Five hundred episodes.
Five hundred times we've seen the "dedicated detectives" of "Law & Order: SVU" chasing down criminals and villains of every stripe. (We'd like to say 500 episodes of Mariska Hargitay's Olivia Benson, but she's actually missed a couple handfuls over the show's 23 seasons.)
And on Thursday night, "SVU" outdid itself with a milestone episode titled, appropriately, "The Five Hundredth Episode." It hearkened back to old characters, brought back some much-missed ones (temporarily) and put a fantastic twist on Benson — who realized that despite all her experience, she's vulnerable to denial when it comes to her own difficult past.
It wasn't an episode for everyone, particularly fans chasing a relationship between Olivia Benson and her former partner Elliot Stabler (now on "Law & Order: Organized Crime"). Stabler did make a brief appearance in the episode, but in flashback, and it wasn't about servicing their unique bond. Instead, Benson ended up in bed with a very old flame, and learned something about herself in the process.
From the start, "Five Hundredth" took a different path: Questions from Benson's son, Noah (Ryan Buggle), about his grandmother (Olivia's late mom, Serena) prompted Benson to flash back to a conversation they'd once had. This flashback (featuring Elizabeth Ashley as Serena from 1999's "Payback") was just one of several trips into the past; later Benson was shown talking to now-departed ADA Casey Novak (Diane Neal) through the episode. In these flashbacks, we were reminded of a few things:
1) Benson is the child of a rape.
2) Her mother was a drinker, and troubled: When Olivia moved out, she threatened her daughter with a glass shard from a vodka bottle.
3) But her mother wasn't wrong about trying to keep young Olivia safe.
The blasts from the past continued at work as former Det. Nick Amaro (Danny Pino, with a serious beard) showed up, saying he was working with an author and podcaster who wanted to open up a cold case and get a wrongly convicted rapist freed. But that case wasn't actually the focus of the episode — it was an excuse to introduce Burton Lowe (Aidan Quinn, a repeat offender guest star playing a different role than the one he played in 2007).
"We are … old friends," said a surprised Benson on seeing Lowe, and yeah, that was the real story of the hour.
In the flashback with Novak, Benson explains that at 16, she dated one of her mother's students, who was 21 at the time. He even asked her to marry him, but Serena wouldn't allow it. Olivia had to write a letter to break things off. Young love, quashed by mean old parents. Tale as old as time. Kudos to "SVU" for digging up that chestnut — and for letting us meet the old flame: Lowe.
And the spark was still there. Benson and Lowe worked through the case together; twice, Benson even had a FaceTime chat with former Captain Don Cragen (Dann Florek), and it turned out that the new DNA technology was able to right the wrongs in the old rape case. And in the course of getting to know each other again through the case, Benson and Lowe fell back into each others' arms.
That sound you're hearing is the wail of thwarted Stabler fans, but c'mon, everyone knows Benson never gets a happy ending, so there's really nothing to worry about.
And then ... the other shoe dropped: Lowe was suddenly accused by several women of sexual assault. They say he was coercive with them, got them drunk, had sex with them — that he was a guy taking advantage of young, impressionable women, adding in a big dose of alcohol, and easily moving along with his life.
Time for the Stabler flashback, in which the partners talk about how when a father is absent, it's not unusual for a woman to be attracted to an older man. Well played, "SVU": Suddenly this love story of teen Benson and 21-year-old Lowe maybe wasn't romantic. Maybe it was predatory.
But here's the twist: For a couple of beats, Benson became an apologist for Lowe: "He's not a rapist," she told Amaro, then laid out every reason why the situation between her and Lowe was OK back in the day, but why it's not OK for victims right now. With every line, she proved to the audience that even if you have (almost) 500 cases under your belt, you're not immune to wanting to view your past with rose-colored glasses.
But Benson is Benson, and she knows how to put on her big-girl pants. So she informed Lowe that while he can't be charged (too much time has passed), they're done. Meanwhile, his world was crumbling in other ways: His podcast and writing career were trashed, and he went viral on social media. He melted down in front of Benson, and it turned out the pair did sleep together when she was just 16 (in case you weren't sure). That, said Benson, is technically sexual assault.
"We were in love," he insisted.
"I was a teenager, and my house was a mess," said Benson. Maybe her mom wasn't as crazy as she remembered. And just like when she walked out on her mother, as she closed the door on the half-drunk Lowe, she flinched at the sound of glass breaking.
And then she walked away.
"I hate him for what he did to you," Olivia told Serena in a flashback, referring to her mother's rapist.
"And if he hadn't, you would not be here," Serena tells her.
The past, as they say, is a foreign country. And with episode 500, "SVU" showed us that even someone like the great Olivia Benson is not immune to wanting to live there, instead of here.