Law & Order: SVU 23×09 “The People vs. Richard Wheatley” was the type of television episode that was not only well worth the wait, but has also given viewers plenty to talk about for the weeks, months, and (likely) years to come. Quite possibly, whatever our thoughts are here and now, they’ll even change and evolve as we move forward. But honestly? That’s exactly what we want from a series that boasts a record-breaking run and a series star in Mariska Hargitay who, yet again, has left us without an adequate vocabulary to describe what we’ve just witnessed from her.
Like, again. At what point do we just give up? Never, likely…So, let’s do that thing we do where we try to talk about just what made this hour of television, as well as Hargitay’s…everything in it, so strong. We even have a couple of issues here and there, and we’ll do our best to explain those, too. Just. Bear with the heavy heaping of fangirling here because…wow.
One of the most difficult things to come to terms with, when teasers for this episode, which was the first half of a crossover with Christopher Meloni’s Law & Order: Organized Crime, were first released, was the Rafael Barba (Raúl Esparza) of it all. Many viewers absolutely adore the former ADA, particularly based on how close he and Hargitay’s Olivia Benson are. To be fully honest here, there was one moment late in the episode when I thought to myself, “there’s no way he would defend Wheatley if he gave a shit about Liv at all. Fight me.”
And as far as the constant torment that Law & Order: SVU seems to love heaping on Olivia Benson goes, this really seems like more of the same. And that was way after Barba told Liv to be careful what she wished for when it came to not wanting him to defend Wheatley. To be fair, though, this probably comes from an emotional, and therefore not entirely objective, place.
So, let’s try to make some sense out of it.
The Barba Of It All
When you talk about what makes for a good episode of television, even if parts of it don’t quite fit what you necessarily want to see for your favorite characters, a believable connection between any two characters who interact should be at the top of the list. And what Mariska Hargitay and Raúl Esparza did every time they shared a scene was beyond that. Hopefully, whether Law & Order: SVU viewers are happy with the how and why Benson and Barba came together here—and the jury will likely be as deadlocked as Wheatley’s trial jury was on that one—we’ll all be able to agree on the power and the quality of the acting.
Here was a friendship that was strained to its limits. And it should have been.
We had Olivia, supporting Elliot through the loss of his wife—someone whom she counted as a friend, even for as messy as that whole situation has always been—and she got wrapped up in the middle of the Wheatleys’ constant scheming. She’s already been dealing with enough for the past nine months, and now, while she was trying to have her partner’s six, someone whose friendship she valued damned near as much as Elliot’s…was, at least temporarily, working against her. Because it was against the Stablers, part of her extended family, and therefore against her.
…but Barba is also Benson’s family. The problem was, his sense of how the criminal justice system should work and Liv’s sense of where he needed to stand were completely at odds with one another.
Like it or not, Elliot’s involvement in this investigation was a breach of procedure. Barba was right that he didn’t have any business in that early interrogation scene, way back when Meloni first returned Law & Order: SVU, and it was, from an outsider’s perspective, rather fishy that Kathy’s murder would be the charge to stick with Wheatley when so many others never had. So, that first epic showdown in Captain Benson’s office, where her old friend laid out all the reasons why he took this case, gave some objectively valid reasons for him to have done so.
The problem, of course, is that Barba was not, and never could have been, a total outsider. He might have pulled the whole, “I don’t know him” excuse when Liv asked if part of him taking the case was about Stabler, but he knew enough about Liv to know the entire situation would rip her apart. It’s a bitter pill to swallow when you think about it, especially when Barba seemed to think, at least in that first confrontation, that he was protecting her in some way. He warned her that any other “shark” Wheatley hired would attack her, not just professionally but also her personal relationship with Elliot…
But then, a lot of what he used in court, particularly as it related to Angela Wheatley’s testimony, absolutely hurt Olivia. The number of times Esparza made sure his character was glancing over at Hargitay’s, immediately before or after—sometimes both—a particularly low blow spoke volumes. At the end of the day, everyone, even an obvious criminal like Wheatley, deserves a competent defense. Law & Order: SVU gave him that and then some. And it was, at least partially, at Olivia Benson’s expense. Full stop.
In the process, for better or worse, it gave Hargitay and Esparza plenty of chances to go head to head in a way that highlighted just how easy it is for Olivia Benson to tell…pretty much anyone she loves that they’ve hurt her, even if she puts on a strong front—which she certainly tried to do throughout this trial. And, of course, the “pretty much anyone” here extends to Barba but has not always extended to Elliot Stabler until here and now. It’s almost as if she needed the extra push of hearing about yet one more hurtful action on his part, as well as feeling the betrayal from Barba, to finally get her to realize she needed to speak up for herself even with Stabler.
So, again, the question becomes whether or not Law & Order: SVU is the “let’s keep hurting our Strong Female Character because we can, because it’s the only way we know how to show strength, and because our lead actress is without equal” sort of series. That, I think, continues to be a valid criticism in some cases but not this particular one. We know who Barba is; his “defense attorney outrage,” as Liv put it, was…Eh. I’m not saying it was justified because a wealthy, privileged as all hell, white dude like Richard Wheatley really doesn’t deserve or need that level of whatever…But it made sense, at least?
If only there were more Barbas out there for the innocent people, yet less privileged, defendants who truly deserve them…But. Well. Two justice systems.
And, at the end of the day, if we’re talking about whether or not “The People vs. Richard Wheatley” was damned fine entertainment? Yeah. That was what, when it comes down to it, we all signed up for here. As far as I’m concerned, with all the twists and turns, and the way my heart was in my throat for most of it, Law & Order: SVU 23×09 absolutely delivered on that front.
Was the story frustrating in all the ways it dragged our main character through hell? Certainly. Because I love Olivia Benson and don’t want her to hurt. But if she’s the ideal that we want her to be, then somewhere in the back of her mind—deep down in her guts, below all the personal attachments to both sides of this case—she had to believe in that whole “right to an attorney” thing. If not, what even is the point?
Law & Order: SVU finally…finally gives us Liv’s perspective
One of the biggest complaints a lot of people have had since Elliot Stabler’s return to New York has been that we haven’t really gotten much movement on the Bensler (or EO, if you’re an old like myself) relationship on SVU. Whatever they are, have been, or will be to each other, these two partners started their journey here. So, only seeing any kind of forward movement, much less the characters’ reactions to what’s going on with their story, on Meloni’s series has been problematic. That especially applies to the lack of Olivia’s perspective on the whole thing, as Law & Order: SVU has mostly shied away from that piece of things—besides, of course, having everyone around Captain Benson telling her she can’t trust that Detective Stabler or whatever…
Certainly, Olivia had her partner’s back in “The People vs. Richard Wheatley,” both literally (look how many times Hargitay stood directly behind Meloni) and in a more metaphorical sense. She has since day one. But we’ve always known, through our leading lady’s criminally good (because, surely, it ought to be illegal to be that good at anything) performances and just the sheer lack of difficult conversations, that there was a lot of healing left to be done before El and Liv could become what some of us have been wanting them to be for about a century now. Hargitay has repeatedly used the word “earned” about this relationship, and as much as I want to see these two idiots quit with the eye fucking and move on to the real thing, Benson and Stabler aren’t quite there yet.
“I know that you are carving your way through a mountain of grief, and I have tried to be here for you. But this? Is a one-way street, Elliot. You have not asked me one question about what has happened to me since you left. You show up at my house in the middle of the night when my son is there, asleep…That was hard for me. Scary. And this letter…Why did you give me that letter? A letter that you didn’t even write. What was that about?”
As difficult as it was to watch their confrontation outside the courthouse—because, again with the “more pain for Liv” and “Mariska is killing me” themes—I’d be willing to argue that seeing Olivia admit to Elliot that she felt like their relationship was one-sided right now was a pretty significant step in the right direction. It’s the first time she’s called him on his bullshit, and unlike the “you just…disappeared” conversation back in SVU season 22, Liv actually initiated this one. And good God, did it hurt. But it hurt so good.
It all came from Wheatley’s nonsense and baiting her about needing to keep the Stabler kids out of the courtroom during Angela’s testimony, which is telling in and of itself. Why else, after all, would Olivia care where Elliot’s stupid tongue had been? And isn’t it rather loud of Elliot to have dodged that question so poorly?
Arguably, the Bensler journey has already been way, way, way, way, way too long…especially considering the back-clawing hotness happening on Dick Wolf and NBC’s other cop show. But given what the setup is, as much as I’d love to finally get some payoff here, I’m deferring to the queen and saying it has to be earned. And Elliot can’t earn anything without being confronted about just how deep of a hole he’s dug for himself. I mean, he ought to know? But he’s an idiot (Liv’s idiot), so. It is what it is.
Then again, maybe I’m just so used to 23 years of living on Law & Order: SVU‘S EO breadcrumbs, I’m delusional from low blood sugar. Whichever.
My Feelings vs. Law & Order: SVU 23×09
- “You shaved! It’s nice to see your face.” “It was time.” And then the heart-eyes? Mariska? Chris? Excuse y’all. End my life now. Thanks.
- “The clock is ticking.” “Make it tick faster.” Yes. Please. Faster. I’m tired of waiting for y’all to just take the leap already.
- “Nice ass for Yale Law. But no.” Gross line from anyone? But it’s especially unsettling, coming from an actor who’s credibly accused of sexual assault himself…Guess that’s none of my business, though.
- “I don’t suffer fools. Especially as clients.” And yet…
- Anybody else weep seeing Elliot and Olivia walking into the precinct, side by side, just like it was in the good ol’ days?
- That quiet “Rafa” before Barba left Liv’s office? Mariska, ma’am, I’m suing you for emotional damages.
- …no, but the way she held her chest after he left, too. I’m weak.
- Fin slept like a baby? In this economy? Sir, teach me your unbothered ways.
- “Captain Benson. Good to see you.” And then Liv drags Rafa with just that disgusted look. Surprised to be alive after witnessing that, honestly.
- “My take was that his anger was for show.” Soooo, you just jumped up and got in his physical space for fun? I wouldn’t be mad about that. Squeeze those muscles, Livie Love.
- Ok but this is where I get more serious, actually: So, when Stabler lost control on the stand, here was my note: “We are also continuing in the ‘Elliot is bad and evil’ demonization that always seems to happen on Law & Order: SVU, when we’ve seen him INCREDIBLY UNDER CONTROL on Organized Crime.” I am thrilled to have been wrong since, as we found out later, all of that was for show and to bait Wheatley into testifying. This is what we call excellent drama, gang. If a series can still surprise you like that, over 500 episodes in, that’s…*chef’s kiss*.
- “You didn’t have feelings for him? You weren’t in love with him? You’re under oath, Professor Wheatley.” Did Rafa prepare for this trial by watching Suits 2×07 or.
- And…did he really pull a Tucker and try to use someone’s PTSD against them? Ok.
- “I guess I didn’t know how to begin.” “Well, that makes two of us.” Y’all could guillotine me, and it’d hurt less.
- …I want to punch this bald bitch for telling Olivia it’s none of her business, though. You don’t tell a woman you love her, write some line about a parallel universe…and then try to hide things from her. Especially after ghosting her for 10 years.
- Looks like he was punching himself internally during that whole exchange, at least. Meloni’s reactions in the Bensler scene were truly no joke.
- But it’s not enough…not yet.
- “Hungry, angry, lonely, tired…” EO stans after 23 years of unquenched thirst.
- Liv’s look of pride when Carisi tricked Wheatley into threatening him? Delicious.
- “Just so we’re clear: I feel betrayed by you, and I don’t know how I’ll ever get over it.” Ouch.
- “You know the problem with being an empath? It’s too easy to lose yourself when other people need you.” Liv hasn’t lost herself, though. Not at all.
- “I’m sorry for your loss.” And Barba looks at Liv again. I howled.
- Sass King Rafa out here, dragging Baldy for going undercover and leaving his grieving family. You both love and hate to see it.
- Did I mention that Mariska Hargitay.
Got thoughts? How are you processing the rollercoaster? Drop us a comment!