Elliott Stabler is the Bad Cop That America Needs Right Now

[Slight spoilers ahead for Law & Order: Organized Crime. But if you’re the kind of person who likes being surprised by a narrative, you’re probably not a fan of Law & Order. HEYO!]

It’s been a minute since I’ve bothered watching a police procedural drama.

Firstly, because once you’ve seen three of them, you’ve seen all of them. Nobody is reinventing the wheel in this genre. The killer is the third suspect they interview, and you already knew that because he was credited as the special guest star. And if you’ve so much as glanced at a newspaper within the last six months, you’ll already know the plot (and twist) of the episode.

And secondly, not to put too fine a point on it- fuck the police, you know? Given my political leanings in recent years, it is a hard sell to get me to watch a show about the criminal justice system and root for the cops over the criminals.

But hey- you add Christopher Meloni to the mix, and I’ll give it the old college try. I may not be the same person I was in 2003- an impressionable child all jacked-up on post-9/11 fervor for our heroic boys in blue- but that hunk of absolute beefcake hasn’t lost a STEP, and if ever there was an ass worth abandoning your principles over, I think we’ve found it.

So of course I tuned in for Law & Order: Organized Crime, fully expecting it to be a guilty pleasure watch (as much as I don’t believe in that concept).

Because first things first, let’s agree on one point: Detective Stabler was never fit to be a police officer. Even in a series where the cops were the good guys, he was always a bad cop. He was too hot-headed, too violent, way too goddamn trigger-happy, and in later years too self-righteous about all of those irredeemable flaws. Rights? Boundaries? Due process? Never heard of ’em. Threatening witnesses and smacking perps around? Oh yeah, that’s our man Stabler. He’s basically the poster child for #ACAB. But we used to be on his side, or at least willing to shrug it off, because he was only beating up rapists and pedophiles. Sure, he still shouldn’t. But in a realer, truer sense? Knock their heads in, Elliott, we brought the popcorn.

But that doesn’t fly so much in today’s society. We’re collectively pretty burned out on blatant police brutality. No one wants to watch a white man in a position of power do whatever he wants, to whoever he wants, just because he’s got a badge on his chest. (Unless that chest has Christopher Meloni’s pecs, granted, but even then you’re pushing it.) It seems like a baffling time to bring back a character like Detective Stabler, right?

Well, yeah. But the thing is that the show knows it. Instead of getting an excuse-making piece of Copaganda, Law & Order: Organized Crime is a refreshingly self-aware Requiem for a Bastard Cop. Dick Wolf, you’ve done it again.

The show opens about a week after Stabler’s wife is murdered, right in front of him, in a car-bombing of which he was presumably the intended target. He is completely and totally fucked-up over it, and more importantly he is completely and totally in denial about how fucked-up he is over it. He has some major untreated PTSD- not just about his dead wife, but about all of those years spent chasing child rapists, and about previously quitting the Special Victims Unit to get out of the consequences of a bad shooting. (Y’all forgot about that one, right?)

Stabler’s trauma, and its role in his complete inability to do his job properly, is a bigger plot point of the series than getting to the bottom of who killed his wife.

I’ll repeat for emphasis: it has only been a week­­ since his wife was murdered. The guy should be on a sabbatical right now, not working cases- and he sure as shit shouldn’t be working a case directly related to his wife’s death. But he is, even though multiple characters point out that it’s inappropriate. Stabler is directly confronted about being mentally unfit, but no one makes him talk to a psychologist.

Hell, his new commanding officer immediately calls him out for being the kind of old-school shithead cop who doesn’t think that he needs to change with the times, even though he is The Entire Problem…

…and then within the week, she’s looking the other way after discovering that he’s tampered with evidence.

And the show doesn’t justify this. It doesn’t act like Stabler is still a hero. It treats him like a villain protagonist, and the other main characters enabling his behavior are made out to be just as culpable. This is no longer a show about a good cop who does bad things that we’re supposed to ignore. This is a show about a bad cop, and what happens when his fellow cops look the other way instead of getting him the hell off of the police force.

Detective Elliott Stabler shouldn’t be a cop in today’s climate. But the underlying truth is that he should never have been allowed to be a cop at all– and the world of Law & Order is finally recognizing that, in an immensely satisfying way.  

Author: Bryanna Doe

Author, storyteller, comedian, songwriter.

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