
Benson: This is very important. What did he do?
Amelia: With his fingers. He put them inside me and said he loved me.
Even so, I didn't expect Richard to turn out to be a sexual predator. I thought he was going to turn out to be an abusive father figure who paid that cab driver to beat up Amelia as punishment for some deviation from overly strict rules.
I'm still not sure what that cabbie got out of assaulting Amelia or what he had to do with anything, other than being the catalyst for the real story. I guess it's like Rollins said: that assault led to the discovery of Amelia's secret .
In most cases, I dislike plot points of that nature. They're too random and it's obvious they were just included to move the story along.
But with "Exchange" it worked. It's believable that a random crime of this nature could happen in New York City, and equally believable that that easily-solved crime could result in the discovery of an even more egregious violation of the victim's rights.
Benson and Rollins' discovery of the video helped promote the idea that the girls were caught up in some sex trafficking scheme. Nice misdirect!
Lara was all sorts of shady, and it wasn't clear until the big reveal what her story was. It seemed like she was, at the very least, guiding her sister towards sex parties and might have been in on something nefarious.
Technically, she was, though it wasn't purposeful. Richard had somehow convinced her that her birth father had abused her. Talk about creepy!
Lara: I love her. I would never do anything to hurt her.
Carisi: I think we're way past that.
One thing that confused me was how old the girls were when they crossed paths with Richard and how this whole international scapegoating scheme worked.
The girls were coached to say that the abuse occurred when they were four years old, but obviously, they were much older when Richard started this. I would have liked to have had a translation of more of that court transcript and found out exactly how this went down.
It wasn't important enough to bog the story down with, but it was an annoying detail that kept bugging me throughout the hour.
Rollins: Maybe we can help.
Mary: No... nobody...
Mary: They were sexually abused by their dad back in Italy. Please don't tell Richard.
Obviously, Richard used Lara's desire to protect her sister against her.
His brainwashing must have been REALLY good!
I know that some abusers are excellent gaslighters, but I would have loved to see more of Richard being one of them. A flashback, or maybe him acting weird in the present, would have gone a long way.
Instead, we just got a ton of people saying Richard was controlling and a story about the girls' birth father abusing them that would never have unraveled if not for Benson's ability to speak and read Italian.
Not that this wasn't an enjoyable story!
There were a ton of small moments in this one that elevated it from a run-of-the-mill episode to a better-than-average one.
I especially liked some of the conversations between Rollins and Benson. Their friendship has evolved naturally since the days when Rollins was the wild child of SVU that Benson had to try somehow to reel in.
Rollins and Carisi working together to figure this mess out were also fun. These two are much more enjoyable when they're on the same side than when they're sniping at each other.
I have to admit I didn't realize that what Carisi was looking at was bedrooms without doors, though. I saw him touch the hinges and was trying to figure out what he saw, exactly. It made sense once he explained it, though.
You'd think Richard and his wife would have wanted to minimize contact with SVU, too, given their secret.
I know criminals can get cocky, but did Richard really think he would get away with this long term?
Alan Kay: Please, sit.
Fin: We'd rather stand.
Kay: A man after my own heart. Want a deal to tank, take a seat.
There were just so many loose ends that SVU was able to grab. Everything from the two girls making the same statement to the other guy who raped Amelia being a business contact! Plus did he think the other exchange students would all disappear forever after he got done with them?
If I had to make one criticism, it would be that Richard and Mary's characters weren't fleshed out enough. Out of nowhere, Mary turns out to have been aware of the whole thing and also allowed Richard to force her to watch him have sex with teenage girls over the years.
It would have been better to develop her character more than that so that this was believable, and for Richard to be something more than a one-note pedophile who killed himself rather than go to jail in the end.
All in all, though, it was an enjoyable hour, even if it wasn't as thought-provoking as SVU tends to be.
What did you think, SVU Fanatics? Did you like this story or would you have preferred it go in a different direction?
Law & Order: SVU continues to air on NBC on Thursdays at 10 PM EST/PST.
Jack Ori is a senior staff writer for TV Fanatic. Follow him on Twitter.