Another review! If you haven't seen the episode yet, you may want to wait to read this essay -- it contains spoilers.
Out of all of the episodes on Law and Order, the "Asylum" episode would rank as one of my personal favorites. It is in this episode that we see not only the best things that the show has to offer-its realism, its deft exploration of social issues, to name a few, but also some light moments in a show not noted for its humor.
The plot concerns a young man who is stabbed to death by a homeless man after the young man kicks the cardboard box that the homeless man was using for shelter. Detectives Ceretta and Logan get an extremely small lead at first when one of the bystanders reveals that she'd seen a man in overalls near the scene of the crime. Through some ingenious work, the detectives come upon the most entertaining and ultimately, the saddest murder suspects in the history of the show, Christian "Lemonhead" Tatum. Lemonhead is a mentally ill homeless man who turns out to be an accomplice of the actual murderer, James Polesky. In one memorable scene in particular, he mimics Det. Logan's hand gestures while he is being interrogated. The scene is filmed in a rather subtle manner, so if the viewer isn't really focusing on both Lemonhead and Logan's hands, it's easy to miss the action. The scene is also noteworthy for its subtle humor on a show known for its seriousness.
The plot then starts to twist and suddenly the focus is on the homeless population's right to privacy. After Polesky is convicted of murder, he is set free on appeal on the grounds that the detectives had no search warrant when they searched his "non-traditional" place of abode for the murder weapon. Even though Polesky's residence consisted of a few possessions in a clearing in Central Park, the appellate court ruled that he should have been afforded the same right to privacy as any other suspect. Eventually, as EADA Ben Stone tries to mount a new trial against Polesky, Polesky's lawyer agrees to a plea-bargained deal of a lesser charge against his client.
This episode shows us the easy camaraderie that Ceretta and Logan shared, something that Logan didn't always have with his preceding partner, Max Greevey. This episode also shows Stone behaving in an uncharacteristically ruthless and abrasive manner. This is underscored when he tries to browbeat police psychologist Liz Olivet into saying that Lemonhead is fit to testify at a new trial against Polesky, even though by then he is hospitalized, on anti-psychotic drugs and is literally catatonic.
Although the acting from the show's regular cast is excellent as always, it is fair to say that "Asylum" would not have been the classic episode it has come to be without the exceptional performance of Matthew Cowles, who portrayed Lemonhead. It is an amazing feat for an actor, and a supporting one at that, to get the viewers to feel sympathetic toward a person they'd probably ignore on the street. Mr. Cowles also shows an amazing acting range in showing Lemonhead in his various emotional states, from delusional to catatonic. One is tempted to think that Cowles really is a homeless man. On a show known for hiring some of the best acting talent in supporting roles, the fact that Cowles stood out by displaying such intensity shows that he is a remarkable actor. His guest appearance was that realistic.
All in all, this is a highly recommended episode on a fine show.