Aftershock: Law & Order in Reverse
The episode "Aftershock" is one of the most distinctive and most commented upon episodes of Law & Order. In this episode we watch the sixth season characters (Lennie Briscoe, Rey Curtis, Jack McCoy and Claire Kincaid) try to come to terms with having witnessed an execution of a man they had arrested and convicted of rape and murder. This episode also serves as a commentary on the moral problems associated with the death penalty. It symbolically represents the penalty as an injustice in a fictional world dedicated to the pursuit of justice by creating the mirror image of a typical Law & Order episode.
A Law & Order episode normally begins with the discovery of a crime, usually the murder of an innocent. The crime raises a variety of questions, which are addressed, if not resolved, as the episode develops. The main characters are active agents as the plot unfolds, asking questions, drawing conclusions and making decisions that have immediate and lasting consequences. The episode ends with the criminal justice system resolving the questions raised throughout the episode, and some form of justice being served, albeit sometimes unsatisfactorily.
"Aftershock" systematically reverses these Law & Order conventions. It begins, not with a crime, but with the justice system's resolution of a crime. This is done through the execution of a particularly vicious criminal. At this point, the questions normally addressed in a Law & Order episode are already answered. The characters know what crime was committed, who did it and how the perpetrator will be made to answer for his actions. The death we see is not of an innocent, but of a remorseless rapist-murderer.
Normally, the main characters of Law & Order are active, taking action to control the fate of themselves and others. In "Aftershock," however, they are all remarkably passive, allowing events and their emotions to override their normal sense of initiative.
Lennie takes the day off, relaxing with friends and gambling at the OTB. His confrontation with his daughter is initiated not by him, but by her. As he tells his daughter, Lennie is used to finding people dead, and doing something about it. Seeing someone killed, and being expected to do nothing, leaves Lennie feeling helpless and useless.
Back at the precinct, Rey is seen catching up on paperwork and helping Profaci, a reversal of their normal roles. When ordered to take the day off, the normally devoted family man wanders alone in a park. His encounter with the young graduate student is initiated and directed by her. She starts the conversation, asks the questions, decides where they will eat, and takes him back to her place. Rey follows unthinkingly, reacting rather than acting. His normal loyalty to his wife is forgotten, and he escapes into the pleasure of the moment.
Jack, normally up-front and assertive, is withdrawn while in the car with Claire. He spends the morning doing Claire's menial work rather than his usual supervisory tasks. Rather than confronting the issues disturbing him during his lunch with Liz Olivet he is uncharacteristically evasive. The bar he retreats to is not the upscale type we usually see him in with Claire but a working-class men's hangout. And when he wants to connect with Claire, Jack pages her and waits passively for her arrival, rather than seeking her out.
Claire is also uncharacteristically passive: taking the day off from work, and drifting from place to place, trying to make sense of her reaction to the execution. While she is the only one of the main characters to address her concerns about the execution directly, she is not pleased with what she finds. Feeling guilty and confused by her reaction to the execution, she looks to her former law professor, (and possible stepfather) Mac, for affirmation. During their discussion, however, she reveals that she is more upset by how the execution affects her ("what happened this morning is going to stick with me for the rest of my life,") than with the death itself. Mac correctly recognizes her mood as "self-congratulatory depression," a way for her to feel superior to her pro-death penalty colleagues by wallowing in visible angst over the execution.
Claire then goes to the 37th precinct house, seeking advice not from her usual mentor, Jack, but from Lennie. He isn't there, (another Law & Order reversal: how often do expected meetings fail to happen?) and Claire talks instead with Anita, finally resolving her conflicts over the execution and her job. By the time she leaves the precinct, Claire seems relaxed, happy and willing to return to her job as a prosecutor. This change of heart is also a reversal of Law & Order conventions, where characters usually find resolution through the actions of the justice system, rather than through personal communication.
The characters of Law & Order are normally excellent communicators, both with the public and with each other. But in "Aftershock," their communication skills break down. Jack and Claire argue without reaching any resolution or even agreeing to disagree. Although they want to meet, they keep missing each other. During his press conference, Adam obscures his opinions on the death penalty, simply stating that the people of New York have changed their position on it, and he's just obeying the law. Lennie can't express himself to his daughter. Rey hides himself and his feelings from his wife, escaping instead in an anonymous affair. Even Anita has trouble expressing her feelings about the execution in her letter to her mother. The verbal skill with which they normally interrogate witnesses and suspects, debate weighty issues and win over juries is gone in "Aftershock."
In a typical episode, the initial crime raises a host of questions, which the characters answer, or attempt to answer, in the course of the hour. In "Aftershock," however, the typical crime-related questions are already answered. Instead, as the episode develops, more and more questions are raised about the characters. The viewer has as many questions about the main characters at the end of "Aftershock" as one normally has about the crime at the beginning of an episode. Will Rey's marriage survive his infidelity? Will Lennie's hard-won sobriety survive his falling off the wagon? Will Jack ever consciously realize the parallels between his father's death and the execution that have haunted him subconsciously throughout the episode? Will Claire survive the accident, and will she return to the DA's office if she does? How will Jack react to the injury/death of his lover, Claire? All these questions are left hanging at the end of "Aftershock."
"Aftershock" ends where the typical episode begins, with the senseless death of an innocent. Of all the characters to pass through Law & Order's revolving door, Claire is perhaps the most thoroughly good. She is never blinded by lust for revenge, or tempted to cut ethical corners in order to win a case. Claire's idealism about the law and the justice system is strained but never broken by the harsh realities of life. Adam, Jack and Ben all turn to her for moral guidance when they feel tempted to bend the rules to win a case, even as they ignore her advice. She is Law & Order's ultimate representation of youth, idealism, compassion and innocence.
As such, Claire's death serves several symbolic purposes. She could be considered a John the Baptist figure, crying out from the wilderness that the death penalty is wrong, and ignored and destroyed for her message. Her death could be seen as cosmic justice, restoring the balance to Law & Order, which demands that the main characters punish those who take the life of another. When they take a life instead, fate intercedes and punishes them for the crime of murder through the death penalty by the loss of one of their own. Finally, she could be considered a redemptive sacrifice, an innocent slaughtered for the sins of the community. With her death, the survivors can emerge from the hell of "Aftershock" and return to their normal life and work of the law.
"Aftershock" serves as a powerful anti-death penalty message. In the world of Law & Order, the goal is that every crime be punished, every wrongful death avenged. The death penalty perverts that goal, and faced with a death that they cannot try to resolve, the characters drift. Claire's death serves as a warning that the universe will have its justice, and that there will be a hidden cost to society if it abandons its respect for human life. By creating an episode that is a mirror image of the usual Law & Order formula, "Aftershock" shows that the death penalty is the mirror image of justice.