Law & Order: SVU’s season 23 premiere was, without a doubt, a strong kickoff to what we hope will finally be the season. If you’re here, you probably know what that means. If not, well… Ask your leading lady why it’s “getting hot in here.”
We’ll get to that part in a bit, but SVU is, at its core, about finding justice for victims. Even when the series lost half of its iconic duo, that mission—and star Mariska Hargitay’s…well, everything—is what kept viewers going back. So, before we go full-on fangirl, examining every microscopic thing for why the seemingly tiny Bensler content is actually, or at least has the potential to be, kinda huge, let’s talk about the central case of “And the Empire Strikes Back” and what all the moving parts could be telling us.
Law & Order: SVU On White Dudes Behaving Badly
There’s a hilarious (and ironically-timed when you think about what recently happened at the Emmys) line, which Fin says when watching footage of Congressman Howard’s appearance at the New York Stock Exchange, that really sets up everything that’s both good and bad about how this case played out:
“Nothing sadder than white people congratulating themselves.”
If you think about the power structures at play throughout Law & Order SVU 23×01, and really pretty much everywhere in America, it really is kind of pathetic to think about. Why, exactly, did Howard need to pat himself on the back for being rich and successful, when he was born into it, when the system was set up to lead him there, and when he’d pretty much done nothing to earn anything about his position of power?
Pretty sad. (And I say that as a white person, so please, come try me with the “oh, this is racist for you to say about white people” nonsense. Please.)
But, of course, that wasn’t all that was “sad,” much less what was downright sickening, about Howard. With the help of Proud Life founder Catalina Machado—a woman of color who was supposed to be helping people—he’d gained himself even more undeserved power over poor, single mothers who just wanted a good roof over their heads and a better life for their children. As if that wasn’t bad enough, he also had a thing for teenage girls.
…and it didn’t stop there, either. Because why would it?
“I’m not going to prison. I’m going to be President.”
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Rich and powerful politician, often white, plans on running for higher office…sees himself as invincible, regardless of how many credible witnesses come out against his sex crimes, because he can just spin it all as people being “politically-motivated.” Law & Order: SVU’s fictional perpetrator is no different than the likes of the previous President*, the Matt Gaetzes (did y’all catch Chief McGrath’s name-drop on that one?) of the world, certain folks seated on the Supreme Court, or countless others. He was so smugly convinced he’d get away with everything because all of those real-life men already have—and continue to.
But what the real world doesn’t have is SVU’s Captain Olivia Benson. Is she perfect? No. Saint Liv has screwed up in the past, especially as it has related to race (ex: we still would like a word with our not-so-saintly Olivia about “Community Policing”). But has she always been tougher than everyone else, more willing to work harder for justice than anyone else, and our idealized force for good? Uh, yeah. Absolutely.
She was completely unfazed by all of Congressman Howard’s threats, and while (as we’ll get into below) the things she did in this episode that actually destroyed us were more about Liv as a person than Liv as Our Hero And Captain or whatever, she’s probably the only person on the planet we trust to somehow make this all work out. She didn’t care about all of his whining about political motivations because, for her, it was—and never has been—about that.
It’s about justice. Period.
“Oh, nobody put us up to this. See, we’re SVU. You’re a sexual predator. So, guess what happens next.”
There were exactly two times we saw Olivia Benson flinch during the Law & Order: SVU season 23 premiere: The first was when she was beside herself, even after all she’s seen and done over the past 22 years, about Howard calling her “a bitter woman cop, who spent her life getting back at men.”
(Side note on that: Imagine if Liv had her not-so-former partner with her in that interrogation, how dead he would’ve been after that. Or, you know, if I could reach through the TV and off him myself.)
The second, of course, was when the episode ended on that totally unfair cliffhanger, with witnesses dropping like flies. As of the time this review is being written, we have no idea how it all pans out with SVU 23×02…But dear Goddess Mariska Hargitay, please let us beat the bland trash politician in fiction the way we just can’t ever seem to in real life. I beg of you…And let us say, amen.
SVU‘s Chief McGrath is totally up to something, right?
Maybe we should talk about a third thing that had Liv, and us, on edge throughout SVU 23×01: McGrath.
Any of y’all who have been out for Elliot Stabler’s throat over his supposed toxicity had better be writing think pieces about how Chief McGrath is a poster child for toxic masculinity. Why aren’t you typing away instead of reading this?
He spent most of “And the Empire Strikes Back” in some kind of uncontrolled rage, yelling in people’s faces while trying to make them rush the case…and actively driving a wedge between Liv and Deputy Chief Garland. So, you’re looking at McGrath trying the “divide and conquer” approach with the highly-decorated woman NYPD Captain and the Black Deputy Chief, who was already thrown under the bus with the Central Park Karen-inspired case last season.
He had Benson hide knowledge of his undercover operative from both her squad—her family—and the Deputy Chief. And when Garland wasn’t invited to the press conference? His way of smoothing things over with Garland was to lie, implying Liv must have failed to tell him because of how quickly things were moving. But that’s not how it went down. Liv asked about Garland, and McGrath fed her some line about how it was probably better he wasn’t there because of his connection to Catalina Machado.
Either McGrath is dirty, or he wants all the glory of catching such a big fish for himself. Probably both, at this point? So, that, again, brings us back to Fin’s line about how sad it is when white people congratulate themselves, doesn’t it?
Let’s talk about the Bensler of it all…
So, Bensler were attached at the hip at Fin’s un-wedding from the second Elliot so much as breathed near the premises. Then, when it was time for Olivia to put her Captain Benson persona back on and go deal with this incredibly messy case, she…had to prolong the contact by way of a phone call while she was driving?
The two of them? Had to do that?
EO survived 10 years apart but can’t survive 10 seconds now, huh? We love to see it. But, aside from all that (and any fic you all send my way about what happened between the toast and the phone call), let’s have a deep discussion here.
Ok, first of all: Mariska Hargitay, how dare you. Olivia Benson, full on beaming as she talks on the phone with Elliot Stabler while driving? The absolute audacity. Hargitay had to know what that was going to do to those of us who have followed Liv’s journey for over 20 years—especially those of us with the good sense to know what endgame looks like. But the choice, with the acting, it was still made. She said, “I’m gonna kill the fangirls without even breaking a sweat.”
As a good friend once put it about the many ways “Marsha” continues to wreck us: “I’d ask her where she found the audacity, but she’d tell me she could do whatever the fuck she wants.”
God, that applies here. That smile was just…It was an attack, ok? I was attacked. Please send the bill for damages to Mariska Hargitay, care of Law & Order: SVU. Captain Benson hasn’t allowed herself to be that in the moment, self-assured, and just genuinely free and grinning like that with anyone—except, maybe, Noah…and even then in a different way—in years. Maybe not ever. This is what love looks like on our girl, and it looks gorgeous.
(Then again, so does a burlap sack. Because, well. Mariska Hargitay.)
Watch out, Olivia: You’re supposed to be a Strong Female Character™, so like. Sweetie, you’re not supposed to be allowed happiness without suffering…
…aaaaaaand cue the car accident.
It all makes sense in a world where the Special Victims Unit is working such a high-profile case, all while Richard Wheatley still wants to eliminate the one true love of Elliot Stabler’s life. Throw in the fact that Hargitay’s very real injury had to be written into Law & Order: SVU, and it was definitely the “right” writing choice.
But it’s still kind of…how you say…especially heinous? Olivia Benson can never have a moment of happiness without being punished for it, can she? That’s an issue to take a deep dive on at another time—or, like, in every profanity-laden rant that winds up on my personal social media—but still.
Again, the moment works really well. But it’s so frustrating. And yet, that’s part of what makes it work as well as it does, so hats off to everyone involved in working Mariska’s injury into Liv’s world. Perhaps the giant fangirl in me just assumes Hargitay had everything to do with coming up with that twist, considering the entire concept seems to have been dragged straight from the flaming depths of the shipper trash…But that’s not necessarily how television works. So, bravo to all.
We’re not done here, though. Not by a longshot. But first, a small trip down memory lane.
Elliot Stabler was the person who had Olivia Benson’s back for 12 years. He was “the most—single most—important person in [her] life, and [he] just…disappeared.” That comes with a lot of weight, and as we know, a huge part of that weight was Liv having (and losing) a true partner who had her back, who saved her, time and again. El was her someone. He was there to lift her up when she needed it, whether by cradling her against him when he thought she’d been shot on the job or just kind of being the one to stand beside her on the rare occasion when there were chinks in her armor.
But then, the disappearance happened. Some part of Olivia held on to hope that he’d be back. Honestly, we only know this because Mariska Hargitay (again with her audacity and how dare she be so good at what she does) conveyed it in so many small but meaningful ways, every chance she got. There were times when Liv would kind of absentmindedly fidget with El’s mini badge on her gun or when she’d just…seem like she was searching for something—someone—who wasn’t there.
Of course, then there was the most obvious (and probably last) time when some part of Olivia yearned for Elliot to be the one to have her back: Law & Order: SVU’s William Lewis arc. Plenty of us can recite that one part in our sleep, but let’s drop it for effect:
“My old partner…He’d know what to do. He wouldn’t question himself after what you’ve done. He would kick your teeth in, break your legs, break your arms, break your back, break your face. Maybe I should call him. Maybe I should get him to use that metal bar on you, huh? And make you beg for your life.”
But he didn’t come, not then, and not for all these years. That armor Olivia used to let her El, her partner for life, see crack from time to time? It became impenetrable after that…She never let anyone in the way she let Elliot in (fight me). She’s never quite been the same, and that’s perfectly on point. Trauma like that changes you; it doesn’t have to define you, but it still gets inside you.
So, why the history lesson?
The last voice Olivia heard before the crash in the Law & Order: SVU season 23 premiere…was Elliot’s. And it wasn’t some detached, professional conversation. It was personal. It was soft. Dare I say, based on The Smile That Broke Me, it was headed in a flirty direction? Liv was happy, relaxed, possibly working on letting some light in through the little cracks in her walls.
It was everything she’d convinced herself she couldn’t want or need anymore, everything she deserves in this world…and it all, quite literally, crashed.
So, in her mind, the first thing she heard when she came to…was also Elliot. There he was, calling her name, asking her to stay with him—finally there to save her. She conjured him out of thin air, inexplicably there in an FDNY uniform and full beard…After a decade of him never being there when she came to, whether she was fully in one piece or not, Liv allowed herself to believe again that El could be right there beside her.
It was all in her head. The timeline doesn’t work. There’s no way he grew all that facial hair between leaving the party, being on the phone with his partner the whole time they were heading in their separate directions, and then somehow just showing up by her side.
But it doesn’t matter.
For the first time in years, the heart and soul of Law & Order: SVU has her other half. They may not really be there yet, and there are probably plenty of rough times, working through the abandonment, ahead. But Captain Benson’s subconscious knows again, somewhere deep down perhaps, that Detective Stabler can and will be there for her. Does she need a savior? No. But is it still really satisfying to see Olivia have her person? There are no words.
But the EO content wasn’t limited to just that scene. Later, when IAB dared to ask Liv how she knew El was telling the truth about not sending her the text that, ultimately, put her at the scene of Morales’ shooting, everything about her demeanor exuded confidence.
“I know now that he didn’t send it.”
“He told me.”
“And you have no reason to doubt him?”
“He was my partner for 12 years.”
Nope. She has no doubt, whatsoever. She’s unwavering. Look at that quick toss of her hair and the unshakeable faith written all over her face. Not even a flicker of uncertainty in those eyes, just pure fire.
(I am, once again, asking when Mariska Hargitay is going to send me to therapy for what she has done to me.)
That partnership, no matter how much it was shoved aside or put into a self-preserving box in El’s absence, can not be erased.
It’s quite possible that Captain Benson is still a little…not so great at the detecting, so to speak, when it comes to her place in Stabler’s heart, though. And that’s completely understandable. A lot has been improved in a very short amount of time, but that level of hurt doesn’t go away quite so quickly—and 12 years of lying to themselves and each other doesn’t help either. It’s much easier to get back the professional part than to move forward with the personal.
“Any woman who’s close to him is a target.”
Yes, “any.” Sure, Liv.
Law & Order: SVU viewers do, of course, get to see Benson’s flashback to when Wheatley realized who she was off Elliot calling her “Liv,” though…So there are at least…some thoughts she might not want to process right now? Olivia’s probably not going to be able to ignore them forever. Not that anyone at IAB needs to know about that part, though. After all, Benson and Stabler are technically not on the job together anymore, partners for life or not.
Yeah, so, maybe we’re exceedingly emotional over some breadcrumbs. So what?
Law & Order: Rollisi Unit?
Look, y’all: SVU season 23 is feeding that Rollins and Carisi ship in this premiere. It started with the making out, circled around to all the shameless flirting on the job, and just…
Real talk time: It’s complete proof that two characters on a procedural like this—and on this series in particular—can be happy together, work together, and still not take anything away from the main focus.
I mean, Amanda should probably focus a bit more on surveillance instead of thinking about how much she and Sonny could put the hotel room to better use…But it’s not like anyone can blame her for having thoughts and ideas anyway, right? Also adding to slightly cruel ending of Law & Order: SVU 23×01 would, of course, be Rollisi getting the calls just as they were about to head out for dinner.
Rude, to be honest.
I can’t wait to see where Kelli Giddish and Peter Scanavino get to take this relationship over the course of season 23, though. Truly. They get less words than EO, not because they are less interesting or less important than Bensler, but because…Well, they kind of actually get to say it all themselves right now, huh?
(With all of that being said, like, EO WHEN???)
Random thoughts on SVU 23×01:
- In more “I will never shut up about the phone call” news: Liv really didn’t even completely end the call for work, for a huge case. She answered, got off the business call as quickly as she could, and went right back to being soft AF with El. Not to mention, she was already an hour late. I…Someone call a bus. Fangirl down.
- Insert something about “stay with me” and me having an absolute meltdown because of my PTSD from the Caskett war here.
- “Elliot” in “Infiltrated” vs. “Elliot” in “And the Empire Strikes Back.” Pick your death by your series star’s audacity.
- She has a different voice, a different smile, a different…everything for him. HELP.
- “You don’t mess around with an ankle.” “Thank you, Dr. Carisi.” I snorted. I would also like to know who is stalking me in ballet class on Mariska Hargitay’s Planet Earth because, like…When I tell you I’m always being told to “take it easy” on my bum ankle while I just…do what I want…Phew.
- “Stabler and the O.C. are looking into it.” Weird how she put his name first, huh?
- Do we think Olivia got choked up talking about “a good shooting” because that’s what made Elliot leave that one time or…(Mariska, ma’am, let me live. Tone down the talent. We get it.)
- Fin Tutuola, Mother Hen. Love that for Liv.
- “…but I can’t tell McGrath that I have a sitting Congressman in holding and I need a sick day.” Of course, she can’t. Even as Captain, a woman like Olivia Benson has to work 10 times as hard as bland cardboard dudebros like McGrath just to prove themselves. She can’t show any supposed “weakness,” even after all these years of kicking ass and taking names, and even when she’s only hurt because some psycho ran her off the road. She just has to keep powering through, as she does.
- …kind of like how some folks think Mariska Hargitay, at 57, is not credible as an ass-kicker and name-taker because of her injury…even if Zaddy Meloni is three years older and doing all that physical stuff on Organized Crime. The double-standards are utter and complete trash. And the people who maintain them can choke on them.
- “Should we break this up?” “It’s a private conversation. We didn’t hear any of this.” And then those little shrugs before they turned away from Howard getting smacked around by his fixer-slash-lawyer…Captain Olivia Benson and ADA Sonny Carisi, mean girls. I swear to God, I almost spit my drink out every time I watch this clip. Liv, baby, those petty pants are gorgeous on you. (Everything is.)
- Back to ankles and pushing through pain: Liv just popping those ibuprofen? What a mood.
- The way this episode ends is just. Not fair. We mentioned that, right?