“Law & Order: SVU” is a show that likes its episodes to have definitive endings, so it was surprising enough when word got out that Wednesday’s (May 23) season finale would be a cliffhanger.
And man, what a cliffhanger. It’s almost 24 hours later, and we’re just now picking our jaws up off the floor. Zap2it talked with showrunner Warren Leight, who wrote the finale with co-executive producer Julie Martin, about the finale, what it means for Capt. Cragen (Dann Florek) and the squad, the return of Dean Winters and more.
(Big spoilers ahead for those who haven’t seen the episode yet.)
Zap2it: It seemed like Carissa [guest star Pippa Black] was maybe setting Amaro up, but then she ends up in Cragen’s bed with her throat slit.
Warren Leight: That’s good, right? We’ll find out more — I believe the season opener will pick up where this left off, so we’ll get a better sense of it. But I thought she was working Amaro [Danny Pino] pretty hard in the episode, and with luck we’ll figure out more about that in the next episode. I’ll say it this way — Cragen is not the only one who’s going to get dirtied up, rightly or wrongly, before this all ends.
When you write an ending like this, do you already have part two in mind?
A little bit, yes. You don’t want to paint yourself into a corner. In fact, there were a number of scenes whe shot that didn’t make it into this cut that may make it into the next one. … It’s good to know who did it and why, and who’s pulling the strings. I don’t think we have every beat plotted out, and we may even do a two-parter to open the season. That’s still in discussion. We have booked many of the actors so they’re available when we begin shooting again in July. So just on that basis, we had to know who was complicit, because we had to know who was coming back.
How did you settle on Cragen for the final scene as opposed to any of the others?
Throughout the episode, there’s something going on with him. It could be just seen as, it’s the commissioner’s son [who’s involved in the case], and he’s protecting the commissioner. He knows where this is going. … The whole season, one of the things we were playing with, coming off the season opener where we had an Italian politician arrested for rape, is the squad is under a microscope. They’re pissing some people off, going after some powerful people, and there may be retribution. … Cragen has been getting a lot of scrutiny this year that the others are only partially aware of. So in this episode his behavior could be a function of all that scrutiny or a function of, if not complicity on his part, something he needs to hide. Every man has secrets — even Capt. Cragen.
There was a callback to the “Russian Brides” episode too, with the pictures sent to Cragen.
We’ll be revisiting that bit of blackmail as well. What secrets he’s been keeping and who’s found out about those secrets is what’s interesting to me. Amaro, that was the lead story in terms of watching a detective get played or not played. If you watch the episode and watch Cragen throughout, there’s a lot of stress on him. … Sometimes the actors would say, “What’s going on?,” and I’d go, “Yes.” [Laughs] It has to work if he’s completely innocent [or not] — because I didn’t want them to know. The best thing I could tell [Florek] was, “You have a secret. Play that you have a secret, and I’ll tell you what it is later in the year.” … The ordinary stakes of the story are kind of tough on him, and it spirals down from there. If he has a skeleton or two in his own closet, that can affect his judgment or behavior. Which doesn’t mean he killed the hooker in his bed — it just means it leaves him vulnerable.
You mentioned you had most of the guest actors booked for a return in the fall. Does that include Dean Winters?
Yes. Dean was in the first season, and he’s very much part of the lore of the show. … But I was reading on Twitter last night, and everyone was like, “Wow, is that Mayhem guy playing a cop?” He’s a terrific actor. … Olivia has that line that Cassidy used to work in SVU “last century,” and that’s true. The show has legs. But I thought he had a lot of swag to him — I was very impressed. I thought the tension between Cassidy and Amaro was very believable.
How would you assess your first season as the showrunner on “SVU”?
I came in as [Chris] Meloni walked out — we almost passed each other on the way, after I’d been assured he’d be coming back. So in a way that put a lot of pressure on us, but at the same time it opened the show up. It had been on for 12 years — the show needed some fresh air. After 12 years of anything, you need to open the windows and put on a fresh coat of paint, move the furniture around. The show needed that, and his departure actually made it — it was hard on the fans, and was very complicated even for Mariska [Hargitay], but it made it easier to change things. … To some degree I had wanted to go in a less vigilante-like direction for the SVU squad. I felt like over time, the art of interrogation had turned into more vilification, and I wnated to get back to the show’s roots and really depict the reality of these crimes and what they do to survivors and how people get processed through the system.
It both increased the pressure on us and freed us up to bring two new actors in. What was interesting was [as a result] we had a natural theme to go back to over and over, which was how do the old-timers react to the new people, how do the new people fit in, how does the captain deal with change in his department, how does Olivia deal with the departure of her partner. So while Mariska was dealing with the absence of Chris, Olivia could deal with the absence of Elliot. Different actors found different mentors on set, and when I saw that going on I tended to write scenes with those characters. … I’m proud of the season. I thought we really found different ways to tell stories. I thought Mariska had one of her best seasons in years. … It was like turning around an ocean liner in a canal, but I hope it was worth the effort.