Commentary: ‘Law & Order’ is lost without Stabler and Benson. Here’s why their pairing works

Christopher Meloni's Stabler struts ahead of Mariska Hargitay's Benson on a nighttime rooftop.
Christopher Meloni as Det. Elliot Stabler and Mariska Hargitay as Capt. Olivia Benson in “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”
(Virginia Sherwood / NBC)

The first TV show I comfort-watched during the pandemic was “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” For a month I spent my evenings watching my program and drinking wine and doing pet-themed jigsaws, which was the only way to stem the panic. I hadn’t seen the beginning of the show in ages, and I kept calling my spouse — who hates the entire “Law & Order” franchise — into the room to marvel at some little bit of funny dialogue or truly marvelous sleight-of-hand, at which she would usually laugh perfunctorily. But even in her annoyance, she couldn’t take her eyes off Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and Stabler (Christopher Meloni). “They’re really compelling, aren’t they?” she said one day, unprompted, and I nearly upset my thousand-piece puzzle of a dog park.

The rewatch was a striking reminder how utterly unsatisfying the last 10 years of “SVU” have been. In those early days, it was charming, absorbing, fun — maybe even occasionally great — until it wasn’t. The series never recovered from the departure of Meloni and showrunner Neal Baer, and each subsequent season has been sillier and more didactic than the last. (Embodied best, perhaps, by a note left in the “personal failures” exhibit at L.A.’s Museum of Failure: “Seasons 18 & 19,” signed, “SVU Writers’ Room.”)

With 22 seasons under its belt — over 400 episodes of pulpy, ripped-from-the-headlines plotlines mashing some bit of zeitgeisty pop culture with another, episodes that contradict each other to the point of in-universe surrealism — a little bit of silliness can’t be helped. But you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who won’t tell you that Stabler’s departure was catastrophic for the show, as it was Meloni and Hargitay’s gravity that made the whole thing turn. (An iconic, impossible-to-mess-up formula and solid supporting cast didn’t hurt either.)


Meloni and Hargitay had a glorious energy: a will-they/won’t-they scenario complicated by a million tiny, beautiful, human clashes. (Emily Nussbaum at the New Yorker wrote that their dynamic “reflected shifting, unspoken notions of them as victim and predator, protector and protected.”) Benson is strong and tender and empathetic with traumas old and new; a single woman married to her difficult, rewarding job; always in search of a family to replace the one she was denied as a child. Stabler is actually married — his wife, Kathy, a beleaguered but supportive high-school sweetheart — and comes to his job with old-school morals and white-knight moralism: defender of the weak with a notoriously short fuse.

It’s been nearly 10 years since “Law & Order” broke up one of TV’s most beloved partnerships. Here’s a refresher before Thursday’s reunion.

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I have long marveled over my adoration of Stabler, a character who I should by all accounts dislike — a straight white Catholic man from Queens, a second-generation cop and former Marine with five kids and an anger problem. But Meloni’s performance is endlessly captivating — he is muscular and righteous and eager to do good no matter what the cost; a bulldog with love-me-daddy energy for days. The two of them pass their vulnerabilities and secrets back and forth to each other like a baby bunny in cupped hands, closer than any marriage. For all the ethical lines they cross as cops, they never sleep with each other — Stabler would never hurt his wife, and Benson would never help him do it. It would have been exasperating if it wasn’t so hot.

Stabler’s departure was startling not just because it was sudden and off-screen (the result of a contract dispute Meloni calls “inelegant”), but because it was unimaginable, like unthreading Mulder and Scully. After he leaves, he is gone — mentioned by name a few times, and then never again. He does not come back as a guest star; they do not talk on the phone or correspond or meet up for drinks. Worse still, beyond one moment in the premiere of Season 13, we are not shown Benson’s sadness or grief, merely required to accept their absence. She holds her own for the next 10 years — Hargitay is a wonderful actress — but no song and dance can replace what was lost. The writers pair her with one random person after another — new partners, mediocre boyfriends — but nothing takes.

Last week’s new episodes — the first of “Organized Crime,” the 434th of “SVU” — brought Stabler back from the ether. The latter opens with Benson making her way to the scene of a car bombing and finding Kathy being loaded into an ambulance. She turns around and sees Stabler, and it’s hard to tell who is more surprised. We soon learn Stabler has been living in Rome with his family. They begin to talk and — unlike the majority of performances on “SVU” in the last decade — it is a real conversation, tender and honest and heartbreaking. Benson’s voice is a wound. You left without saying anything, she tells him. Her captain had to break the news to her. Why? “I was afraid if I heard your voice,” Stabler tells her, “I wouldn’t have been able to leave.”

This season will mark “Law & Order: SVU’s” 20th year on the beat investigating sexually based offenses.

Sept. 21, 2018


The miracle of this scene is the way the trauma of Stabler’s loss blossoms in Benson’s face fully formed, as if it’s always been there. If there is a name for this kind of rapport I suppose it is “chemistry,” something that has less to do with the characters and far more with two actors who come alive in each other’s presence, and simply work.

By the end of the episode, Kathy takes a turn for the worst and dies, the first sign that the writers have designs for Benson and Stabler beyond mere reconciliation. In the premiere of “Organized Crime,” Stabler buries Kathy. He’s following a bunch of boring narrative threads that have to do with the mob, yadda yadda, but the real payoff comes at the end when he runs into Benson again. Stabler is flustered, having once again violated protocol and his boss’ instructions and also the law. Benson is holding a letter he’d given her in Act 1.

These are the kind of simple, effective emotional stakes that the franchise gave up on long ago in favor of bloodless characters and overblown plotlines. She wants to talk about the letter. He does too, but he can’t, not right now. Something is wrong; she knows him so well, she can tell. He lies to her. Everything is fine. He just has to go. As they part, you can see it in their faces: this isn’t over. A perfect parting shot and a reminder that — writers and networks and contracts be damned — Benson and Stabler were never really apart in the first place.

Carmen Maria Machado is the author of “Her Body and Other Parties: Stories,” “In the Dream House: A Memoir” and a graphic novel, “The Low, Low Woods.”

‘Law & Order: Special Victims Unit’

Where: NBC
When: 9 p.m. Thursday
Rating: TV-14-DLV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language and violence)

‘Law & Order: Organized Crime’

Where: NBC
When: 10 p.m. Thursday
Rating: TV-14-DLV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language and violence)