Law & Order Special Celebrities Unit Case File No. 3: Michael Stuhlbarg
2017 should have been the year of Michael Stuhlbarg. After years of falling just under the stardom radar as a critic's actor with little name recognition and a knack for being unrecognizable from one movie to the next, he landed pivotal roles in three Best Picture nominees, playing the world's most lovingly progressive dad in Call Me By Your Name, the compassionate scientist/Russian spy in The Shape of Water, and New York Times owner Abe Rosenthal in The Paper. At least one nomination for Best Supporting Actor seemed all but certain, and then the Academy opted to split the difference and give him nothing at all. And that's a shame, because Stuhlbarg, a Method actor of the kind who creates elaborate backstories for his characters, as opposed to sending his co-stars boxes of used condoms, gives his all in even the smallest roles, including a wonderfully weird performance in a wonderfully weird episode in season five of Law & Order: Criminal Intent, three years before getting his big break in movies with A Serious Man.
Criminal Intent was for people who liked their law and order with a dose of absurdity. Starring Vincent D'Onofrio as a detective with almost supernatural insight into the criminal mind, it was often so self-aware that one expected him to occasionally turn to the camera and say "Boom, got another one!" with a knowing wink. The individuals Detective Bobby Goren encountered on the job came off more like Bond villains than the street thugs and mobsters of OG Law & Order, or the deviants and avenging rape victims of Special Victims Unit, and the tone of the show veered wildly between Silence of the Lambs creepy to soap opera cheesy. While often the most implausible of the three primary Laws & Orderses, it was also the most consistently entertaining.
This episode, "Slither," opens with a wealthy couple getting ready to host a party. The husband asks the wife "Did I tell you that Bernard is going to introduce me to the Donald?" back when that kind of thing was still an indicator that someone was only mildly scummy, rather than irredeemably scummy. "Bernard" is Bernard Fremont (Michael York), a mysterious bon vivant who travels in wealthy circles with his merry band of henchpeople/acolytes, including Marcel Costas (Michael Stuhlbarg), and when you need to name a Eurotrash henchman, you really can't do much better than "Marcel Costas." Sounding vaguely French at some points and German at others, Stuhlbarg really makes a meal of a relatively small role, with his very first line a breathy "Sammi, I want to daaaaaaaance."
Bernard and his gang, which consists of Marcel and three vacant faced blonde women, accumulate their wealth by befriending rich people, getting them hooked on drugs, murdering them, then stealing and selling all their belongings. That may seem like a bit of a long con, but it evidently works, including on the couple from the opening scene. The wife has a psychotic break after finding her husband dead of a heroin overdose, frantically telling a cop "He's an important man! He needs his rest!" "His final rest," the cop replies, "He's D.O.A." When even the beat cop on the scene is dropping quips you know you're in for something really special, and boy, does this episode deliver.
We quickly learn that there's dissent within Bernard's ranks. Marcel, arrogant enough to wear a watch stolen from one of his victims, bristles at the attention Bernard pays to his right hand woman/benefactor Hillary (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson), and mocks her appearance, calling her, in an absolutely scrumptious line reading, "an old hoor with no taste." Hillary, meanwhile, worries that she is in fact an old hoor, and about to be replaced in Bernard's life and heart by the younger women in their circle, one of whom happens to be her own sister.
Goren, investigating both the overdose death and the murder of a writer whose head was found in his own refrigerator, soon discovers that Bernard was the mentor of Nicole Wallace, Goren's rarely seen but often talked about nemesis, the Moriarty to his Holmes, with the twist of being a pretty lady for whom he has Complicated Feelings. Nicole was one of the first students in Bernard's "school of murder," and did ten years in a Thailand prison to protect him after he was charged with the deaths of eight men. Bernard, meanwhile, has been free to roam about the world, dazzling rich but incredibly gullible people with his effete manners and knowledge of wine, then ordering his gang of high class thugs to rob and kill them. The good times might be coming to an end, however, with Goren closing in, and the gang falling apart over jealousy and careless mistakes.
Oh no! Marcel is dead barely halfway through the episode, roofied and strangled with his own necktie. It's how he would have wanted to go, though, as Bernard tells Goren in an interview "Marcel and I met over ties at Sulka. He had flawless taste in neckwear." That's the nicest thing Bernard has to say about his loyal friend, however, confiding in Goren that Marcel was secretly gay, and liked "rough trade," because even by 2006 saying that a murder victim was secretly gay was code for "he had it coming." Which, I mean, Marcel definitely has it coming, but because he's a murderer himself, and not because he might have been gay and had better taste in ties than men.
Killing Marcel is how Mala, Hillary's younger sister/rival, wins full favor with Bernard, and Hillary, desperate to maintain her standing, blames the entire operation on Marcel and claims that she killed him to protect Bernard. Not even the knowledge that Nicole, Bernard's "true love," is in town waiting for the first opportunity to snatch him away, is enough to sway her, so Goren and his partner work on Bernard instead. When the old "your partner sold you out" trick doesn't work, Goren zeroes in on his ego. The murdered writer had been working on a screenplay based on Bernard's life, and Goren produces a copy of it. Far more focus is on the tawdry aspect of the killing spree Bernard and Nicole went on in Thailand, rather than the glamorous life they led together ("We were giants! Straddling the world!" Bernard proclaims, in the second best line of dialogue after Marcel calls Hillary an old hoor with no taste). When Goren's partner reads a line from the script in which Bernard is described as smelly and lazy, he flies into a rage, demanding credit for all the hard work he's done over the years taking impressionable young people and grooming them into cold blooded killers, while still finding time to travel the world and cultivate a knowledge for fine wines and high quality neckties (none of which feature hula girls on them, it can be assumed). That is a remarkable accomplishment, when you think about it, and the sign of someone who really knows how to manage his time and carpe that fucking diem.
The script, of course, is a fake, but it works like a charm. In fact, it works too well: Bernard is arraigned on multiple murder charges, immediately bailed out by Mala, and then just as immediately murdered, poisoned by a mysterious figure while still inside the courthouse. Though he doesn't see her, Goren instantly deduces that it's Nicole, finally getting her revenge, in a manner fit for a giant straddling the earth.
I fear I may have written up this episode too early, because it seems unlikely that I will ever find another episode of any version of Law & Order that reaches this glorious level of melodrama. Every line of dialogue and every absurd plot twist, including Mala taking up Bernard on his suggestion that she strangle Marcel like he's suggested she should consider switching her car insurance to Geico, sends it hurtling farther away from Earth and into some sort of alternate universe of camp. Coming back down to dreary old McCoyville will feel like a bit of a disappointment after this.
Though the episode really belongs to Michael York, who serves up some of the classiest sliced ham you've ever seen, particularly when he monologues at the end to a bemused Goren about how beautiful he was when he was young, Michael Stuhlbarg, in only his third TV appearance (he'd guest on regular Law & Order two years later playing a defense attorney), holds his own as well, despite getting tops maybe a dozen lines of dialogue. He doesn't seem like he was given much more direction than "be a creepy European guy," and ran with it. Stuhlbarg may have finally achieved name recognition playing gentle, decent souls, but here he looks and sounds exactly like someone hanging around a disco in St. Moritz who no one likes, but everyone tolerates because he's also the local coke dealer, and it's delightful.