Friday, February 9, 2018

Review: Law and Order SVU 19x13 'The Undiscovered Country"

"A man shouldn't do what he can, he should do what he must, without regard for consequence or repercussion.  That's what makes us moral."

This week's episode was one of the most awful things I have ever seen, and that's saying a lot.  (Especially as a longtime fan of SVU and of Rafael Barba, who has gone from my favorite character to the one I most despise.)

It begins when mother, Maggie, returns home from getting her nails done and calls out to the sitter, only to find her baby gone and the sitter locked in a cabinet.  Dad (Aaron) apparently has taken off with their 10-month-old son, Drew.

I've seen episodes like this before - or so I thought at this point.  I fully expect that Benson and friends will find Drew unharmed but somehow be led to another case, where they discover a real bad guy and get some kind of justice for the victims.

Lieutenant Benson reassures Maggie that her husband will likely not hurt the baby, and the mother retorts, "You don't know the first thing about my son!  It's only a matter of time before he can't breathe without that thing!"  (She says "that thing" derisively as she motions to what looks like tubing for a ventilator by Drew's crib.)

As Tara aptly mentioned, "I don't know...if something were keeping my baby alive, I doubt I'd speak about it with such contempt."

That should have been our first clue.

It turns out that Drew has been diagnosed with Mitochondrial DNA Depletion Syndrome.

If this sounds familiar, it should.  Charlie Gard, an 11-month-old baby in the UK also had MDDS.  His parents raised enough money through a fundraising site to bring Charlie to the US to get him the only treatment - an oral medication - that might help.  Instead, the hospital contested this and the case was brought to court.  In the end, too much time had passed, and Charlie's condition worsened to the point where the treatment would no longer be effective.  Life support was eventually withdrawn from baby Charlie last July, in hospice, after no care-provider would accompany him so he could be at home as his parents wished.

In SVU's version of this story, Drew and his father, Aaron are located.  Lieutenent Benson goes inside to negotiate in person.  She checks on baby Drew, who is sleeping in his crib with a ventilator on his face.  Lieutenent Benson checks that Drew is breathing and then tells Aaron he is beautiful.  Aaron is determined that Drew will love baseball, and then asks what he and his wife did wrong that Drew got this diagnosis because it was a one in ten million chance.

It's clear that Aaron is grieving and that what he did was an act of desperation but not ill-thought because he dropped a huge amount of money on another vent for Drew.  Dad is clearly struggling but wants to spend time with his baby.  Though it isn't clear yet why he's taken off with him and threatened to shoot the babysitter if she said anything or tried to stop him.

Lieutenent Benson says that his wife is not doing well and is worried for their son.  Aaron says she doesn't want him.  Benson says she does want him very much.  Benson talks Aaron into surrendering his paintball gun (what???) and then he falls apart, saying, "You don't understand.  She wants to kill Drew."

And there it is:  This isn't going to be a story about a Dad going about being there for his kid in the wrong way.  It's not going to be about any other case or other victims.  It's going to be about disabled life and how we are better off dead than alive.

In the next scene, Maggie is talking to Rollins, saying "It's not like I'm going to hold a pillow over his face.  There are humane ways.  I'm waiting for a court order."  Rollins challenges, "To kill your son?" and Maggie retorts, "To end his suffering."

I was so with Rollins here for challenging Maggie on just why she was waiting on that court order.  And of course - the standby answer - to end his suffering.

Maggie says every day that Drew lives his pain gets worse.  That the doctors say there is nothing they can do.  That his paents can only watch him suffer until...and that "it is killing us."  Maggie says she asked the judge to let her pull the plug on Drew because he "has no brain activity.  He is a lump of flesh!  My beautiful lump of flesh!  He should get the peace that we all deserve!  He can't see!  He can't hear!  He is all but dead already!"

There are so many issues in the above paragraph that I hardly know where to begin.  Tara again aptly pointed out that there is zero indication that Drew is severely allergic to every pain medication.  If he is in that much pain, the conversation should be about pain management not whether or not to kill him.

Maggie really actually hits the nail on the head when she says, "It's killing us."  It's not about Drew at all.  Because if it were, as his parents, they would be advocating for him.  Asking about pain meds or pain management strategies.  Instead, she does not even view Drew as a human being.  She calls him a lump of flesh twice.  And says he should get the peace that "we all deserve."  She's not really thinking about his suffering at all.  Because lumps of flesh don't suffer.  They don't feel pain.  She has successfully distanced herself from and dehumanized Drew.  Her actions?  Her waiting for this court order?  They are about asuaging her own suffering.  They have nothing at all to do with Drew's.

In another room, Benson is speaking with Aaron.  Aaron says the law wants Drew dead.  That a judge is going to sign an order that they pull the plug.  He asks is there a law that will protect Drew?  Questions what if there is some treatment that comes along that can help Drew.  Aaron tells Benson, "You saw him.  You can't tell me that he's nothing."

While I am glad there is some dissenting voice here.  That at least Aaron is shown to fight for Drew (though knowing that Aaron does not agree with Maggie getting the court order, he will agree to "whatever the judge decides" does not inspire confidence.)  No, Drew is not nothing.  He's not.  We are not.

Barba (who was speaking to Maggie) comes out and says: "My dad always said he wasn't scared of being dead he was scared of dying.  That kid is dying every day.  He's taking his folks with him."

Again, Barba hits the nail on the head when he talks about Drew's parents.  Their lives hold a higher value than Drew's own.  It's very clear from Barba's tone here.  He thinks he knows that Drew is suffering terribly because of his disability.  But he also thinks the real weight of that suffering is on the people Drew will leave behind, just as Barba was left behind after his dad died.

Benson says no one is forcing Barba to prosecute and he responds: "If I don't I'm telling the world that baby Drew has no rights."

Rollins responds, "What about his right to die?"

Carisi says "Unfortunately, that's not in the Constitution."

I so wish we had gotten to see Barba prosecute this case as intended, telling the world that Drew does have rights.  But Rollins, randomly asking about Drew's right to die (when Drew is a baby who cannot consent) is just beyond infuriating.  Because it's not his rights they are discussing.  It's his parents' rights to end the life of their living child.

Later, Barba's drinking with elder ADA Jack McCoy.  Barba shares that seven years ago his father (who was not well liked, least of all by Barba himself) went into a diabetic coma and was on life-support for six weeks.  The hospital staff strongly recommended that Barba end it.  He was there each morning before work and each evening until the nurses threw him out.  Barba refused, saying, "No.  Where there's life there's hope."  He continues, "I could have eased his suffering, but I didn't.  I was selfish."

McCoy inexplicably pushes Barba to "prosecute Aaron Householder."

I really have to side-eye the writing in this episode.  It seems entirely irresponsible for someone to push a colleague to prosecute a case when they are clearly as distressed as Barba is here.  He's drinking.  Clearly feeling hopeless.  Dealing with a lot of personal issues that will no doubt cloud his judgment going forward, but yet McCoy still pushes him to work this case?  It makes no sense.

Barba goes to the hospital in search of Aaron but instead finds Maggie in Drew's hospital room watching him sleep.  We see Drew for a second time here.  Maggie says "I love to just look at him.  He's beautiful."  She then says the judge is withholding his decision until a guardian ad litem is appointed to represent Drew's interests.  She's afraid this won't happen quickly because everyone likes to 'pass the buck.'  She says Drew needs the ventilator full time to breathe now, and will for the rest of his life.

This is the second time we see Drew's face.  (We see it for only a second or two at a time.  The briefest of reminders that they are discussing an actual baby here.  An actual human being.)  This is also the second time we hear Drew described as "beautiful."  Where it felt natural for Benson to comment on this the first time she saw Drew, here it just feels...distant.  Of course mothers comment on the aesthetic beauty of their kids all the time, but hearing Drew only described in terms of his looks and not in terms of being loved?  Well, it feels very glaring to me.  Like Maggie only has a surface level attatchment to Drew.  I suppose this makes sense given how egregiously Maggie has already dehumanized her baby and sought ways to end his life.

Maggie cries and says, "God, if I could just know what was going on in there!" That sometimes when she can't sleep she tries to imagine not thinking.  She says that all Drew knows is pain.  That she knew five months into her pregnancy that there was a good chance he would be "like this."  That they were offered termination, and Aaron thought they should abort but Maggie wanted to take their chances.  She says he can't breathe without a machine, can't eat without a tube, can't see, can't hear.  She says she could have prevented that "but instead I chose to be righteous!"

It seems clear here that Maggie equates Drew's disabilities (not being able to breathe, or eat without assistance.  Not being able to see or hear) as suffering.  And all the talk of the abortion comes back around at the trial where it's repeated twice in paperwork that despite being informed of the likelihood that her baby will have MDDS that Maggie has "refused to terminate the pregnancy."  This is said the way one might say a mother "refused" lifesaving treatment for her nondisabled child.  As if a refusal is absurd and harmful.

Maggie sobs: "Why?  Why can't he just die?!"

And Barba responds - with what is supposed to be compassion but really just looks like hideous ableism - "He can."

At this point, Tara and I are both like NO FREAKING WAY DON'T YOU DARE.

We see Drew again.  Maggie tries to turn off life-support herself, but cannot.  So Barba sends Maggie from the room.  He spends several seconds looking at baby Drew.  Barba makes the sign of the cross over the baby.  Smiles a little.  The screen fades to black, but we know what he will do.

So by the time Drew dies, we have only ever seen his face four times.  Maybe for a total of one minute.  We have heard Drew's own mother dehumanize him.  Heard over and over how much he is suffering but each time he is shown on screen, he seems to be sleeping peacefully.  There is no discussion of what other options might be pursued to help ease Drew's suffering.  His parents don't go out of their way to touch him (which is such a powerful sense when a baby is DeafBlind - not to mention when they are hospitalized and largely immobile.)

I hate what Barba does so much and I hate even more that it's framed as an act of mercy.  That it's seen as "humane".  We see all of the intricacies of Drew's mother's reaction.  All of the subtleties of Barba's own emotions. But Barba sends Maggie from the room.  Aaron isn't even there.  So little Drew is murdered without even a loving touch to let him know he's not alone.

When we return, it's the following day and Lieutenant Benson is incredulous:  "You killed the baby?!"

Barba says, "I expedited his passing."  He says, "I had no option."

Lieutenant Benson takes his part and goes to ADA McCoy: "He did what he thought was right."

McCoy agrees but says, "I can't have my ADAs running around killing people.  It's unbecoming."

The fact that it just keeps getting reiterated: how "right" Barba thinks he is is sickening.  So is McCoy's cavalier response that his ADAs can't go around killing people because it's unbecoming."  If Barba had murdered anyone else?  It would not be described as simply "unbecoming."  It would be "wrong."

Barba meets with a defense attorney, who greets him with, "What'd the little bastard ever do to you?" and then says he'll skp the self-defense angle.  He says that this is a "sick joke" because "You killed something that 9 out of 10 doctors would argue isn't alive."

He wants to prove the point that "Once the government takes away our right to die, they take away our right to live."

Calling this defense attorney a heartless jerk is being kind.  To refer to a helpless baby as a "little bastard?" To dehumanize him as "something" ninety percent of doctors would argue "isn't alive?"  I can't.

And then he has the gall to talk about "our" right to die.

Let me be clear, in case I have not been:  No one involved here was concerned about Drew's rights or his wellbeing.  Not one person.  They were concerned about his parents' rights and their wellbeing.  You cannot use "our" in "right to die" conversation about a 10-month-old.  He is a baby!  He cannot consent to being killed!

Lieutenant Benson intercepts the prosecutor outside once the trial begins and implores him: "We're talking about a decent man who did a decent thing."

Thankfully, the prosecutor retorts that "We shoot horses, not people."  And that, "What if Drew didn't have MDDS but Down Syndrome?  Or leukemia?  Or a sore throat?  What if he wasn't physically sick at all?  What if he was just unhappy?"

The fact that Benson just repeatedly goes to bat for Barba rips my guts out.  Because no one did the same for Drew.  I was very glad to hear the prosecutor push back a little here, drawing the distinction between animals and humans.  Making it clear that we cannot judge one person's suffering because what we might consider suffering?  For Drew?  Probably feels very normal.

At the trial, Barba's in the witness box.  He readily admits to killing Drew, but says he does not think it's murder.  Barba considers taking an innocent baby's life a "justifiable homicide."  He starts talking about the flowers that were in Drew's hospital room.  About the music Drew's mom was playing there.  All the things Drew could "never enjoy."  That he would "never recognize the faces of his parents."  That he'd never know any of these things existed and all that he did know, according to Barba?  "The pain of his so-called life."

They discuss that life is only legally considered life when it can be sustained on its own.  That Drew's doctors said his brain had stopped functioning.  That he was "dead already" because he "couldn't form the most basic thought of his own."  That he "couldn't love or hate."

Basically, Barba summed it up painfully well here: He killed Drew Householder because he did not view Drew as a human being.  Because you don't justify killing a 10-month-old.  If he was "dead already" flipping that switch on life-support would make no difference, but it did.  And Barba was not in the position to make that call.  You don't call a person's life a "so-called life."

And when Barba "saw the inutterable pain that [Drew's] existence was causing the two people who loved him most" and he "had to do something, even if it meant going to prison."

We learn he did not even inform Drew's father before Barba took baby Drew's life.

I'm brought back to the very first case we saw Barba work. Where he was challenging a rapist on the stand, who maintained that his victim "liked" being strangled with a belt.  Barba eventually calls him out:  "She didn't like it that way.  You liked it that way!"

Because this was really all about Barba.  Barba's unresolved feelings about his dad.  It was about him being able to identify with Drew's parents.  Not Drew himself.  And that breaks my heart because if anybody needed an advocate - somebody in their corner - in this whole situation - it was that baby.

No one would ever consider it a mercy to walk into someone's home and murder their nondisabled 10-month-old.

Somehow, the verdict comes back Not Guilty.

(But I know exactly how, because almost no one values disabled life as human life...)

Barba tells Benson he has to move on, but says, "You've opened my heart, and I thank you for it."  He says, "I'm you now, Liv," and it is clear that he has lost himself.

How Barba can even possibly claim that he did what he did because of an "open heart" is just ludicrous to me.  How this whole episode is apparently based around the idea of morality and that Barba's actions are framed as moral....just baffles me.  Murder is never moral.

Rafael Barba has transformed into someone I don't even recognize.  I don't even think I'll be able to watch past episodes of SVU let alone future ones.

Just severely disappointing.

(That's an understatement.  But I am out of words.)

At least Charlie Gard's parents loved him.  Fought for him.  Did every single thing they could for him.  At least they valued their son and knew he deserved a fighting chance, comfort and privacy.

So in all the least there's that.


  1. Hi Tonia,
    I completely agree with your and Tara's thoughts on this episode! It made my blood boil. This episode disturbs me so much. Charlie Guard and this baby are babies who have a right to live but instead the whole episode is about “suffering” and “right to die”. This episode promotes euthanasia. Involuntary euthanasia. The sole reason this baby is murdered is disability. "Murder is never moral" THANK YOU! Shout that from the rooftops please! I can understand why refusal of treatment etc needs discussed in CONSENTING adults, and why it is important for people to have bodily autonomy but this baby has NO CHOICE, in the matter whatsoever. The parents have decided disabled life is not worth it. The ultimate example of ableism. These types of episodes are why using the term "suffer" as it applies to disability is dangerous because some parents will assume disability always equals "suffering". Thank you! Thank you for pointing out all this horrid ableism! The world must see this post!

    1. Thanks, Margot. Means so much that you "get it."

    2. You're welcome! It means so much to me that you and Tara get why plots like this in TV disgust me. I have already shared this post with friends.

  2. Hi Tonia. I came across your post looking for reviews after just recently watching this episode, since I found it bothered me deeply on several levels and wanted to read others' takes on it.

    Like you, I found it quite jarring when Barba described baby Drew's inability to ever hear music or see or smell a flower as tangible ways he was not 'alive'. Because of course, a person's senses are not the be-all-and-end-all of their ability to discern the world and process experiences, and they CERTAINLY do not define the value of a life. To suggest they do, the way Barba does in that moment, is bizarre and patronising. But what bothered me most about this explanation was not that it failed to acknowledge and value Drew's humanity. It was that it was such a bafflingly poor response, from a character who is normally eloquent and informed, to the question of WHY Drew was already essentially dead. The fact is, it had been stated more than once by then that he had no brain activity. The crux of the matter was not that he would never be able to perceive beauty. It was that he literally could not perceive anything at all. His brain had ceased to function. There was no electrical activity. When a brain stem is still technically alive but the brain itself has shut down, the ability to process ANYTHING - sensation, emotion, thought, literally anything - is completely gone. Is this not the very definition of lifeless?

    Like you, I found it a chilling moment when the prosecutor challenges Benson (and viewers) to consider where we draw the line - "What if Drew didn't have MDDS but Down Syndrome? Or leukemia? Or a sore throat? What if he wasn't physically sick at all? What if he was just unhappy?" But for me, this was chilling precisely because it is ridiculous to imply no distinction between Drew's condition and these things. The human race is not divisible into two clear categories: 'abled' - those completely unblemished by any condition, or illness, or 'abnormality' - and 'disabled' - under which gets filed any person with any condition that impacts the 'normalcy' of their functioning. The prosecutor's implication is that if we deem baby Drew's life as not worth maintaining we are on a slippery moral slope to saying the same about literally any disability, or even neurodivergence, or cancer, or mental illness. Which is patently absurd. This should have been challenged, and it was not. Humanity is a nuanced condition. 'Ability' is a complex and fluid concept. OF COURSE it is right to fight against the idea that a disability lessens the value of a person's existence, either to themselves or to society. But I fundamentally disagree with your characterisation of baby Drew's condition as simply a 'disability'. A body that contains a barely-functioning brain... surely it is right - morally right - to acknowledge that this teeters on the very edge of what anyone would think of as 'living'?

    1. I must disagree with your last paragraph. Whether baby Drew's life was teetering on the edge of what anyone would consider as living was not for anyone to judge. And he was alive until Barba unplugged his life-support.

      I'm glad the prosecutor challenged Barba on where to draw the line because in my opinion, the question needed to be asked. Disabled lives are regularly devalued and depicted as "not worth living" because it, often times, does not match up with what nondisabled people experience and can do.

      But disabled lives (all disabled life) is worth living. I do consider Drew's MDDS a disability because it was clearly disabling him. He was just as entitled to life as any typical 10-month-old, especially if there were still options to pursue regarding pain medications.