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It’s Past Time for Benson and Stabler to Get Together on ‘Law & Order’

The Law & Order franchise is known for depicting grisly crimes and the moral complexities of the American criminal justice system. But it also has plenty of good old-fashioned relationship drama. Its most complicated interpersonal dynamic is the one between Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni), from Law and Order: Special Victims Unit and its spin-off Law and Order: Organized Crime. The latter show just dropped a major hint that the pair could be headed towards finally becoming a romantic couple after one of the longest will they/won’t they periods in TV history. But as exciting as the tease was, it also emphasizes that the franchise’s slow-burning approach to the relationship is becoming more frustrating than interesting.

OC just completed a two-episode story arc in which Elliot was reunited with Tia Leonetti (Ayelet Zurer), an Interpol agent he knows from his time working as a New York Police Department liaison in Italy. After they finished investigating a case together Tia came over to Elliot’s apartment late at night, obviously hoping to seduce him and maybe even start a romantic relationship. The two did wake up hung over the next morning, but they did not sleep together, instead spending the night talking, with a drunken Elliot revealing that he is in love with another woman. However, Tia had so much to drink she can’t remember the woman’s name, and Elliot claims not to either. But fans of the franchise know this could only be referring to Olivia.

The History of Benson and Stabler
Law & Order SVU Bombshell Chris Meloni Mariska Hargitay
Image via NBC
Olivia and Elliot were introduced as main characters in the first season of SVU back in 1999. They were partner detectives in the Manhattan Special Victims Unit, which investigates sexual violence and similar crimes. It is implied that they have been working together for some time before the earliest events of the series, as they already have a strong, effective professional partnership and close personal friendship. Elliot has a wife named Kathy (Isabel Gillies) and four children, but his dedication to his job and the effects of the brutal crimes he deals with put a strain on his family relationships. Olivia struggles to develop a fulfilling personal life for similar reasons and in the early days of the series, her partnership with Elliot seemed to be the easiest, most comfortable dynamic in both of their lives.

However, as the years went on, their bond also caused problems at their jobs and in their personal lives, with Kathy and some of the Stabler kids fearing that Elliot was having or would eventually have an affair with Olivia. The various stresses on their marriage led Kathy and Elliot to officially separate for a time. Olivia also at one point asked for a new partner, fearing that continuing to work together would damage her personal relationship with Elliot. Elliot managed to reconcile with both of them, and although the sexual and romantic tension between him and Olivia remained, their dynamic and Olivia’s with the rest of the Stablers healed, with her even saving Kathy’s life and helping deliver her and Elliot’s fifth child, Eli, after the two of them were in a horrific car crash.

Meloni departed SVU after the 12th season following failed contract negotiations. Fortunately, the season finale provided a suitably dramatic reason for the character to exit. When Jenna Ortega (Hayley McFarland), the daughter of a murder victim, encountered her mother’s killer in the SVU headquarters she drew a gun and killed him. After doing so, she seemed to panic and continued firing wildly, forcing Elliot to shoot and kill her to protect himself and the rest of the precinct. In the Season 13 premiere, Captain Cragen (Dann Florek) told Olivia that despite being cleared of wrongdoing in the internal investigation of the shooting, Elliot decided to retire from the NYPD.

His departure profoundly upset Olivia, and the series continued to reference their partnership and his departure frequently, even as Olivia formed connections with new colleagues like Nick Amaro (Danny Pino) and Amanda Rollins (Kelli Giddish). One of the most significant mentions of Elliot after he left came in the episode “Acceptable Loss” when Olivia worked with Alexandra Eames, with Kathryn Erbe reprising her role from Law and Order: Criminal Intent. Eames reflected on her own partnership with Bobby Goren (Vincent D’Onofrio), which was somewhat similar to Elliot and Olivia’s, saying, “All that time together, it’s like we were married,” to which Olivia sadly replies “But you weren’t.”

Stabler’s Return to the Franchise
Image via NBC
Meloni’s return to the franchise and Organized Crime were announced in 2020. Elliot first reappeared in the SVU Season 22 episode, “Return of the Prodigal Son,” which set up the premise of OC. He and Kathy had returned to New York to surprise Olivia at an awards dinner, where she was being honored, when they are caught in a bombing attack, with Kathy sustaining life-threatening injuries. After being shocked to see them at the crime scene, Olivia works with Elliot to find the perpetrators, but the attack proves to be part of an elaborate conspiracy. Although Olivia is not eager to discuss it, Elliot begins explaining why he left without saying anything. Olivia replies by telling him how hurt she was, as at that point he was the “single most important person in my life.” Their professional relationship is also strained, with Elliot’s tendency to break police rules threatening Olivia’s reputation in her new position as Captain.

Kathy dies and Elliot continues to seek justice for her murder on OC, joining the Organized Crime Control Bureau. Eventually it is revealed that the attack was orchestrated by Richard (Dylan McDermott) and Angela Wheatley (Tamara Taylor), mobsters whose organization Elliot was investigating in Italy after he came out of retirement. OC and SVU have staged frequent crossovers since the former started, with Olivia and Elliot working cases together, and Olivia helping Elliot process the trauma of Kathy’s death while they also mend their relationship.

The duo is in a much better place in the series’ current seasons (OC’s third and SVU’s 24th). The Wheatleys have been presumed dead and the season opening crossover, “Gimme Shelter” (which also included the original Law and Order series), showed Elliot and Olivia functioning as an effective crime-fighting team again. They’ve also gotten their personal dynamic back to a healthy place and Elliot has had sufficient time to mourn Kathy so there really isn’t any in-universe reason why the pair can’t get together romantically anymore.

Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) on ‘Law & Order: SVU.’
The constant delaying of the seemingly inevitable coupling is getting frustrating for fans, especially as both series frequently tease it in scenes like the one with Tia. Mounting a full-blown love story between characters who now star on different shows sounds difficult but wouldn’t actually require Meloni or Hargitay to appear on one another’s series much more often than they already do. The big problem is that the series seem to have different interpretations of the characters’ dynamic.

Since Elliot’s return, SVU has often implied that despite the strength of their bond he might actually be a bad influence on Olivia, threatening the personal and professional progress she made in his absence. OC, on the other hand, believes their relationship and a potential romance can have nothing but positive effects. The snail’s pace of the relationship’s development begins to look even sillier when SVU’s other big love story, between Rollins and Sonny Carisi (Peter Scanavino), has developed from inception to what appears to be an upcoming marriage in a comparatively short eight years. The creators of the series need to get on the same page and commit to actually exploring a romance. It’s not like putting Elliot and Olivia together will remove all conflict from their dynamic. They would have plenty of challenges to navigate while balancing actually being in a relationship with their jobs. That could be just as interesting as the question of whether they’ll ever actually get together has been. And they don’t ultimately have to stay together if the story calls for them to eventually separate. But there needs to be some kind of payoff to what is now nearly a quarter-century’s worth of teasing and development.


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