The revolution of Peter Stone

LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT -- Season 19 -- Pictured: Philip Winchester as Peter Stone -- (Photo by: Virginia Sherwood/NBC)
LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT -- Season 19 -- Pictured: Philip Winchester as Peter Stone -- (Photo by: Virginia Sherwood/NBC) /

Peter Stone is a revolution, both in where his story is taking him and the one behind him. Here’s how Philip Winchester’s SVU character broke the mold.

There’s a revolution going on in Law & Order. SVU. It’s a revolution that started on Chicago Justice and has shown no signs of slowing down. It’s changed the way we think of TV lawyers and of our heroes.

The revolution has a name: Peter Stone.

In the almost two years since NBC audiences met Assistant State’s Attorney Peter Stone in the Chicago PD episode “Justice,” the character has been many things—a hero, a disruptor, a source of conflict, a torch-bearer for the history of the entire Dick Wolf universe.

Through a phenomenal and unexpected performance by Philip Winchester and equally superlative writing by Michael Chernuchin and company, he’s also become someone we can aspire to be, and an example of the best that TV is capable of—even if, especially if, you’re not prepared for it.

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There are not one, but two, compelling stories being told through Peter Stone. The first is the one in front of the camera.

There just isn’t another character like Peter on TV, and there hasn’t been in a long time. The last one to reach through our screens, and make us stand up and pay attention to the legal world, was Linus Roache’s expertly portrayed Michael Cutter in the original Law & Order from 2008 to 2010.

And Cutter didn’t come with a family name attached, or as Hank Voight put it, a look like he could beat the world.

But Peter Stone entered the arena on his own merits. When he was introduced in “Justice” it wasn’t made clear that he was Ben Stone’s son; his defining characteristic was that he was the prosecutor who put Voight (Jason Beghe) behind bars. Given what Chicago PD had established of Voight’s history and reputation for evading trouble, that was a swing for the fences—and Peter Stone had not only succeeded, but somehow earned Voight’s respect between then and now. It was a serious, if not quite conventional, endorsement.

"Voight: When you put me away, you had this kind of world-beater look in your eye."

When the character transitioned to Chicago Justice, Stone kept aiming high and more importantly, not caring what the target was. We have so many TV characters who want to take down the big bad or be the best at what they do; what made Peter Stone different was what drove him toward that goal. He wasn’t fighting to win, or fighting for glory, or fighting to fight—he was fighting with a pure desire for justice.

And once you understand that about him, you understand what makes him so special.

TV characters are very rarely aspirational; we want them to win, to succeed, to do well but within the context of the episode. They do not generally look toward what happens after the case closes, past the credits roll, to more. Whether on Chicago Justice or SVU, Peter has always been about the big picture. He wants to win, to succeed, but he also has an inherent belief that success is made up of a whole lot more than a guilty verdict. It’s also about what that verdict leaves behind, whether it is the tangible effect on the people involved or the intangible statement it represents.

Chicago Justice was the perfect vehicle for Peter to express that belief system. The series was built on that kind of more involved, more progressive discussion—not only on the what but the why, the how and the what we should do about it. TV audiences were able to see Peter take a position and defend it, both inside and outside of the courtroom. We also heard contrary points of view, expressed fairly and articulately, to understand the full picture of every issue and decide for ourselves. So sometimes, we got to see that Peter Stone could be wrong, too, but we always had an understanding of why he did what he did and what brought him there.

That level playing field, the willingness to let the character be falliable and lose a battle or make a mistake, opened a window into Peter Stone’s humanity. His “without prejudice or pride” speech from the Chicago Justice episode “Uncertainty Principle” will go down as one of the character’s top moments and an outstanding scene of television. It allowed Stone to stand up and unequivocally, publicly say that he was wrong and to own that failure. He was not a TV hero; he was a fully three-dimensional human being, and he continues to be someone who has nothing handed to him.

He fights for everything, every single day, and part of fighting is losing. And even in losing, Peter Stone showed us he wanted to do better.

"Peter: Part of what we do as prosecutors is to make decisions that might destroy the lives of innocent people. We do our best to make those decisions without prejudice or pride. Sometimes, we get it wrong. Officer Atwater, on behalf of the State’s Attorney’s Office and all the people of Cook County, I’m sorry."

The fact that Peter was the lead character of Chicago Justice provided the opportunity to follow him through the mental and emotional challenges of every case—a journey that he took on a daily basis. We didn’t just see the court sessions or the arguments; we also saw him in his office, often after hours, struggling with what to do next. We saw him have self-doubt. We saw him put in the time and effort to do his job to the best of his ability. That’s something else that many TV heroes don’t get, just by the fast-paced nature of the medium. We understood the grind that Peter Stone went through, and appreciated it because we knew why he would push himself that far.

In that sense, the fact that Peter Stone was Ben Stone’s son was a footnote in the Chicago Justice era. It was a subplot in “Uncertainty Principle” but that was the one time it was prominently talked about. Much like Peter wouldn’t spend all the time thinking about his father, the show was making him his own man, and he had enough to go through without worrying about the past. He had to be concerned with the future.

And then everything changed. One door closed, another door opened, and a great character had an unexpected opportunity to get even better.

While the cancellation of Chicago Justice derailed any examination of Peter’s future, the way the character and actor stood out prompted the brilliant decision to move him to Law & Order: SVU. Brilliant because it has allowed for an investigation into his past, that could never quite have been afforded if he’d stayed in Chicago.

With SVU, Peter Stone has walked right into his father’s history—his history. The only way he could’ve struck closer to home is if the original Law & Order was still on the air. SVU comes pretty close, with District Attorney Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) on hand and the ability to bring in more characters from the mothership if it wants to. That’s after Peter squared off against his father’s former rival Shambala Green (Lorraine Toussaint) on Chicago PD, and his dad’s second chair Paul Robinette (Richard Brooks) on Chicago Justice.

But now the history isn’t coming to him in selective bits and pieces. Now the history is in his face, whether he likes it or not. And for all his talents, Peter Stone is not equipped to deal with this. As was established in Justice, he wasn’t ever planning to.

That’s always been the one question mark about his character. The man who wouldn’t back down from a fight with the federal government, with his job on the line, admits that he ran away from his father’s shadow? It doesn’t seem to make sense, even when you concede that Peter was a lot younger back then.

So that’s the piece of the puzzle SVU now has the chance to solve. We know that he wound up in Chicago after being drafted by the Cubs, but there’s more to the story than that. There’s reasons why his relationship with his father degraded and Paul Robinette had to encourage Peter to even call him. He’s not wrong; Ben Stone casts the longest possible shadow that a Law & Order hero could be under. But there’s something else that’s missing.

There are other important pieces that SVU has already put on the table in short order. In the most recent episode, we learned that Peter became Assistant District Attorney in New York not because of anything having to do with his father’s history, but because of his dad’s will—namely, a provision in it about his schizophrenic sister Pamela.

In the original Law & Order, Ben Stone’s daughter wasn’t even named, let alone revealed as mentally ill. There’s obviously a lot of trying backstory there; how did that affect Peter? We’ve already seen how mental illness in the family can shape a person with Dr. Connor Rhodes (Colin Donnell) on Chicago Med.

Plus, what about Peter’s exit from Chicago? It makes perfect sense that the only thing that could trump his loyalty to his work family was his actual family—but that doesn’t mean it was an easy choice. It likely broke his heart to walk away from a city and a team he had invested in. There has to be some guilt or disappointment there. He doesn’t just close the door and move on; as we’ve seen from his dad situation, he tries that, but he knows better.

The cancellation of Chicago Justice deprived us of how Peter would’ve further mentored Anna Valdez (Monica Barbaro), passing things on to her as he undoubtedly was influenced by his father, or trying not to be his father (likely both). If it’s in any way possible, the most important thing SVU could do would be to reunite Philip Winchester with Monica Barbaro so we could get that closure on Peter’s choice to leave Chicago—and see how Anna’s stepped out of his shadow like he’s doing with his father. They could have even more common ground now than they did before.

And then there’s what even brought Peter into the courtroom in the first place. In his second SVU episode, he delivers a compelling monologue about his fateful injury and how he coped (or failed to cope) with it changing the course of his life. After that, he went into criminal prosecution. But it isn’t so simple as just going into the family business as a fallback plan. He talks about feeling like he let his family down, and having a lot of misplaced anger. He needed something he could attack, he could tear into, that he could do something right.

What’s more right than fighting to save the world? Than trying to repair the damage to other people’s lives, if you can’t fix your own? Than giving them some form of consolation, of justice, to keep them from going into that dark place you went into and almost didn’t come out of?

"Peter: My whole identity was wrapped up in being a ballplayer. When I felt that ligament rip, it was like someone robbed me of who I was. Everything I could be…I didn’t have anyone to blame. Nowhere to put my anger. And it tore me up inside."

If Chicago Justice showed us Peter Stone the idealist, the hard-charging prosecutor at his best, SVU is showing us Peter Stone’s challenges, his weaknesses, the difficult road that got him there.

It is a completely different story but one no less compelling. Here is a man who lost the one thing he wanted to do, and found the one thing he needed to do. Here is a man who lost all sense of self and had to completely reconfigure his own identity. Now we’re watching Peter Stone deal with his family history and come to accept that maybe the things he feared could also be strengths in the end. At the same time, he also isn’t stopping forward motion—learning new things, forging new alliances, and continuing to discover more about himself in the process.

The fact that Peter Stone is Ben Stone’s son is what brings you in, but it’s almost the least interesting thing about him. We see so much of his father in him, but we see just as much if not more of Peter. It’s not his father who made Peter who he is; that is part of the story, but Peter has made himself, and now he’s truly testing himself by not only putting himself up against his father’s history but diving headfirst into uncharted waters. In coming back to New York, Peter Stone is making his own legacy.

And when put together, the two chapters give us one of the most engaging, complicated, and rich arcs for a character that TV has seen in a long, long time. Between the two series and their varied approaches, we’re getting an opportunity to essentially track Peter Stone from beginning to end, or at least wherever the future takes him. We have an incredible palette of his life, and every week we get just a little more color.

But as remarkable as that is, let’s not lose sight of the other part of the journey that’s also worth appreciating: how we even got to this point in the first place.

Peter Stone has to be one of the most organically created characters in TV history. The road to him started with Philip Winchester entering the NBC fold with The Player; the show only lasted for one season, but his work impressed enough that he was offered the lead role in Chicago Justice.

The character’s surname was a total coincidence; it was only after casting Winchester and the series order for Justice that that Peter was officially related to the iconic character that Michael Moriarty played in the first four Law & Order seasons. That came as no surprise to anyone who watched that backdoor pilot and could immediately tell the similarities between the two actors: the dignity with which they carried themselves, the courage of their convictions, and yes, that world-beating look in their eyes.

Tying new TV characters to established ones happens all the time. It’s one of the easiest possible ins for a new protagonist; you connect them to someone the audience knows and cares about, in hopes that they’ll then care about them. Oftentimes, it comes off feeling forced, like trying to buy a character credibility by borrowing some from someone else.

But this was not typical TV-pilot engineering. Give credit to Michael Chernuchin, Peter Jankowski, Dick Wolf and their team for seeing the natural, unprompted connections between Winchester’s performance and Moriarty’s and leaning into the perfect curve. For chasing a story that could have been too dated, too risky or set expectations too high.

After all, who would really remember Ben Stone from more than 20 years ago? And for those who did, did we really want to expect Peter (and Philip Winchester) to live up to that gold standard?

This couldn’t have been done by any other showrunner. Michael Chernuchin wrote several of those Ben Stone episodes. He not only remembered the character, he helped shape him. He understood the risks and the advantages of such a play. A new creator, who might not have even been alive for those glory years of Law & Order, may not have even had the thought cross their mind. Luckily for us, Chernuchin was the perfect man to bring Peter Stone to life while also respecting the legacy of Ben Stone, and understanding all the things that were needed to accomplish both ends.

That continuity of character and intent has carried over from Chicago Justice to Law & Order: SVU season 19. Most TV characters don’t get a second chance on another show, and if they do, it may not be with the same writers, leading to the character no longer feeling like the one we wanted in the first place. Of Peter Stone’s first five SVU episodes, four involved at least one writer who had also penned an episode of Justice. These people know this character, they care about him and they understand what makes him unique—what he can contribute to SVU, rather than just trying to fit him into the show’s mold.

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Peter Stone doesn’t fit into any kind of mold. There’s no better proof of that than who’s playing him. Philip Winchester was the impossible choice. If Wolf et al had been casting by the numbers, they would have cast someone else. Winchester is a brilliant actor, but he’d never played a lawyer before and was coming off years off action-oriented TV. He was known for something completely different, and didn’t have the experience in the area he needed it most.

But that’s why they absolutely had to go with him. If you want to create a character who is not the same, you don’t cast the same kind of actor. There are a ton of good actors who’ve played all kinds of lawyers, and would’ve done a fine job as the hero of a new Dick Wolf legal drama—but not as Peter Stone. Peter Stone stands out. Peter Stone was never supposed to be a lawyer. Peter Stone grabs you by the throat, kind of like a Michael Stonebridge choke hold.

Ergo, Philip Winchester. Who does not get enough credit for knowing what he didn’t know, and throwing himself headfirst into the character with the same zealous dedication that Peter has for all of his cases.

I’ve had the honor of watching him work across four different TV shows now, and what I admire most about Philip Winchester is how much heart he puts into his characters. He has a passion for developing them, for finding out what makes them tick, and figuring out what he can do with them that no one else can. He puts in so much effort, and he genuinely loves these characters as much as we do, and that comes through in every performance. As much as there is to appreciate about his acting, there’s a whole separate joy in just watching how he does it.

There’s a lot of Philip Winchester in Peter Stone. Like Peter is driven to do well by the victims and their families in each of his cases, Philip is driven to do well by his character and by the name that he carries. When that connection was established, he was brushing up on those old Law & Order episodes to familiarize himself with Ben Stone. He understands and appreciates what the Stone name means to the franchise and its fans, and he’s also excited about adding his own chapter to that legacy rather than just trying to maintain it.

Over the last two years, as we’ve watched Peter Stone grow and make tough decisions and try to figure out the way of his world, we’ve watched Philip Winchester grow and figure him out. There has never been enough acknowledgement of how he took on a challenge from zero and came up with one of the best characters on TV. The writing laid the foundation, but you can’t write the kind of poise, strength and fire that Peter has—nor his vulnerability that we’re continuing to see laid bare. There’s a connection between actor and character that is so genuine, and it came out of a whole process of self-discovery on both parts.

Like Peter, and like Ben before him, Philip is a genuinely outstanding human being. I’ve said this a few times, but it always bears repeating: he’s the best person I’ve ever known. Aside from his tremendous work ethic, he’s a wonderful teammate, collaborator and friend. He’s the upstanding guy you’d want on your team, and the person you’d want to spend 12 hours a day on set with. I could think of no better person to entrust my work to, or anything else besides. He is someone to be looked up to—not because of what he does, but because he’s just that good of a person.

And that’s Peter Stone in a nutshell. What makes him work is not who he’s related to, or that he’s a top-notch prosecutor. He’s a great character because he’s a great human being trying to do great things, and oftentimes he succeeds.

He is a character who makes us better, because he wants to be better. Peter Stone has led by example, not unlike his father; watching this character who never says “good enough” and never stops believing in his ideals motivates us to ask ourselves why we’re not looking at the system the way he does. What’s stopping us? Why aren’t we posing the questions he does? Why aren’t we raising our voices? Why aren’t we trying to beat the world?

We need characters like Peter Stone in the TV universe. If television and film have the power to inspire, we need characters who dare to be that inspiration. We need characters who are about more than wins and losses, or episodes and seasons. We need characters who aren’t created trying to fit a role, or a predetermined plotline, but who emerge on their own.

We need characters who aim high, but who we support in that mission because we can see through their eyes and understand that it is something that can be achieved, if you’re willing to work for it—and that it’s okay if you don’t always get there. Peter Stone inspires because he aspires, and from Justice to SVU, the fact that he’s still fighting is a testament to how that fight matters.

Because the continued existence of Peter Stone is his boldest statement. We need producers like Dick Wolf and Michael Chernuchin who can see that a character is powerful and important to the conversation, and find a way to save him instead of letting him fade away. When an actor like Philip Winchester puts his heart and soul into a character like this, that incredible effort deserves to be recognized and it had better keep going. Peter’s SVU journey isn’t just about what happens for him; it’s about what he means in so many ways and to a lot of people.

If Peter Stone can suffer the deepest possible loss and come back to fight the good fight, so can we. If he can keep standing up for what’s right even in the face of countless challenges, if he can be scared to confront his past but still do it anyway, if we can watch an incredible actor give all that he’s got and that dedication pays off—these are all incredibly positive messages that ought to be heard, and aren’t heard enough.

Peter Stone is a one-man revolution. He’s a fantastic character with such a great story to tell and so much more to offer in SVU season 19 and hopefully beyond. He’s a character who has given a platform to an underrated actor who deserves the spotlight. He’s also a character who’s raised the bar of what we should expect from our TV characters and from ourselves, should we dare to look that way. He’s taken a high standard and raised it, both on and off camera. And there’s no limit to what he’s capable of.

The only question is, where will his revolution take him next?

Next: 5 reasons Peter Stone is a badass

Don’t miss Philip Winchester as Peter Stone in new episodes of Law & Order: SVU season 19, as they resume starting April 11.

Law & Order: SVU airs Wednesdays at 9/8c on NBC.