Law & Order: SVU 23×22 “A Final Call at Forlini’s Bar” was a surprisingly fitting finale for the series’ landmark 23rd season. After all, it’s certainly been a journey of ups and downs. So, why not have an up after a really bad down?
Before we talk about where we’ve found ourselves, let’s think about how we got here. We began the season discussing so much about this idea of two justice systems. Everything was a power play, at the highest level. Then, despite some wrong turns and some awkwardly out-of-touch attempts at being modern, we forged right ahead. We continued looking at the ultra-powerful, laying bare how they can destroy the totally powerless so easily.
Somewhere along the way, no matter what else the stories had in store, we found our way back to the bigger message. That meant, at times, following cases with serial predators. After decades of getting away with their crimes, Olivia Benson brought them to justice. Because sometimes, it takes someone good with that kind of experience to end someone bad. Unfortunately, we also saw at least one such predator grossly take advantage of everything decent in Olivia, to the point where she betrayed at least two victims—one of whom was herself—out of some misplaced need to have “compassion” for his fake recovery.
And so, coming into this SVU finale, that bitter disgust still on many minds, it was impossible to know if the “real” Benson would please stand up. Or would it be, yet again, someone else? As a sigh of relief, and without forgetting the pain caused by that other version, we can say, definitively, yes. And thankfully, yes. Olivia Benson made her way back to herself, to us, for Law & Order: SVU 23×22.
With that return came a certain pain, a certain reminder of who she’s always been and what she’s always denied herself. Olivia Benson does not come without her flaws, her vulnerabilities. But yeah, all of those come with some ass-kicking and caring for victims, too. All of these things came back—together.
Oddly enough, though…That’s why this finale is a good one. The episode’s success comes from the all-too-familiar. No big “theme” or grotesque trauma necessary.
Just…a painfully common case of a victim, trapped with only the worst possible way out. Of Benson and her team finding justice. And of Olivia, as a human, reminding us she just deserves so much more than she’s allowed herself to hope for in so very, very long—if ever.
This is going to be a long one, friends. (When isn’t it?) But let’s get cracking on the SVU Season 23 finale, “A Final Call at Forlini’s Bar.”
Olivia Benson deserves happiness
We can not talk about Law & Order: SVU 23×22, or really about this series at all, without beginning and ending with Mariska Hargitay’s performance. So, it’s back to our broken record of praise and awe here. With talent like that…what else could we do? Stop talking? Unlikely.
So, here we are. New episode, new level of performance.
If our thoughts on this series have a certain format, much like the series is itself in the procedural framework, our formula goes a little something like this: We begin with Hargitay, always reminding us that Liv is so heartbreakingly human. Along the way, we might have some social commentary. And we end, hopefully, knowing Benson is so good at what she does because of the very things that make her human.
In this case, the SVU Season 23 finale did exactly that, in the literal sense. Namely, it began and ended with such powerful, personal emotional notes from Hargitay. And everything else, all the important work Benson did, was so tangled together with Olivia’s personal struggles that it just made what she did for Delia Hackman that much more meaningful.
So, we take it from the top.
Earlier this season, Olivia laughed with Fin when she told him she lied to her therapist. It was, somehow, hilarious that she was avoiding the Elliot of it all. She was “fine.” Fine with all the complications his return brought. And yeah, totally not triggered by Zaddy McCantcommunicate ghosting her again, just as things were starting to build.
“A Final Call at Forlini’s Bar,” though, was a final call for giving us Olivia Benson’s side of the EO story. It finally gave us, as a highlight against—not to the detriment of—all the casework, some real insight into just how much, even after over a year, Olivia fears. How hurt she still is, and how lost, because of so many losses that began with that one, big one.
“So, why do I wake up at 4:00 a.m., anxious and unhappy?”
How do you describe a woman with so much strength, struggling to process so many conflicted feelings and so much trauma? So much abandonment, even with a heart capable of so much love? Is it even possible? Can we, as viewers, see Olivia’s bittersweet smile as she describes the reasons she should be happy in her life—and halfway, maybe, sort of is—while she still…just…isn’t accepting the good?
Is it enough to point out the contrast between the Olivia Benson—the Liv—who struggles with her words, actually physically fighting with herself to get them out…and the Captain Benson, with all her awards and honors, who just is (with certain exceptions) the epitome of Badass? Assertive? Strong™?
There are about a billion ways to describe the slight narrowing of Hargitay’s eyes after that “I’m also thinking about you and Elliot Stabler” line. It’s like…Olivia can’t fathom that anyone would dare ask her to think about that relationship as something keeping her up at night, something that might be hurting her even as she’s so thrilled to have whatever breadcrumbs she’s got back after all this time.
And forget about so much as considering discussing this “complicated” partnership with anyone outside of her partnership bubble. After all, those feelings were always off limits. Maybe, too, that man might disappear again if she admits anything.
But she needs to work through that—all of it. Preferably, she’d have actual conversations with Stabler. In the absence of those, though, therapy is certainly a good place to start.
After all, for all her heroics, Olivia Benson is still always going to be terrified of opening up. She’s always going to be…a little bit wounded, at her core. Yeah, she’s the woman with the gun and the badge. But she’s also the girl in these therapy sessions from SVU 23×22, the one who’s just…settled. For less. Because she thinks she’s not good enough for more.
Hi. You. There. You’re good enough.
And so is Olivia Benson, even with all her flaws. But even as a hero to so many, she has so much she needs to do to save herself.
Liv’s not broken, exactly. Just…She’s been hurt a lot. Olivia carries too much guilt, and a sense of unworthiness, over things she wasn’t even alive to control. Olivia’s internalized too much, and she’s ended up with some walls around herself. Around certain subjects. Olivia Benson is made up of poorly-patched cracks, and hastily pieced-together armor, around a lot of those same areas.
And until she goes through the difficult, painful work of ripping those patches apart to fill them in properly, tearing at that scar tissue to see what’s formed anew…Well. You know thhat “off” sensation she’s struggling with, that avoidance of the mere concept of relationships? It’s always going to be there.
“You’re not wondering when your turn will come?”
And Olivia is always going to lie to herself, too. She’s happy for Rollisi, but she’s hurting for herself. You can see it in the kind of guarded, halting—the word “bittersweet” should probably just be slapped on a descriptor for all things related to the therapy scenes here—way she says she’s happy for them. At the same time, you know the smile is only about half genuine. It’s not fake, just doesn’t quite reach her eyes. And the lie is hiding in plain sight when she says she’s “not really” waiting for her turn.
Then, there’s that glance to the side and that deep, deep breath…the fear in those unfairly gorgeous brown eyes after the first of several truth bombs.
“I think that you and Elliot either need to see whether there’s more there or…move on.”
There are so many microscopic details in these scenes, all these little breaths and indications of just how viscerally uncomfortable Olivia is. It’s horrible that viewers had to go through something like character assassination (bodysnatching?) before getting to witness this—this raw, real, and just…quietly introspective work. Especially when, until “A Final Call at Forlini’s Bar,” we were left to just guess what Liv might be feeling and/or get all the development on a different show.
In fact, throwing it at us all at once, at the end of the season, is kind of cruel. At least we get to end on this emotional and necessary note, though.
This is what we wanted, and what this character needed, for this entire year. Is that the point? That Olivia was too busy being Badass Benson, finding justice for (almost all…ahem) victims, running herself ragged to the point where she didn’t make time for herself until she reached rock bottom?
It’s a shame we had to piece that together and fill in those blanks. But ok. We’re here now. Here are some answers. Most importantly, here are some difficult truths for Liv to face:
“You’re a role model for survivors, for women officers. You have friends, you have a happy child, you have a happy life.”
Facts! But…she doesn’t believe in them. Olivia doesn’t think she’s worthy of this kind of praise and doesn’t feel that happiness. Something is missing.
The whole time Captain Olivia Benson is listening to how people see her, she isn’t hearing it. Instead, she’s shaking her head “no.” She’s on the verge of tears. In denial, even about this. And she asks, haltingly because she’s terrified of the real answer:
“So…why am I feeling so sad?”
Remember this one?
“I am tired of turning off Mariska Hargitay’s television, only to have to come on Mariska Hargitay’s internet to talk about how Olivia Benson deserves to be happy but has clearly never believed that about herself.”Source: My damned self.
Nice of someone to finally hear all that shouting into the void.
Now, the real question: Will Olivia accept the truth? I guess we’ll have to wait for a Season 24 for that answer.
The right kind of redemption arc
Once upon a time, Olivia Benson made a very good friend. And then, he left her. Unlike all the others, he kept coming back—because he didn’t truly leave her at all.
But then, he betrayed her. Not only did he betray her, he also did something that could hurt the other friend who left. The one she never thought would come back…until he did.
That friend was Rafael Barba. And because Olivia sided with the other friend over him—something she’d always done, with everyone, but that Barba had never experienced for himself—both parties spent the next several months hurting.
That brings us to “A Final Call at Forlini’s Bar.”
See, the friendships that last, the ones that are important…It doesn’t matter if it’s been months or a decade, those people still care. There’s always a way back, even if it’s through someone else reaching out, for something seemingly unrelated.
The first time Barba and Benson interact in Law & Order: SVU 23×22, it’s…there is so much damned angst. There’s no other way to put it. They can’t look directly at each other. Everything about their interaction is just. So. Stilted. And then, there’s Barba’s lost “I miss you” as Benson is leaving.
But it’s not easy for her to do it. It’s another one of those situations where Hargitay is just delivering everything imaginable. She makes sure Liv is even physically fighting herself on walking out.
Afterward, in the courtroom, there’s this constant, angsty, yearning sort of dynamic between Hargitay and Raúl Esparza. Rafa keeps pulling on that thread that connects them. And the more Liv tries to ignore it, the more she can’t. Once Barba’s work is done and Delia is safe, it’s time for last call.
So, they argue. That’s what friends do. (It’s what she needs to do with Ghoster McBald.) And, yeah, it all comes down to arguing about Elliot, about Olivia’s feelings for him. Why? Because, again, the longer she refuses to believe she deserves those feelings, the more she’s going to burn every bridge in her quest to escape.
Luckily, though, Rafael Barba knows how to press her. He’s an expert when it comes to pushing her, and to rebuilding with her. He knows her—or at least the pieces of her that aren’t those pieces—well enough, cares about her enough, to fight for her. (And yeah, also fight with her.)
It makes for damned fine television, seeing Esparza and Hargitay duke it out. Whether it’s her barely held back tears, or his simultaneously quiet and assertive commentary on unconditional love, it’s truly a thing of beauty. There’s Olivia’s yearning to be ready to forgive, and there’s Rafael’s own feeling of betrayal. It’s all the work of two giants, both in real life and in the series itself, giving us and each other their all.
Sometimes, it’s too hard to reach out. It’s impossible to say, “I miss you.” But the feelings are there. And when you’re dealing with a good person, with genuine feelings of love—not that manipulative shit Olivia fell for in Season 23’s penultimate episode—things will work out. Maybe not right away…but eventually.
At least, thankfully, things could still work out here. Much like with that other friendship, though, the ball’s in Olivia’s court now. Here’s hoping she puts all that inner strength to a new kind of use and shoots both shots.
A final call for Law & Order: SVU 23×22 thoughts
- The personal stories make procedurals worth watching. It makes them stronger. Jot that down.
- “I don’t have any…you know…Closure.” Bestie, that’s because they refused to give you any all this time.
- “You think that I have intimacy issues.” Honey. Sweetheart. Look at your history.
- “Everything comes to an end.” Yeah, like my soul after that line’s delivery.
- I mean, I’m not happy that Law & Order: SVU 23×22 ended on an ostensibly painful note? But let’s go back to that bittersweet word. Because it could be the start of so many great things.
- Not going directly into the case itself other than to say this: There is no perfect victim. If you watch this show but have not learned that well enough to stay away from falling for smear campaigns against real-life victims, you’ve not been paying close enough attention.
- Do better.
- Fin out here, yelling at his cell phone game: A comedy.
- Nah, but that Velasco/Carisi personal chat. Surprisingly cute AF.
- Liv and Amanda with this victim. Yes.
- It’s like I love his one-liners, but could next season give Fin, I don’t know…actual content?
- “Delia, you deserve a life. And you deserve to be free and not afraid.” TAKE YOUR OWN ADVICE. I’M BEGGING.
- Liv: I want Rollisi tea. Amanda: So. Stabler… Me: I know that’s right.
- Olivia’s irritated “what” when even Rollins started coming at her about Stabler, though.
- (She’s agitated because she knows everyone’s right, and she doesn’t want to deal with it.)
- She really told EO to fuck, huh? Because same.
- “I was in an abusive marriage for 15 years. And I got out. I didn’t kill him.” Rich Boomer got through her trauma a certain way, has no empathy for other victims’ desperation. Hm.
- “…going to assume you had more resources.” There’s my girl.
- “I’m not going to say murder’s ok, but if anybody had it coming…” I mean. Same.
- Carisi vs. Barba is delicious.
- “I’m just passionate about defending my client, Your Honor” and that LOADED LOOK.
- If your heart didn’t become a puddle when Barba helped Delia off the stand…are you more dead inside than me?
- Way off base with the daddy issues talk, sir.
- “That’s what you do when you love somebody unconditionally.” Actually putting this on a blanket and wrapping myself in it during hiatus.
- This episode was very good. It doesn’t excuse or make up for the pain and dangerous message its predecessor caused. But as its own entity, it worked.
- The season overall? That’s a much more difficult question to answer. Actually, I honestly just don’t know.
Thoughts on Law & Order: SVU 23×22 “A Final Call at Forlini’s Bar”? Drop us a comment.