Law & Order: SVU‘s 500th episode was nothing if not a collection of contradictions. “The Five Hundredth Episode” was incredibly well done but not something I’d feel comfortable watching over and over again for entertainment. It brought back some familiar faces and paid tribute to the series’ legacy, yet also had some glaring absences—unless, of course, we’re counting flashbacks as appearances.
We saw Peak!Olivia Benson in some scenes. In others, it was like, if Olivia Benson heard what Olivia Benson was saying, coming out of someone else’s mouth? Her reaction would have been truly iconic. Then again, she really believed what she was saying…And as a victim, she was not to blame, didn’t need to “know better,” at all.
Rather than go for a milestone, unmatched by any other live-action drama, that provided some sort of happiness—for once—for our beloved hero, SVU 500 was, instead, Liv’s journey toward accepting that “the one that got away” was actually a groomer, who took advantage of a teenager with a troubled home life. This is simultaneously bold storytelling, a necessary loose end from the so-called “1.0” era to tie up, and just…difficult to watch, to be honest. This has never been the type of series to tell warm and fuzzy stories—it would do the subject matter an extreme disservice if that were the case.
A special episode, though, is allowed to be just that: Special. It could, at least, not further traumatize the protagonist. It did not need to prove her perception of reality was untrustworthy, causing her to potentially second-guess many choices she’s made about her heavily-guarded heart. But…maybe that’s just coming from a viewer wanting to hold on to the same denial Liv so desperately craved here, as well.
Because even there, that push toward questioning Olivia’s memories provided a chance for the character to move forward, to possibly figure out just why her relationships have never quite worked. Maybe all of this is the point: Maybe the reactionary discomfort, the internal struggle that I, as a viewer, have after watching Law & Order: SVU’s 500th episode, is exactly what the mission was all along. If the purpose here was to make us take very uncomfortable looks at basically everything in Olivia Benson’s life, ever, then mission accomplished. If this plot was meant to be another narrative of unequal relationships in this season of stories about how an imbalance of power can lead to all sorts of abuses, then that was an achievement of epic proportions.
Was the aim simply to cement Mariska Hargitay’s status as a living legend, who truly has no equal in her field? If so, we’ve more than hit the bullseye. But if it was to celebrate the legacy of this series, honor the Special Victim’s Unit’s far-superior version of Lady Justice, and/or pay tribute to what she and her story have meant to survivors and other viewers alike for so long? Well…don’t get out the cake and balloons just yet. Or. Well. Ditch the balloons. Enjoy the cakeless cake, should it be a comfort food for you.
Because that’s a much more complicated question to answer.
So, broken record here, but uh. Mariska Hargitay.
Inject whatever she did in “The 500th Episode” in my veins. Honestly, just pump me full of whatever it is about her that has her literally summoning rainbows on her time off, while just…relentlessly destroying souls as Olivia Benson. She didn’t need to do Law & Order: SVU for over 20 years to establish herself as this—this…performance giant? But dear God, what a time to be alive—what a phenomenon to be grateful to have witnessed.
And I mean, yeah…I go off about how insane she is every week? But wow. Unbelievable. This was above and beyond even Hargitay’s usual level of phenomenal, and if you’re talking about celebrating a big milestone? This is the way. This is how we party, hard, for that kind of accomplishment.
She made sitting through yet more trauma for Liv somehow…worth it? That seems really awful and awkward to say, but to get to witness that…Maybe a bit of suffering is the price we have to pay—an offering to the TV gods, if you will.
There was a certain kind of slow unraveling toward devastation that Hargitay delivered as she portrayed Olivia’s struggle with recognizing her past for what it was. There were moments when, even as Captain Benson defended Burton Lowe to the rest of her squad, you could just tell that some part of her was starting to doubt, to fall apart. And then when she did actually fully have that emotional moment, the pain emanating from every cell of that character and reaching through the TV to grab viewers by the guts was just about on par with, if not better than, what we saw throughout…Well. The Lewis arc, actually.
Of course, with its most trigger-warning-worthy episodes, Law & Order: SVU left Olivia bloodied and physically scarred, tormented by nightmares, and questioning whether or not the monster had won by bringing out the violent half of her genes Liv had once been afraid she might one day embrace. After finally confronting the idea that she’d been a victim of a far less obvious or visible, yet equally devastating for so many, form of abuse—this emotional manipulation done by the Burton Lowes of the world—Captain Benson didn’t appear to have been broken down, exactly. Shaken, certainly. Questioning her choices, her loyalty, and whether or not she should trust her own heart…almost surely.
But, and this goes back to my broken-record shouting from the rooftops that there is no one on this planet quite like Mariska Hargitay, by the end of “The Five Hundredth Episode,” Olivia’s tiniest of smiles after tossing away Burton’s mix tape? That seemed something close to our girl having made some measure of peace with the past. Things didn’t end with Burton because her mother hated her, or because everyone always leaves. She didn’t lose some great love of her life (er, uh…at least teenage Liv didn’t).
No, it was something far more beautiful than that: Serena Benson loved her daughter and did what was necessary to get her away from a predator. So she could become Captain Benson, so she could be our hero. Imagine if she’d actually stayed with that monster. How much might have been lost?
On that front, this idea of confronting the past and recognizing all aspects of it—both beautiful and ugly—for what they were, Law & Order: SVU episode 500 absolutely did the damn thing. And honestly, even if it hurt to watch—regardless of whether or not this was what we signed up for when we thought we were going to celebrate a milestone—coming to terms with the truth, no matter how gross or painful, is important. There’s a value there, a worth to getting out of the denial, recognizing the poison that’s been with us for so many years. You can’t heal without admitting there’s something to heal from. Olivia needed to diagnose her own hurt and treat the right disease—Lowe’s abuse, not losing a hurting teenager’s idea of a savior.
There was also at least one other key aspect of “The Five Hundredth Episode” that worked.
“Do you really not understand the power differential? Do you not understand that you were their mentor?”
Season 23 has been all about power and how it plays a huge role in so many injustices. So, if you look at the Burton Lowes or the Roger Murrays of the world and the way they turned their respective power into weapons, that part of the story fit perfectly.
There’s also this juxtaposition of the obvious (rape and murder) wrongdoing by Murray and the supposedly “lesser” abuse by Lowe. SVU couldn’t charge Liv and the other women’s abuser with anything because Andrea’s rape was past the statute of limitations, and every other survivor who came forward shared stories of a manipulative creep, not a criminal…But we don’t get to prosecute people for wearing down someone’s inner alarm system so badly, they get what they want without technically having stolen it.
Maybe that’s another message we needed—there’s still slime slipping beneath the surface, no matter how much we try to piece up the cracks in our (in)justice system.
…and the terrible
I’ve talked about this a lot with this idea of Olivia Benson fitting the Strong Female Character™ trope for Law & Order: SVU. But it really bears repeating when it comes to the creative choice made for the series’ history-making episode: Contrary to popular belief, Liv doesn’t need to constantly suffer, through one trauma after another, to prove her worthiness or her strength. She already had the tragic backstory to “justify” her wanting to be a part of the Special Victims Unit, even though simply caring about survivors—mostly fellow women—of an especially heinous crime, for their own sake, would have been enough.
Benson already had PTSD after Sealview, then suffered her prolonged hell with Lewis, giving her a resurgent and worsened need for help. She lost Elliot, then had to say goodbye to so many others. And then, El reappeared in her life after 10 years of nothing, turning her world upside down…Now, here’s Burton with an even bigger, more triggering, blast from the past. The list goes on and on. This doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface.
Is this a safe and cozy line of work? Clearly not. But does Benson constantly have to lose everyone, get kidnapped so many times Mariska Hargitay once made a crack out of it, lose Calvin, adopt Noah, have him kidnapped…It’s just trauma, after trauma, after trauma.
At this point, it feels as if someone behind the scenes at Law & Order: SVU wants to punish her for daring to be strong, and caring, and good. Which, of course, that’s ridiculous…isn’t it?
Certainly, having a leading lady who’s capable of pulling an emotional response out of viewers that just rips at the very fabric of the soul—who was willing to go there, in “The Five Hundredth Episode,” in “Surrender Benson,” and in so many other stories—has to be fun to play with. The temptation to always dig deeper into the dark just to see what Mariska might make out of it has got to be impossibly strong.
But at what cost? What message does that send to an audience looking for a hero, desperate for an escape? “You can be strong, ladies, but you must be punished for it. Over, and over, and over again until you don’t know how many more times you can break and put yourself back together.” Is that it?
Nobody’s saying Benson should win all the time, or that her world should be all rainbows and unicorns…But would a little bit of happiness here and there—even a walk to school with her son that doesn’t involve trying to dodge her painful truth about her mother—be the worst thing in the world? Especially in a 500th episode, a celebration?
Equally frustrating: With Burton Lowe returning to Benson’s life, with her defending him against everyone around her who was trying to protect her only to find out she was so wrong about him…That strikes a very uncomfortable parallel to another recently-returned man from Liv’s past. Elliot Stabler is nothing like this filth. But anyone who was already inclined to see the other half of the duo that built Law & Order: SVU as someone not worthy of Liv’s forgiveness, much less her faith, certainly just got a ton of gasoline to pour on that fire.
Particularly in a chapter of the series that ought to be honoring everything that brought us to this point—not just the most recent slightly-less-than-half of the show’s run—if some viewers are left with a bad taste in their mouths, that’s a fair response.
…plus 500 thoughts or less on Law & Order: SVU 500
- There were several places where I was like, “ok. But that should be Elliot’s line.” If you’re someone who didn’t, quite literally, grow up with Benson and Stabler, maybe it doesn’t bother you much that Christopher Meloni was absent. But for some of us, having the only returning character from “the old era” be Captain Cragen (and sort of Warner? But she’s been around recently), who was also part of the new guard…Just doesn’t sit right. Law & Order: SVU didn’t get to 500 episodes by simply starting in season 13. That’s not how numbers work. At all…But whatever, I guess.
- No, but really. We lost him when we were so close to 300 episodes. He wasn’t there for Liv for 300 or 400. El’s back in her life for 500; even a text message would have been appreciated. If you don’t get why that absence is painful to some of us, feel privileged.
- Legend has it, “there wasn’t a realistic way to fit him into the storyline.” This would make perfect sense, had Meloni not already been on this series this season. While undercover. Multiple times. Same goes for Olivia popping over to see Elliot in his home…
- Shoutout to the youths who’ve never seen a cassette tape.
- Liv was so smitten. Hargitay doing “Benson in love” is such a breath of fresh air…until.
- Me: Totally out of character for Olivia to hop into bed with a dude she hasn’t seen since she was a teen, especially with the scars. Forget about aging and what that might do to someone. Liv: Let me wrap myself up like a burrito in these sheets, even as I’m being all flirty in the afterglow. Me: I stand corrected. There she is.
- We continue to not talk enough about what a good BFF Fin is. Yes, Fin, I’d like you to “deal with” Burton. (Bonus points if you wait until Stabler’s back, though.)
- “He spent the summer grooming her.” Shout it out loud, Amanda. Like, yes. If you’re going to do this storyline, especially now with everything Liv has learned over the years, be loud about it until she recognizes what happened to her.
- Post-coital Liv with Elliot—or even someone who isn’t a serial predator—when????
- El’s banged someone involved in human trafficking. Liv’s banged a dude who’s been taking advantage of younger women for decades. Soulmate things.
- “That’s the thing about predators, Liv: The good ones—the smart ones—they make their victims believe that.” Nick, go off. (Totally El’s line, though.)
- “Did she like that you were a detective?” “It sounds like you’re being the detective now.” Olivia Benson, master of deflection.
- “Because she was a good mom, like you.” Oh, you poor things. Both of you. Noah for thinking the world is like that and for having no idea how he’s hurting Olivia…And Olivia for having to navigate that.
- Me? Crying when Olivia Benson cries? Required by law.
- No, but the wine. The tapes. The hallway. Her. Ma’am? Mariska? Dear God. It hurts.
- “I believe in two things: The truth and miracles. I know the truth, and I need a miracle.” Ian was out here with some Fox Mulder shit. Prove me wrong.
- Corny jokes aside, that was a beautiful line.
- …and this Ian dude’s emotion reliving that night. Whew.
- If you didn’t know, based on the gross old groomer parallel to Liv’s story, that Mr. Murray killed Haley? That whole thing with inserting himself (more manipulation) in her mom’s life with all the cards should’ve tipped you off. Or maybe it was Criminal Minds, not SVU that taught me that one? Probably both.
- Did Mariska really go on Live with Kelly and Ryan and say something about being “so nervous” and feeling a lot of pressure for the 500th episode? But she did that? Mere mortals are so screwed.
- From the same interview: “…this moment to take in what we’ve made—what we’ve created.” I’m having feelings. (And missing Melons.)
- “Once an SVU detective, always an SVU detective.” True for Amaro but not Stabler. Got it.
- “As my mother used to say, everyone leaves.” Law & Order: SVU, doing the most to attack those of us with abandonment issues. (Especially Olivia.)
- “Interesting, isn’t it? Him showing up in your life…now?! Stabler, Burton…Something’s going on.” “Nothing’s going on…” Sure, Liv. Also, show, don’t tell.
- To be 100% fair, your girl Mariska did allllllllll the showing…which is why we didn’t need the telling.
- “I told him I’d never let my daughter’s death be entertainment someone listens to while they work out.” Um. About that…
- Blah, blah. We all love Olivia, Burton. You’re not special. Especially heinous, maybe. “But you…disappeared.” Oh. *stares in Elliot Stabler* Again with the kinda icky parallels.
- “An old man dating a young woman always ends up playing the fool.” Because he is one, you scum. Next.
- Ok but the hilarity of Captain Benson thinking about Baby Liv and El when she’s in Burton’s bed. Same, Liv. We, too, would like to go “time traveling,” if that’s what the kids are calling it these days.
- “Two words of advice? Watch yourself. I used to have clients in publishing. He’s got a reputation. So, just…eyes open.” Trevor Langan, boiler of tea.
- “Can I ask you what you’re doing working with a predator?” Andrea, speaking for the Law & Order: SVU fandom.
- Olivia Benson, speaking up on behalf of her younger self after realizing what Burton did to her, will remain very personal to me forever.
- The bravery she had to have to say it out loud, even as he was having his idiotic “cancel culture” tantrum…Just. Yes. God.
- Kathy dictated a letter to Elliot that gaslit him and Liv. Serena dictated a letter to Olivia that made a predator go away. These two things are not the same…But the similarity is going to get some false-equivalency mental gymnastics happening. I’m calling it.
- “Maybe I wanted some sort of acknowledgement because I was so young.” The way Mariska just got so quiet on the “young” part will forever haunt me. Jot that down.
- “Physician, heal thyself.” She did. Liv always does. But she shouldn’t always have to. Being “a big girl,” being in this fight, shouldn’t mean always bearing the weight of the world alone. It’s ok to have someone else to lean on, to let them shoulder your burdens every once in a while. That, too, is fierce and heroic.