Law & Order: SVU 23×13 “If I Knew Then What I Know Now” was the type of episode that just made it feel good to have one of our favorites back after a month-long hiatus. It featured some important relationship moments for Amanda Rollins and Sonny Carisi. But, of course, that didn’t—in any way—diminish the victim’s story or minimize it. The hour was, after all, about a young woman’s quest for justice for the biological mother she’d just met.
And no, taking a detour to give SVU‘s main characters some personal moments didn’t somehow make that story less impactful. Ashley was so excited to meet her biological mother, to find a missing piece of the puzzle that made up who she was. But then, she learned that she was the product of a rape. As Liv put it, that was a lot to process.
That is a dark story to tell (as are all of Law & Order: SVU‘s stories, by the very nature of the Special Victims Unit’s, well, speciality). But when we get the break from that horror to focus on two people finding love, that’s good for all involved. It’s good for viewers to see that not everything has to be painful all the time; it’s even better for our elite squad, giving those characters something to help them through day after day of dealing with the worst the world has to offer. And when they get their personal wins, as Rollins and Carisi did by the end of Law & Order: SVU 23×13, that means they have the mental and emotional capacity to continue doing the work, to the very best of their abilities. It makes it possible for them to help survivors more than they ever could while always being put through endless trauma with no way out.
Which, of course, brings us to our very own Captain Olivia Benson and how much this case hit close to home—on more than one level. And yeah, we have thoughts on that. Buckle up, and let’s go on this wild Law & Order: SVU 23×13 “If I Knew Then What I Now Now” ride.
“But it’s informed my whole life.”
Hear me out here because I literally don’t know if it’s the extra dimension I’ve been transported to from all the extra caffeine I consumed for Law & Order Thursday talking or what, but…
Did Law & Order: SVU 23×13 actually give our beloved Captain Benson the opportunity to do for someone else’s family what she was never able to do for her own? Liv spent so much of her life being punished for a crime she didn’t commit, yet was the unexpected consequence of. As the series’ Strong Female Character archetype, that was her obligatory backstory and lifetime of trauma to initially “justify” her strength. Of course, this isn’t news. Neither is it brand new information that, by the time then-Detective Benson solved her mother’s case, Serena Benson had been dead for years, having ultimately been killed by the disease of alcoholism. Yeah, there were stairs involved. No, she likely wouldn’t have fallen without everything else that built up to that moment.
Olivia’s mother never really healed. Instead of scars, she was basically spent the life with an open wound. The bleeding didn’t stop; it just got worse and worse.
When we find Michelle Young, there are hints that her life certainly would have been a lot different without having been raped at a party when she was only 15. But at least she doesn’t have “abusive parent” to add to her list of regrets like Serena did.
“Her life’s never been the same because of me. I need to make it right.”
And her own daughter, Ashley, hasn’t had to grow up always having to rely on herself—and herself only—the way Liv did. Much like our beloved Captain, though, she wants to make the world a better place. She’s headed to SUNY Binghamton to study Social Justice. (Cue “look how great you turned out. It’s not all about the genes, Liv” flashback here…)
This case was always going to be personal for Olivia, the second she found out there was a daughter, with dark hair, conceived by a rape and born to a mother, with lighter hair. But it wound up going deeper than that. In order to get Michelle to even agree to have her case investigated, it took a visit from Captain Benson. It took Olivia having to share some of those painful scars she’s carried for most of her life.
Because of this, and because of what had to be a constant specter of Serena Benson hanging over this entire investigation, Law & Order: SVU 23×13 could have easily become another “mindlessly torture Liv” hour of television. There were so many places, including Rollins’ “could you imagine being a kid and finding out something like this” slip-up, were the tiniest change in tone or presentation would have made it all go wrong.
“For the first time in 18 years, my life has…possibilities.”
Instead, “If I Knew Then What I Know Now” did a lot right. In the first place, this is not the same Olivia Benson who was timid and embarrassed when she brought up Serena. She’s not blaming herself or thinking she’s destined to be horrible because of where she comes from, like we sometimes saw in the early years. Then, there’s the fact that Michelle and Ashley’s story ended in a good place.
Michelle was able to find answers, to get closure, and to see a future for herself that she might never have otherwise had. Certainly, it’s not like finding justice for this one victim—or even the hundreds of others, over two decades worth of work—magically fixed what happened to Serena. It’s not going to erase everything Olivia suffered because of her mother’s lack of closure, either…But it’s as close as she’s going to get.
And she needed that win, for this particular case, more than for so many others because it made such a strong parallel to her own creation. Even if this version of Benson isn’t trying to justify her own existence anymore, or right a wrong she was never responsible for, she still deserved the positive outcome.
Then, as usual, there’s Mariska Hargitay’s…being Mariska Hargitay in Law & Order: SVU 23×13. Or, well. There’s the direct circumstances surrounding her being who she is and delivering the way only she can.
“I remember that night—the night my mother, Serena, she just…She lashed out at me. She was so drunk. And so angry. I was 13 years old, and she…She looked at me, and she said…She said, ‘I wish I never had you.’ Because of the rape.”
Even in an episode that did a poor job of stirring up Benson’s demons, Hargitay would have found new emotional notes to hit, more genius ways to wreck us. We saw it in “The Five Hundredth Episode,” when Liv confronted yet another way she’d been victimized—and started to reframe parts of her relationship with her mother.
But what was really, truly outstanding about the way this episode showcased the connection between Liv’s childhood and this case was the way Captain Benson had support. Foot-in-mouth moment aside, Amanda Rollins was there for her friend and listened to her story. Maybe it’s because it was a story Olivia has told before, but she didn’t try to do the “I’m fine” thing that a Strong Female Character does so often. She didn’t deny that there was a piece of her here that still hurt. Liv, for once, didn’t really need to be forced to open up and share her story—she just did.
Sure, it broke my heart, but it felt like progress, somehow. Between Liv being so open and the series finding a happier ending for Michelle and Ashley than it ever bothered to attempt for Serena and Olivia, it’s like…Maybe there’s hope yet.
After all, unlike with so many other SVU episodes, we ended this one on a positive note. After Rollins disclosed, Benson was genuinely happy for her friend—and yeah, it was quite nice to be reminded that she and Amanda are, in fact, friends. There is, of course, yet another “maybe there’s hope yet” layer of that part, as well…If Rollins and Carisi can get to this point, maybe Olivia and her other friend (for now) can move forward, too.
(Insert elevator kidney scene flashback here because we’re overflowing with Olivia Benson thoughts this evening.)
A detective and an ADA get interrogated by a fairy princess…
Weird how Law & Order:SVU 23×13 gave us so much to think about, and so much hope for our survivor by the end, while still rolling on forward with Rollisi. So, first off: They really had the kids be like, “Uncle Sonny, are you Billie’s daddy” or whatever. I did not know SVU was supposed to be a comedy, but here we are.
Of course, the hilarity of that moment was there to force Rollins and Carisi to talk about them. As is usually the case in any healthy relationship—or at least any relationship that’s worth fighting for—when it came time for Amanda and Sonny to struggle, they both had some good points. Carisi didn’t want to have to hide what they meant to each other forever, but Rollins didn’t want the outside pressures of everyone knowing about them to affect their relationship. Then, of course, there was the whole career mess.
We can talk about how Rollins was suffering a bit from her own Strong Female Character syndrome here. She was dragging her feet on making this thing official to everyone else after nine full months out of fear—fear that changing things could make it all fall apart. Like Liv, the queen of both this series and the Strong Female Character trope in general, she’s guarded after being hurt over and over again. Even starting a relationship with Sonny and letting him in at all was terrifying. That’s why it took so long. (Well. Not as long as the Captain and the Baldy…) Like she told Sonny, and it clearly took a lot for her to say so, Amanda has never been as open or honest with anyone else as she has been with him.
(Insert “who else would put up with me” here.)
So, trying to push forward was clearly just hard, no matter how much she obviously wanted it to just happen. Anyone who has ever felt the need to guard themselves like that probably knows that struggle so well-portrayed by Kelli Giddish here. It’s like dying inside, finding out that you’ve given more of yourself to someone than you ever thought you could, only to be confronted with knowing it still might not be enough—that it could still all come crumbling down if you keep protecting yourself. Or worse: You could open up more, only to have it still fall apart and hurt more.
But then there’s the Carisi side of the struggle: Just loving someone and wanting the people you care about, who care about you, to see how happy you are together. There’s the frustration Peter Scanavino showed in Sonny, yet it’s also coupled with knowing if you push too hard, you might break what you’ve built. Because Carisi knows Rollins and knew what he was getting into here.
It’s a lot, but it all worked out. Because of course with a Captain and friend like Benson, Rollins was never going to get anything other than support when she disclosed. (And let’s be real: Liv knew. She didn’t make Captain on pure dumb luck, after all.) The work part turned out to be a total non issue, and that little skip when Amanda came to tell her man how well it all went was just an adorable touch, so easy to miss and so meaningful if you caught it.
Rollisi worked here. They grew here. They’ve learned how to work through their shit together. That’s what having a good foundation and strong feelings will do for you.
If I fangirled then about Law & Order: SVU 23×13 how I’m going to fangirl now…
- Betty Buckley…Y’all I—. What even are words? When you add the extra layers of her performance and Division Chief Maxwell’s finally facing her own assault to an already-strong hour, there’s just…a lot.
- That’s not to say this episode was perfect. Case in point: Something about a hedge fund manager, a pro baseball player, and Noah meeting some guy we don’t care about at a kids’ birthday party. Liv and Noah had a good weekend! Great! We love that for Team Benson! But um…We have yet to hear about the Christmas get-together. Did they go? Did they not? Why do we care about Noah meeting baseball players, when he supposedly stopped caring about baseball years ago…But we can’t hear about him meeting the person who preceded him as the single most important person in Mama Liv’s life? Make it make sense. I’m actually begging. It’s such a small, small thing. And if it wasn’t Elliot, it just…Why not something relevant? Mention dance! How’s the kid doing with that? No? Ok.
- “Unfortunately, you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.” Carisi. No. Liv’s face after that? Same from me.
- “She wants to work through this with you. Give her that—give yourself that chance.” Not Liv begging this stranger for something she could never get from her own mom.
- Can we permanently delete Velasco and keep Khaldun forever or.
- Not this girl trying to play matchmaker for her bio mom and some boy who came in his pants when he was making out with her in high school.
- “Back then, I was catnip. Girls came on to me. I didn’t have to try. Enthusiastic consent, all summer long.” If you didn’t throw up in your mouth a little, you’re a sorcerer.
- It’s the Livterrogation—in the leather jacket, with the casually leaning against the wall in that interrogation room and giving zero fucks—for me.
- “Well, actually, you’re under arrest.” OLIVIA BENSON WITH A “WELL, ACTUALLY” TO A TRASH MALE WHO YOU KNOW HAS MANSPLAINED ALL HIS LIFE.THE POWER SHE HAS.
- Mariska Hargitay’s delivery there and the way she presented those cuffs…y’all.
- And her awkwarding out when Ashley hugged Liv…That is literally me when people come into my space uninvited.
- “Do you know what justice for me is? Seeing you happy.” Serena Benson found dead (again).
- “You’re not my father. I have a father. You’re my birth mother’s rapist, and until you admit that, I don’t want anything to do with you.” Louder. And to be honest, throw him all the way out even after he admits it, too.
- Liv was texting and smiling, so her El was obviously whining to her about Malachi calling him Baldy. Y’all won’t give me my breadcrumbs? I’ll make my own.
Law & Order: SVU airs Thursdays at 9/8c on NBC.