When Christopher Meloni left Law & Order: Special Victims Unit in 2011, it was unclear how the show would fare without him. For 12 years, the relationship between detectives Elliot Stabler (Meloni) and Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) had provided the backbone for some of the most unsettling crimes on prime-time television. Their chemistry and companionship was the stuff of legend and — despite never actually getting together — one of the most compelling will-they, won’t-they stories in the crime-procedural circuit.
Hargitay proved to be the beating heart of the show, which is still going strong in its 22nd season, but the what ifs and if onlys of Stabler’s sudden departure continue to haunt fans. It’s not difficult to understand. The two — known as Bensler — had the attraction factor of Mulder and Scully, Castle and Beckett, and Hayes and Addison but exist in a franchise that’s not built on romantic relationships. It’s a show about sex crimes after all.
Stabler’s complicated but enduring marriage to his wife, Kathy (Isabel Gillies), threw a wrench into things and left both him and Benson in a personal stasis for the duration of their partnership. Their worlds revolved around each other and didn’t leave room for much else, especially for Benson. This was endearing for a few seasons but became perplexing as their years together began to morph into a lifetime without any actual commitment. It’s worth noting that since Stabler’s retirement, Benson has been in multiple serious relationships, become a mother, and risen through the ranks to SVU captain. As magic as they were together, the best thing about Benson and Stabler might just be that it never happened.
A decade later, the reunion is finally happening. Meloni will return as Stabler tonight in a two-hour event. He is slated to appear in an episode of Law & Order: SVU that will cross over into the series premiere of Law & Order: Organized Crime in the second hour. Hargitay will also be in both episodes. Information is being kept tightly under wraps, but Stabler’s return to the NYPD is spurred on “after a devastating personal loss,” according to a series description from NBC. In honor of the upcoming reunion, here are the defining episodes of Benson and Stabler’s partnership.
Law & Order: SVU is streaming on Peacock.
“Stalked” (Season One, Episode Eight)
Every great TV ship has an “Oh, hello” episode, an installment early in the series in which the chemistry between the two characters is so undeniable that you can’t help but want to see them together. The relationship suddenly becomes the core of the show, whether it’s written that way or not. “Stalked” is that episode.
When a perp becomes fixated on Benson, the entire squad is on edge. But Stabler is the most concerned and becomes her de facto bodyguard. His finest moment comes when he drops by in the morning to give her a lift to the precinct because he was “in the neighborhood.” While drinking orange juice, Benson points out that they live in different boroughs and says she wouldn’t do the same for him. Stabler argues that she would and takes a sip from the same glass. “Well, maybe, but that’s only because you have a wife and kids,” Benson says before taking another long drink. Oh, hello.
“Closure” (Season One, Episode Ten)
With “Closure,” one of the most notable early episodes of SVU, viewers got a look into the hour-by-hour breakdown of the justice process immediately after a sexual assault takes place, including a detailed account of the rape-kit procedure. For the first time, the show also juxtaposes the case with Benson’s sex life. She sleeps with Detective Brian Cassidy (Dean Winters), another young and single member of the squad. Benson doesn’t want the one-night stand to turn into anything else, but Cassidy grows attached to her, and the tension is palpable. “Can you blame him?” Stabler gently says during a heart-to-heart about the situation. He reminds her that they’re partners “for better or worse” and acknowledges that sometimes things just happen between co-workers.
“Futility” (Season Four, Episode 22)
Not much happened on the Bensler front from seasons two through five. For four years, Stabler was somewhat happily married and fully faithful to his wife. During that time, the show also had its first — and arguably best — ADA, Alex Cabot (Stephanie March). Cabot and Benson had a ludicrous amount of chemistry, which translated into the kind of sexual tension that was able to spawn an entire new faction of SVU fandom (to this day, Hargitay and March still lovingly play into the ship whenever the latter guest-stars).
The respective “couplings” for Benson and Stabler allowed for a few years of formative partnership without any real threat of romance, most notably in “Futility,” when Benson and Cabot deal with a particularly grueling case that threatens the legal sanctity of rape counselors. When the case closes, Benson waits for Stabler on the steps of his house. It’s the first of many moments in which the two seek each other out because no one else could possibly understand what they do on a day-to-day basis. Benson shares her fear that what they do isn’t worth the cost, that there’s always going to be another sexual offender, “and it’s like you have to sell a little piece of yourself to get the job done.” Stabler understands. How could he not? It’s the very thing that has been slowly chipping away at his marriage.
“Doubt” (Season Six, Episode Eight)
A he-said, she-said case has Benson and Stabler at each other’s throats for the entirety of the episode. Finally, Stabler admits, “Kathy left me.” She took the kids and is living with her mother. Benson is speechless, and it’s only later in the episode, after they’re back on relatively even ground, that she asks what happened. Stabler cites the job as making him hard to live with, and Benson jokes, “She should try working with you.” Nothing is resolved, but the partners reach an understanding.
“Fault” (Season Seven, Episode 19)
The romantic tension between Benson and Stabler only increases with the collapse of his marriage. It comes to a head in a trilogy of episodes, beginning with “Fault,” when the squad hunts down a sadist who has kidnapped two children. The unit’s plan to catch him and rescue the two kids goes awry when the perp knifes Benson in the neck and Stabler rushes to check on her rather than recovering one of the children. Benson is fine, but the boy ends up dead. Stabler blames the both of them, and fighting ensues.
Later, the man holds Stabler at gunpoint. Benson has the shot but doesn’t take it, too worried that Stabler will become collateral damage. Stabler begs Benson to shoot, to avoid making the same mistake he made earlier, but she can’t. Fortunately, a sniper is able to take the man out, and the child is recovered, physically unharmed. “We both chose each other over the job,” Stabler says, adding that it can never happen again or they can’t be partners. “You and this job are about the only things I’ve got anymore. I don’t want to wreck that.” Benson is destroyed and formally requests a new partner in the last moments of the episode.
“Fat” (Season Seven, Episode 20)
After tensely confessing his concerns to his priest, Stabler — fueled by his signature blend of Catholic guilt and angst — meets his new partner, another hot-tempered man. Benson has been reassigned to Computer Crimes, although we don’t see her until later, when she appears in the squad’s locker room. She watches Stabler change his shirt appraisingly as they make small talk. Finally, he asks why she didn’t tell him that she was switching units. “We needed a change,” she says. “I’m sorry. I should’ve talked to you. It’s just — just too complicated.”
“Web” (Season Seven, Episode 21)
SVU detectives are forced to go to Computer Crimes for help in a case. Benson becomes more involved in the case than she meant to and even admits to Stabler that she wasn’t planning on coming back. He jokes that it’s in her blood, and she says that “that’s the problem.” In the end, Benson is seen exiting the captain’s office. Stabler accuses her of turning in one of their tech colleagues who beat up a pedophile, and she’s mad that he would even think that of her. Finally, Stabler asks what she’s doing back in the squad room. Benson replies, “I work here.”
“Choreographed” (Season Eight, Episode Nine)
Like skin cells and credit reports, long-running procedural series tend to undergo transformations after seven years. Rather than a major cast shake-up, the eighth season of SVU put Benson undercover with the FBI for several episodes. Hargitay was due to go on maternity leave, and the series deserves credit for coming up with a practical reason for Benson’s absence. Stabler is seen kissing his new female partner, but nothing ever comes from it, and she leaves shortly after a particularly horrific case.
In “Choreographed,” the episode after the new partner leaves, Stabler theorizes that he may be better off solo. Benson, of course, comes back and is thrust right into the case of a deadly love triangle. The partners are tense, and it’s only when the case ends in a conversation about organ donation that they begin to get back to normal. After learning that they’re the same blood type, Stabler says that he’d give Benson a kidney, and she replies, “Not if I gave you mine first.”
“Burned” (Season Eight, Episode 11)
When a case between a divorcing couple hits close to home, Stabler and Benson butt heads. They hurl unpleasantries back and forth, which concerns their co-workers. When Kathy meets up with Benson to urge her to talk to Stabler about signing the divorce papers, she admits that she used to worry that he preferred spending time with Benson rather than her and their family. “The truth is, you know things about him I will never understand,” Kathy says, adding, “You’re his partner. You give him stability. Elliot can’t move on until he feels like he’s on solid ground.”
By the end of the episode, Stabler signs the papers. Neither he nor Benson can sleep, so they meet outside late at night on the stoop of Stabler’s new apartment. Benson brings coffee for him and tea for herself. Stabler is surprised that she drinks tea at night now, and it’s an acknowledgment that they’re both changing. Still sensing the rift between them, from both last season and their time apart, Benson asks if they’re okay. Stabler shares that he needs space to disagree with her without feeling like it will be the end of their partnership. They come to an agreement and go out for a late-night bite.
“Philadelphia” (Season Eight, Episode 16)
When Benson runs her DNA through a kinship analysis and finds a half-brother by way of her rapist father, she begins to look into him. The entire investigation is ethically ambiguous at best, but Stabler backs Benson all the way and covers for her as she deals with the situation. Much of the episode sees Benson contending with being alone. She tells Stabler about how much she wants to be part of a family, and he offers her a soothing shoulder rub and acknowledges that family is everything.
Although Benson and Stabler seem to have resolved some of their issues with each other, at least superficially, their captain still worries about them and orders an independent psychological investigation on the partners. The evaluation is peppered throughout the episode, with Benson and Stabler facing the question that plagued them the season before: Would you choose to save your partner over a member of the public? The evaluator later tells the captain that the two “have a degree of mutual reliance, emotional dependence, that compromises their effectiveness as police officers.” She concludes that “they’re too close” but says he should only split them up “if you want to lose your two best detectives.”
“Paternity” (Season Nine, Episode Nine)
Stabler moves home in the season-eight finale after Kathy ends up pregnant, the result of a onetime reunion between the two. Nine months in, Stabler is pulled away on a case, so Benson offers to take Kathy to her appointment. On the way there, they get in a car accident. Kathy goes into labor while pinned in the car, and Benson works with the EMTs to stabilize her. When Kathy gives birth and flatlines in the ambulance, Benson is there to hold her and the baby. By the time Stabler meets them at the hospital, both the mother and the child are fine, but he and Benson still share a long hug.
“Inconceivable” (Season Nine, Episode 14)
Around the time that Stabler reunites with his family, Benson seriously looks into having one of her own. Emotions bubble to the surface when SVU is put on the case of a “kidnapped” batch of embryos from a fertility clinic. Stabler tells Benson that she would make a great mom, and any way she wants to do it, he’ll support her. She tells him to shut up. Finally she shares that she began looking into adoption a few months ago. Stabler is excited, but Benson tells him that they turned her down because of her work schedule and lack of an extended family support system. “They’re wrong,” Stabler says, full stop. The assuredness with which he says it is staggering but effective. It stops both of them in their tracks.
“Wildlife” (Season Ten, Episode Seven)
Kathy is once again ready to leave her husband when Stabler suddenly goes undercover without telling her. Benson defends him and convinces her to stay. When Benson shows up at Stabler’s undercover house, he’s only wearing his boxers. As she tells him he’s on thin ice, two of the perps bust in. Benson pretends to be a prostitute, calls Stabler “Daddy,” and the two hug shirtless to make it convincing. One of the perps doesn’t buy it, however, and shoots Stabler twice shortly after. He’s projected to make a full recovery, but Benson still checks in on him.
“Spooked” (Season 11, Episode Six)
When Agent Dean Porter (Vincent Spano), Benson’s contact from her time in the FBI, returns, Stabler is less than thrilled. Benson is fine with it and even a bit flirty. Later, when they realize that he isn’t what he seems, Benson invites Porter over to her place for drinks. She wears a nice dress and accepts flowers. They drink wine and kiss. All the while, Stabler is in her bedroom transferring the contents of Porter’s phone via Bluetooth.
Benson and Stabler’s head-cradling game has always been stellar, but it comes to the forefront when Benson is held at gunpoint. Agent Porter takes the man out, but Benson goes down with him, covered in his blood. Stabler sprints over and holds her head to his chest, cradling it, even after she says that the blood is just the perp’s. She nuzzles into him.
“Perverted” (Season 11, Episode Nine)
Not only does Benson have a cold in this episode, leading Stabler to make a house call, but she is also framed for murder. When she’s found inextricably linked to a dead man, Stabler stops by to brief her. He checks her temperature, worries that she hasn’t seen a doctor, and tucks her in. Later, when she’s arrested with sufficient evidence, Stabler stands by her wholeheartedly and mortgages his house (without telling his wife) to pay her $250,000 bail. He greets her with open arms and says, “It’s not a risk. You’re innocent.”
“Pursuit” (Season 12, Episode 17)
Stabler is away for training at Quantico for the majority of “Pursuit,” but he and Benson still connect via video chat. It’s one of the only episodes of SVU that actually kills off a recurring character, ADA Sonya Paxton (Christine Lahti). Benson finds Paxton bleeding out on the floor and holds her while she dies. She’s a wreck after. Unbeknownst to her, Stabler has rushed back. They see each other in the hallway, and Stabler runs to her. Benson, still half crying, says, “I’m really glad you’re back,” and falls into his arms.
“Bombshell” (Season 12, Episode 19)
When a victim is found to have ties to a sex club, Benson and Stabler decide to go undercover as a couple. It’s unspoken. Benson wears a stunning leopard-print dress and Stabler sports a chic suit, and the two pretend to be a married couple interested in swinging. They use their real names and hold on to each other lovingly. The casual intimacy jumps out, and members of the club buy it immediately. It’s a familiar, well-rehearsed act at this point — a tease, even. But they’re so good at it that it’s impossible to look away.
“Smoked” (Season 12, Episode 24)
What’s remarkable about “Smoked” is just how unremarkable it is. A rape victim is shot point-blank in the head while out with her teenage daughter a week before the woman’s trial is set to begin. Benson feels personally responsible for the girl, and Stabler takes it upon himself to go undercover wearing a Newsies-style cap, business as usual. The episode is loosely tied to the burgeoning gun-control conversations of the early 2010s, but it doesn’t try to say anything more. In the final moments, the daughter opens fire in the squad room, shooting her mother’s rapist, killer, a complicit federal agent, and an innocent nun. Stabler has no choice but to shoot the girl, ultimately killing her. He looks to Benson from across the precinct, both with literal blood on their hands.
“Scorched Earth” (Season 13, Episode One)
We never see Stabler again. Neither does Benson. It’s explained that the entire squad is under investigation after the shooting, with a focus on Stabler and his use of deadly force. Benson, who is seen trying to get a hold of Stabler by phone (to no avail), is under the impression that he’ll return after he’s cleared. She spends most of the episode breaking in two new partners (Danny Pino and Kelli Giddish) and catching up with ADA Cabot. It’s not until the final moments of the episode, when Benson is called into the captain’s office, that she is told, “Elliot put his papers in.” Benson excuses herself and breaks down in an interrogation room.
“Surrendering Noah” (Season 16, Episode 23)
Benson carries Stabler and the pain of his abrupt departure with her for several seasons. By all accounts, they appear to have never spoken again. In leaving the police force, Stabler also left Benson. It’s not until years later — four years PS (Post Stabler) — that she begins to articulate what exactly the partnership meant to her.
In “Surrendering Noah,” a shooting (this time in the courtroom) leads to Benson saying good-bye to another partner (Pino), albeit on better terms. He offhandedly remarks that he knows he wasn’t what her old partner was to her. Benson agrees and adds, “I grew more in my last four years with you than I did in the 12 years that I was with him. That relationship, whatever it was, didn’t allow for anything else.” Although it’s a kick in the teeth to some fans, she’s not wrong. What her partnerships since Stabler lack in chemistry, they make up for in the opportunity for growth. Still, that magic element — the shift in tension when her “old partner” is mentioned — remains.