A blast from the past promises to shake up this season
Law & Order: Special Victims Unit - Season 19
Credit: Will Hart/NBC

Season 19 (can you believe it? Nineteen?!) of Law & Order: SVU kicks off with a curveball twist that’s impossible to ignore, so much so that it lingered in the back of my mind throughout Olivia’s personal troubles with Noah, Fin’s Cuban excursion, and the surprise character return at the end of the hour. Not only is Bart Ganzel out of jail, but he’s a lawyer!

Seriously, though, I realize actor Peter Jacobson isn’t playing Bart, but after rewatching the infamous framing-of-Cragen story line from season 14, it’s hard to separate Jacobson from the pimp who employed Brian Cassidy and whose feud with New York’s black-book madam Delia Wilson landed SVU’s beloved captain in the crossfire. Dick Wolf’s crime drama has a long history of reusing actors in different roles — Kelli Giddish played a rape victim in season 8 before landing the role of Amanda Rollins, while Peter Scanavino played a molestation victim in season 14 before becoming a series regular as Dominick Carisi Jr. — but it never ceases to surprise.

Despite the thrill of seeing Fin’s “buenos dias, pendejos” moment, this premiere is a pretty average episode, especially when we’re coming off the roller coaster ride that was the two-part season 18 finale. But Jacobson’s return, however brief, is appropriate for the big surprise in the final moments: Brian Cassidy (Dean Winters) shows up at Olivia’s door to establish at least one story arc that will play out this season.

Before we get into that, a whole case unfolds with a fugitive rapist by the name of Byron Marks — not to be confused with another SVU character named Dr. Byron Marks, who was played by Daniel McDonald in season 2. This Byron Marks (played by Will Chase) sexually assaulted three women around the time that Rollins came aboard the team, but he fled jurisdiction and has been hiding out in Cuba ever since. He has a normal life with a wife and daughter, but Fin brings him back to the states for prosecution through some acrobatics the D.A. would not approve of.

Out of his three victims, only one (despite her less-than-helpful husband) wants to testify against Byron: Karla (played by another familiar face, Amy Smart). Add in the fact that Byron’s DNA is a match for all three cases, and it seems like a straightforward case. That’s when Bart — excuse me, Randy Dworkin, a federal court attorney who (as some fans have reminded me) Jacobson played on Law & Order proper — comes to his defense and brings some political complications. First, he argues that Fin “tortured” Byron by leaving him handcuffed in the back of an overheated van for four hours, which would have made his forcible extradition illegal under a unique law. The judge doesn’t go for it, so Dworkin brings in a representative of the Cuban government who objects to a U.S. agent taking a Cuban citizen across borders.

Bolstering their defense is Byron’s wife, who was flown in from Cuba to give testimony on how their lives would be ruined should he not return home. This upset in the case forces a wedge between Karla and SVU, since the expectation was that she would come forward and he would go to jail. This story isn’t without some classic Law & Order speed bumps, however: Byron is released into his lawyer’s custody. Dom and Amanda tail them and his wife to a diner, where Byron escapes out the back. Following a hunch, Olivia finds Karla holding him at gunpoint in her home. He claims he came to convince her to drop the charges by explaining how he has a family now, but it sends her into fits — the scar across her face seems just as fresh to her as it did when he raped her years prior. (React continues on next page)

Olivia is able to get the gun away from Karla. Though a stray bullet is fired into the air in the scuffle, no one is hurt, and Byron is taken back into custody. After all of this, it still looks as though he’s going to be able to go back to Cuba. However, Olivia gets the idea to have Karla give her statement on her rape in front of Byron’s wife. After hearing all the details to her horrific story — including how he urinated on her after making her beg to be assaulted — and that he’s done this to at least two other women, Byron’s wife agrees to change her request, sealing his fate.

Whether it was the focus on all the political back-and-forth instead of the victims’ trauma or that the poignant and frustratingly topical “American Dream” was still pulsing through me, “Gone Fishin'” lacked that emotional impact that made me truly empathize with for the characters or become enraged over the injustice. Still, this season promises to be a difficult journey for Olivia, who, while all of this was going on, was left dealing with Noah.

In one of the first scenes of the episode, the boy tells Olivia he wishes she wasn’t his mother while they walk to his first day of school. Brushing off the emotional wound, she takes a phone call while at the crosswalk when a car comes barreling toward Noah. She snatches him out of the way just in time, but in forcefully grabbing him, she leaves behind bruises. Olivia forgets about the whole thing until Noah innocently tells his teacher when asked about the marks that he got them from his mom. Olivia tries to contain her frustration as she listens to these accusations at school, but when she hears the full story from Noah later that night, she’s relieved.

So, how does Brian fit into all this? We last saw him in his season 14 breakup with Olivia. Now, he’s working for the D.A.’s office as an investigator, and he’s looking into a child abuse case on which SVU had to recuse itself. It’s Olivia’s case.

For all of us who’ve watched Olivia day in and day out, the assumption the she physically harmed Noah is both outrageous and hurtful. But then you remember how Noah had the flu and was taken to the ER, where Olivia was accused of causing his rib fractures. You remember Noah’s case worker trying (but failing) to have Olivia removed as his foster mother. You remember the measles scare, and you remember that time Noah’s birth father tried to portray Olivia as a cop with a personal vendetta against him. All of a sudden, this history attached to Noah’s new bruises may look suspicious to a third party.

The course to Olivia’s familial bliss never did run smooth, so why would now be any different?

Given this new information, the big question still left to be answered is the identity of Brooke Shields’ characters. We know she’s appearing a recurring role, we know it’s a pretty major role, we know it’s unlike any role Shields has ever played (according to the actress’ statement), and we know her presence will “shake up” Benson’s world from here on out. We’ve also, via the show’s official Twitter account, seen photos of Shields standing in and outside of a courtroom. So who is she?!

We wrote a react for this episode, which means we’ll just be checking in occasionally, but if this is a show you’d like to read about each week, please let us know! You can email chat@ew.com with your feedback and suggestions.

Law and Order: Special Victims Unit
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