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Monday, 25 of May of 2020

Law & Order – “Rubber Room”

A bomb threat is a serious matter. A union lawyer is more serious.”

That “Rubber Room” serves as the (probable) series finale for the Law & Order mothership is, for my money, a good thing. As an episode, it doesn’t hit that L&O bingo I’ve discussed before (no major guest stars or traveling around the city for what I feel is are industrial reasons I’ll get to in a moment), but it does strike that balance between procedural and character that I feel the show does so well. At the same time, “Rubber Room” still feels like the show hasn’t moved out of the late 90s while addressing contemporary issues.

All in all, it encapsulates a standard Law & Order episode, and I don’t think the show should’ve ended with anything else. I’ll give some thoughts about this as a finale at the end, but I still feel the episode itself needs to be addressed as a non-finale, not only since it wasn’t intended as such but because I feel like even an intended finale would still be just anotherL&O episode.

If there’s one thing L&O doesn’t do well it’s a cyberspace related crime. Part of it is just that the show still thinks that the Internet  is a horrible and dangerous place, where evil people prey on the innocent, stealing their identities, organizing sexually deviant acts, and – gasp – blogging! And, yes, that stuff does happen. But if you watched L&O, you’d think that was all the Internet was for. As one of the characters notes of a blogger: “He has pictures of girls on his site! And guns! He’s a freak!”

It’s telling of the show’s mentality when it comes to the cyber crimes. It’s vacuumed-sealed in a time when people didn’t fully know how to navigate the dangers of the Web, but I feel this is ultimately part of the show’s longevity. Indeed, crime dramas thrive on the moral panic they incite (Criminal Minds is the worst offender of moral panics on the air right now, but that’s another post), and there’s something charmingly out-of-date about L&O‘s moral panicking. It’s a 1990s period piece (SVU is only slightly younger).

But I’d argue that the cyber crimes also work as cost-saving measures for the program. Trying to track someone down on the Internet involves a lot of tracing IP addresses and staring at computer screens, which means less time out on the street talking to leads. It cuts down on the extras that need to be paid or the exterior shots that need to be filmed. Cyber crimes are, essentially, the L&O‘s version of being trapped in an elevator: keep the costs down because you have fewer people shooting, both cast and crew.

From the ripped from the headlines approach, L&O again tackles the perils of the American education system. Earlier this season, in an episode that I didn’t cover, they dealt with at-risk schools and grade inflation (which, of course, leads to murder). Here, the show showcases how teacher unions, the Department of Education, and overly empowering students and parents have created a hostile working environment for teachers. It’s so hostile that it forces a disgraced teacher to attempt to blow and shoot up the school where he’s currently working as a sub.

What teachers have to put up with is being (somewhat) exaggerated, but the show is calling attention to how the educational system is broken. Teachers are in charge of our children’s education after all (up to the point that unions, the federal government, and PTAs don’t take charge)). That the show keeps union reps present and the concerns of parents on the grand jury front and center, and teachers who seem a lost but dedicated does make this point all the clearer. No mincing words here. And this is in keeping with the show’s more recent political bent.

Shifting gears, this episode would’ve been the last for S. Epatha Merkerson if the show hadn’t turned out to be the last for everyone, and she delivers a powerhouse of a performance here. That long take of her face as she has the MRI done, unflinching but scared, is something everyone who wants to act needs to study. And while I would’ve liked for whether or not Van Buren’s cancer had gone into remission to remain kept from us, that Merkerson keeps it from the camera until she whispers into Ernie Hudson’s ear is just wonderful. (I cried as much as I did when Sun and Jin awakened on Sunday night. Which was a fair bit.)

But as a finale to the series, I love the last scene. Do I miss the quippy closer one-liner? Sure, but I adore Van Buren gazing out at her friends and colleagues, people taking time out of their busy and important jobs to not only honor her, but to come together in celebration. And I take comfort in that, despite the celebration, tomorrow everyone goes back to work, investigating crimes and prosecuting the offenders.


  • I was happy, despite the lack of courtroom scenes, that we got a righteous volcano of moral rage from Jack McCoy one last time. Sam Waterson’s still got it.
  • Sadly, the clear romantic connection between Cutter and Rubirosa will only continue in your L&O fanfictions.
  • I already eulogized the show here, so you can read a send-off to the show overall here. In a related note to my comment in the comments section, I still remain convinced that a send-off movie or special isn’t necessary. I worry it would be too character-focused for the mothership. Resist the urge, NBC and Dick Wolf.

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