Before ‘Law & Order’ reunites Stabler and Benson, here’s where they left off

Christopher Meloni as Det. Elliot Stabler, in a winter coat in the snow.
Christopher Meloni’s Det. Elliot Stabler returns to television with “Law & Order: Organized Crime.”
(Virginia Sherwood/NBC)
Share via

It’s been exactly a decade since Elliot Stabler signed off from his last shift at “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” bringing an abrupt end to one of the longest-running will-they/won’t-they relationships in TV history.

On Thursday, the erstwhile detective played by Christopher Meloni will return to NBC in a two-hour crossover event, reuniting with his former partner, Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay), on “SVU” before spinning off into his own series, “Law & Order: Organized Crime.”

Details of the news series have been closely guarded — no episodes were made available for critics ahead of the premiere — but the official logline for “Organized Crime” explains that Stabler returns to the NYPD after “a devastating personal loss,” rejoining the police department during “a moment of reckoning” in the criminal justice system.


Critics say the popular TV shows of “Law & Order,” “Chicago PD” and “FBI” creator Dick Wolf create harmful misperceptions of the criminal justice system.

June 9, 2020

For devoted fans of the record-breaking, seemingly unstoppable crime procedural, Stabler and Benson’s reunion is an event on par with a Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston reconciliation — something many have speculated about wildly, but few believed could happen outside the realm of their own fevered imaginations.

If it’s been a while since you last binge-watched all 400-something episodes of “SVU” and need a refresher, here’s a look back at the saga of Benson and Stabler.

So did they ever, you know, get together?

No. But for 12 seasons, “SVU” was a classic two-hander, fueled by the chemistry between Stabler, a tough guy, ex-Marine and father of five, and Benson, a compassionate detective and single woman seemingly married to her job.

The writers of the show knew exactly what they were doing, teasing viewers by concocting storylines that required Stabler and Benson to pose as a swinging married couple or a sex worker and John. There was also Stabler’s marriage, which was not exactly rock solid: he and his wife, Kathy (Isabel Gillies), wed at 17, separated for a time and nearly got divorced, but reconciled when she unexpectedly became pregnant.

Mariska Hargitay as Captain Olivia Benson in a brown coat and black shirt
Mariska Hargitay as Capt. Olivia Benson on “Law & Order: Organized Crime.”
(Virginia Sherwood/NBC)

Why did Meloni leave “SVU”?

After more than 270 episodes and 12 seasons, Stabler was written off the show — not for creative reasons but because Meloni and NBC reached an impasse over his contract negotiations. Meloni recently described his departure as “inelegant” but stayed close with Hargitay, occasionally setting the internet on fire by showing up on her Instagram account. Since leaving “SVU” 10 years ago, he’s become Peak TV’s favorite zaddy, starring in shows such as “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Pose,” “Happy!” and “Harley Quinn.”

How did they write Stabler off the show?

Given how seismic Stabler’s departure was for the series and its devoted audience, his farewell is unceremonious — almost as if the producers were holding out hope for a last-minute contract resolution that never came to fruition.

In Stabler’s last episode — the Season 12 finale “Smoked” — he and Benson are investigating the murder of a rape victim who was shot to death in front of her teenage daughter a week before the trial of her accused rapist was set to begin. The daughter later opens fire at the police station, using a gun purchased on the street and killing a number of bystanders. Stabler shoots her. In the final shot of the episode, he looks over at Benson as the girl bleeds out on the staff room floor.

On a Manhattan sound stage masquerading as a Rikers Island interrogation room, Mariska Hargitay acted out a tense scene as Lt.

Sept. 21, 2018

Really, that was it? No more Stabler?

Pretty much!

In the Season 13 premiere, “Scorched Earth,” we learn that Stabler is on administrative leave pending a review of the shooting. Capt. Donald Cragen (Dann Florek) tells Benson that Stabler will have to jump through “a lot of hoops” if he wants to keep his job, including a psychiatric evaluation and anger management training. Cragen later tells Benson, who’d been trying to get in touch with Stabler, that her longtime partner has resigned. She goes to the interrogation room and weeps. There have been a few loaded references to Benson’s “old partner” since then, but otherwise very little closure.

The original cast of "Law & Order: SVU"
Dean Winters, from left, Dann Florek, Mariska Hargitay, Christopher Meloni, Michelle Hurd and Richard Belzer in the first season of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”
(Chris Haston/NBC)

How has Benson done since then?

Just fine, thank you!

At the time Stabler was written out of “SVU,” many wondered if the show could survive without the Benson-Stabler partnership, but it has — and then some. Now in its 22nd season, “SVU” is the longest-running primetime live-action series in American TV history and has enjoyed renewed relevance in the wake of #MeToo.

Since Stabler walked out the precinct door, the show reinvented itself with a renewed focus on Benson who, no longer shackled to her work spouse, had the space to grow as a character — pursuing mature romantic relationships, adopting a child, and getting promoted to captain.

This being a TV show, she’s also faced some unusually dramatic challenges, like the time she was kidnapped and tortured by a serial rapist.

“We were nervous,” executive producer Julie Martin told the Times in 2018, referring to Meloni’s departure. “It really shifted the paradigm of the show. But it was exciting, especially for a woman writer to be like, ‘OK, now we really have a single female lead.’”