Peter Stone’s departure from Law and Order SVU wasn’t everything it could have been; here’s what was missing for Philip Winchester’s character.
When Peter Stone walked out of Law & Order: SVU this week, what was left was a sense of profound disappointment.
Thursday’s season finale “End Game” featured Peter (Philip Winchester) taking drastic steps to incarcerate Rob Miller (returning guest star Titus Welliver), after Miller had killed a young woman and continued to threaten Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) as well as her son.
He came up with a plan to frame Miller for the murder, working with defense attorney—and one of Miller’s victims—Nikki Staines (Callie Thorne) and two SVU detectives to plant evidence. Then Nikki confessed to the frame-up on the witness stand, which Peter utilized to prove how much of a threat Miller was, and put him away for good.
Peter then delivered a surprising monologue to Benson, confessing how his feelings toward her had influenced his actions on the case—it’s up to you if they were platonic or romantic, though the emotional way the scene played out suggests the latter—and how that couldn’t happen again, so he had to leave.
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And the last we’ll see of Peter Stone, at least for now, was him literally walking away. But the way he left was flawed in two major aspects.
Peter’s departure comes almost 25 years to the day his father Ben Stone (Michael Moriarty) quit the District Attorney’s Office. The Law & Order episode “Old Friends” aired on May 25, 1994, and likewise culminated with Ben’s resignation.
But the story Joshua Stern and Robert Nathan put together is different for a number of reasons. In that episode, Ben Stone is upholding his strict moral code but also winds up breaking it. He needs Anne Madsen (an excellent Allison Janney) to testify, because she’s the only one who can connect a mafia hitman with the shot-caller, and thus bring them both down.
Persuading Anne doesn’t work; when she gets on the stand, she panics and commits perjury. Ben is conflicted, but decides to have her prosecuted for felony perjury over the objections of both his ADA Claire Kincaid (Jill Hennessy) and his boss Adam Schiff (Steven Hill).
Defending his actions to the latter, he points out that Anne lied and is thus no longer innocent, even though he tells the judge in a subsequent scene she did it “out of fear for her life.”
Ben later tightens the screws by threatening to up the charge to conspiracy to commit murder, and the added pressure gets Anne to testify truthfully. But shortly after the guilty verdict, she’s killed, and Ben feels responsibility for her death since he forced her into testifying.
“Knowing who you are, Ben,” Claire tells him, “you didn’t have a choice.”
He does have a choice, however, and that’s to resign as Executive Assistant District Attorney. His entire moral argument in the episode is that actions have consequences, as he explains in that talk with Schiff and also with Anne, and if Ben is willing to make Anne face the consequences for her actions, then he must also face the consequences of his own.
Ben Stone does what he believes is right by putting away a mobster and prosecuting someone for perjury, even though he feels badly about it (Moriarty is excellent in the episode, showing the way Ben wrestles with himself as he weighs each decision, often without a word).
But in doing the right thing, he also pushes himself pretty far by threatening a witness with prosecution for something he knows she didn’t do. Would he actually have done it? Most likely not (it’s hard to see where he’d have a case), but that’s still a far place for Ben to go.
Then something irrevocable happens—the death of Anne Madsen—and if Ben is going to continue to do what’s right, he has to admit he caused that wrong. His resignation is true to his character, because he’s following his moral code, all the way to the end.
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Peter Stone’s exit storyline similarly had him admitting a failing and falling on his sword because of it. However, “End Game” lacked the journey for Peter, where we’re able to see the effect that the choices he makes have on him, and understand how they reflect on his character.
He explained it all in his monologue to Benson, but that’s not the same as being able to follow his decision-making process and being able to feel him forced into that corner; as they say in the writing world, show, don’t tell. “Old Friends” let the audience see and hear how Ben got to a point and why he could never come back; “End Game” had to have Peter tell us.
If we had taken more of a journey with Peter Stone, we would have felt more of an impact when he left. But that wasn’t able to happen, partly because of SVU‘s police-centric format (how cool would it have been to see a farewell scene between Peter and Jack McCoy, like the one between Ben and Adam Schiff?), and partly because of the other missing piece in this episode.
The other important aspect Peter Stone didn’t have in “End Game” was his agency. Ideally, his last episode should have been a Peter Stone story; it wasn’t. The Rob Miller plot was an Olivia Benson story.
In many ways, Peter’s final character arc became about Benson. Peter had no personal stake in the Miller case; Miller hadn’t come after him, and this wasn’t an issue that was close to home for him. What motivated him were, as he explained, his feelings toward Benson.
That didn’t feel like him. It was different from the man who previously made a point of yanking Anna Valdez off a case because he didn’t want her feelings to influence it (in the Chicago Justice episode “Judge Not”)—and that was when someone she was close to was actually killed. He’d also worked closely with Anna and cared for her, but he was able to be objective there, and not with Benson.
When Peter said he didn’t see a mistake Miller had made, Benson called him into her office and asked him “Whose side are you on?” It was a bizarre question to ask; she should know that it’s not his job to be on anyone’s side, but to have a case to prosecute. And even if she expected him to be more loyal, he was just stating an opinion; he wasn’t calling her out or actively doing something to undermine her investigation.
Peter didn’t have the agency to get to disagree. Neither was he given the ability to be motivated by his own beliefs; SVU made clear later in that scene that it was Benson’s upset monologue that made Peter decide to frame Miller. He didn’t even commit the crime on his own; it was Staines, Fin Tutola (Ice-T) and Sonny Carisi (Peter Scanavino) who were seen actually taking the actions.
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While that part gave Peter a layer of plausible deniability and likely the ability to keep his license to practice law, in terms of story, it also meant there was nothing in “End Game” that he solely owned, up to and including his decision to resign. Everything he did was because of or with someone else.
Compare that to Rafael Barba’s last episode (and ironically Peter’s first), “The Undiscovered Country.” Barba interfered in a right-to-die case involving an infant and ultimately resigned, also having a farewell scene with Benson; while the setups were similar, the stories were very different.
Barba’s choice to disconnect the baby’s life support system was something that he did alone. It was a decision informed by his own personal history (his regrets over leaving his comatose father on life support).
There were scenes in “The Undiscovered Country” where the audience got to follow Barba away from the SVU team, to be in that same emotional struggle with him. And when he left, he also explained why to Benson, but it was about how working with her made him look at the world differently, not him saying she’s the reason why he was going.
“The Undiscovered Country” was Barba’s episode. “End Game” was as much Benson’s episode as it was Stone’s.
Law & Order: SVU could have played this much differently. If Peter had left feelings out of it and simply said that he had crossed a moral and ethical line he found unacceptable, even though he was doing the greater good, that would have been excellent.
It would have dovetailed nicely with his father’s story—putting away a major villain at high personal cost—which would have been particularly resonant, since it was his father’s funeral that brought Peter Stone to New York in the first place and fulfilling a promise to his dad that kept him there. After all, there’s nothing more important to a Stone than their moral code, so in breaking it, both Ben and Peter made the ultimate sacrifice.
Or what if Peter had just stopped and taken stock, and said to Benson that in the short period of time he’d been with SVU it had just been too much—first his sister’s murder, then the false rape accusation, now suborning perjury—and he needed to get out? SVU has discussed the toll that working Special Victims takes on people and how not everyone can handle it; there would have been no shame in Peter putting his hand up and simply saying it wasn’t for him.
But by bringing up his feelings toward Benson, SVU took what should have been Peter’s turning point and made it about Benson. What should have been his decision alone became a decision he made because of her.
She didn’t deserve to have that sort of emotional responsibility placed on her, by him saying that, and he deserved to leave in a way that was solely and entirely his. Instead, what viewers left the scene talking about was if Stone was in love with Benson, not about him and where he might be going next. It unintentionally took away from the impact of the decision he just made.
If Barba had left espousing feelings for Benson, that would have fit better; the two had worked together for half a decade and felt like they were close. Peter and Benson didn’t yet have that bond, despite SVU throwing in occasional scenes that seemed to be testing for a romantic relationship between them (remember the early moment where she walked into his office as he was changing?).
But again, you have to show and not tell, and the show hadn’t earned that yet. There wasn’t enough appreciable context for Peter to say he’d developed strong enough feelings for Olivia Benson that he’d once again change his whole life and career.
Peter Stone was an amazing character, who was the spark plug on Chicago Justice and had the opportunity to shake up Law & Order: SVU by coming from a different place, in every sense of the term. Philip Winchester was excellent at finding the character’s potential.
But when it came down to it, Peter wound up not fitting in the SVU framework, and “End Game” was the SVU season finale that had to fit his exit into it, not the complete sendoff that he actually deserved.
Even so, that doesn’t change the fact that Peter Stone was a brilliantly crafted character, and that Philip Winchester delivered excellent performances that we got to follow on not just one show but two. His SVU tenure may have been brief and not perfect, but we’re still better for having gotten to know him at all.
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