Thursday 10:00 PM on NBC
How do you keep a drama fresh in its 15th season? You stretch the characters, taking them and their portrayers into new territory. Warren Leight, show runner for Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, is certainly doing that in season 15. The season opener saw our beloved Detective Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) abducted and tortured. Last week's tense follow-up showed her facing her abductor at his trial. But this week the spotlight is off of Benson and rightly shining on her partner.

In this episode, Detective Nick Amaro (Danny Pino), while backing up a uniformed police officer, shoots an unarmed 14-year-old. Pino brought his A-game, excellently portraying Amaro's doubt, fear, desperation and waning belief in the value of what is right.

"Danny does more in this episode than we’ve asked him to do in two and half years. We pushed him to a really disturbing place and he really knocks it out," says Leight.

The episode begins with the squad getting ready to meet to celebrate Benson's passing the sergeant's exam. The only thing marring the celebration is Detective Fin Tutuola's (Ice-T) assertion that Benson will have to be transferred to another unit.

At the apartment Olivia shares with Brian Cassidy, wine is served. When Amaro declines a second glass, Detective Amanda Rollins (Kelli Giddish) teases him about being a "choir boy" and pours him another glass. Captain Cragen (Dann Florek) announces that with the new Mayor making some changes, the department has been losing some people. Because of this, Benson will not be transferred. She has been assigned as Sergeant to the Special Victims Unit. Drinks all around!

Soon the party breaks up and Amaro and Rollins walk out together. At this point fans have to wonder what's happened to the tension between the two over the last couple of episodes. Apparently Amanda is trying to make amends for the things she said to Nick when he went undercover to investigate the shady practices of her 12-step sponsor/boyfriend (see episode 15.9, "Rapist Anonymous").

As the pair walks toward the street two uniformed officers run past in pursuit of a young black man. One of the officers is hit by a cab. Nick and Amanda rush to his aide. The officer tells them he and his partner were chasing a drug dealer who his partner thought had a gun. Rollins calls it in while Amaro rushes off to assist the other officer.

Amaro finds the female officer in an apartment building, taking cover next to a hallway. He shows her his badge and she tells him the suspect has a gun and is at the other end of the hallway. Despite Amaro’s protests, the officer rushes into the hall. Shots are fired and the officer goes down. More shots are heard, and Nick holds his gun around the corner of the wall and shoots blindly, then pulls the female officer to safety. She has been shot in the leg.

As Amanda arrives, she and Nick approach the suspect, who is on the floor with a man and woman leaning over him. Amanda pulls them away as Nick first unsuccessfully searches for the gun, then checks the young man's injuries. He realizes it is a "sucking chest wound" and covers the wound with what looks to me like a credit card, as Amanda calls an ambulance. The EMT tells Amaro that he saved the kid’s life. We learn later that sadly, the bullet nicked the boy’s spine and he’s paralyzed.

Amaro, as he states throughout the episode, “did everything right.” He followed his training, department protocol. But even so, things went very wrong. No gun is found, and it eventually comes to light that the 14-year-old boy never had a gun. The female cop, Officer Shannon McKenna (Vicky Jeudy), was the only one firing. the bullets from her gun ricocheted off the walls and ceiling of the cement block building.

Although inadvertently, Detective Amaro really did shoot an unarmed kid. And the new administration made a campaign promise to “change NYPD’s culture of racism and brutality.” As Captain Cragen says, the new mayor is “looking for a poster boy for excessive force” [and] Amaro [is] the sacrificial lamb.” On a side note, the mayor’s name was never mentioned, so I tweeted producer Julie Martin asking if it was Alex Muñoz. She said “No, Muñoz is in prison for soliciting a minor” (see episode 15.6, “October Surprise”).

As is usually the case when one of the squad is in trouble, Lieutenant Ed Tucker (Robert John Burke) of Internal Affairs is on the scene, but this time with his new sidekick, Detective Brian Cassidy (Dean Winters). As fans know, Amaro and Cassidy have a history of distrust. And now Benson is in an awkward situation as her partner is investigated by her boyfriend.

Later, Olivia stops by Nick’s house and finds him with his mother and his daughter, Zara. Olivia tries to console the discouraged Nick, who is being called a "kid killer," telling him the squad has his back. Suddenly, shots are fired through the front window, and glass shatters over Zara and her grandmother. Nick rushes to his daughter while Olivia calls for backup and draws her weapon. Outside she finds two young men. Just arrived NYPD officers chase a third boy, who is running down a side street. While Benson holds the boys at gunpoint and tries to question them, Amaro rushes out of his house with a baseball bat, livid. “You shoot at my house with my daughter inside?” He takes a swing at the boys as they taunt him. As another police car arrives, Nick heads back to his house, severely wounding a garbage can along the way.

Tucker shows up at Amaro’s house to begin an IAB investigation. With rarely seen compassion, Tucker tells Amaro that under the circumstances “I would have done the same thing. Or worse.”

Nick’s spirits reach a new low when his wife tells him she wants sole custody of Zara, at least until the case is over. Nick tells Liv he can’t argue with her, thinking of Zara’s safety. Liv stops him when he starts talking about how Zara may have to visit him in prison. He tells her he’s considering making a plea deal.

Back at the station Nick is finishing a phone call with his old mentor, the much-missed Sergeant Munch. Amaro tells Cragen that Munch suggests he make a deal. Cragen tells him to seriously think about what his life would be like without his badge. “I wish I could say NYPD looks out for its own, but I’m not gonna lie to you.”

Nick’s lawyer (Elizabeth Marvel) tells Prosecutor Derek Strauss (Greg German) that Amaro is willing to plea to a charge of misdemeanor reckless endangerment. He would leave the department, but keep his pension. He would serve no jail time, but is willing to serve one-year probation as long as there is no felony charge on his record. The prosecutor stops her at the mention of a felony charge. He tells Nick he needs to plead guilty to a felony hate crime, Nick protests, again, that the shooting was not racially motivated, and storms out.

In front of the Grand Jury, the Prosecutor’s case is growing. Against the advice of his attorney, Nick wants to testify. As Strauss questions Nick’s assertion that he “did everything right,” Nick states again that he did what he was trained to do. Prosecutor Strauss notes that the only other time Amaro shot a suspect it was to protect another female officer (see episode 13.15, “Hunting Ground” when he saved Olivia’s life). He asks if Nick’s reaction in this case would have been different if Officer McKenna had been chasing a 14-year-old white girl. Nick doesn't answer, and Strauss tells him he can step down. Before Amaro can leave the stand a black female member of the Grand Jury asks permission to speak. “Do you honestly think you did everything right?” she asks Amaro.

Here is where Danny Pino’s performance shines. Amaro’s answer to that question lays bare his internal struggle. “Since that night I've been struggling to reconcile how doing everything right could lead to such a horribly wrong result.” With tears in his eyes, Amaro respectfully tells the woman that if he were in that situation again he would do the same thing, but that he regrets how it turned out. Outside the courtroom Nick is sure he will be indicted, but his lawyer tells him that whatever he said to the jury worked. The vote for indictment didn't go through. He is free to go.

Back at the station Cragen gives Nick back his badge then surprises everyone with an announcement. He is leaving his job a few months before his mandatory retirement. His lady friend, Eileen (Mel Harris) has tickets for a six-month cruise around the world, and he has enough leave time accrued that he will sail right into retirement. The squad is happy for their friend, but sorry to see him go. He tells them that Sergeant Benson will now be their boss. In his (now her) office, he warns Olivia not to make the job her whole life, like he has done. His relationship with Eileen is a “hail Mary,” a last chance at happiness.

I was greatly moved by this whole episode. Amaro’s frustration was very real, and the downward spiral of his case seemed to be out of control. I felt every bit of it. I can’t say enough good things about Pino’s performance; I couldn't do him justice. The writing, too, was top-notch, just as it has been this whole season. And Cragen’s farewell, though I knew it was coming at some point, was still unexpected and sad.
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