It's hard to believe that it's already been almost a year since Chris Meloni reprised his role as Elliot Stabler in the "Law & Order" universe, and it's even harder to believe that fans haven't seen him share the screen with his former partner-turned-friend-"for now," Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay), in three months.
While Stabler and Benson now star in their own "Law & Order" series, "Organized Crime" and "SVU" respectively, the two appeared in each other's shows many times last year. In Stabler's first "SVU" episode back in April 2021, "Return of the Prodigal Son," his wife, Kathy Stabler, died after succumbing to her injuries from a car bomb explosion, which was arguably shocking to everyone at home. While fans have always been split over whether Stabler and Benson should be more than friends (I mean, we all have eyes people, and they clearly have always had eyes for each other!), it was never really an option during those early years of "SVU" because Stabler, a devout Catholic, was married, and he and Benson were such solid partners at work, they both realized a personal relationship would jeopardize that.
Now here we are in the year 2022: a time when Benson and Stabler aren't partners on the job, but they still occasionally work together, and both appear to be single. At least, Benson told Stabler she wasn't seeing anyone when he not so subtly asked her during December's "SVU" and "Organized Crime" crossover. The episode ended with Stabler inviting Benson and her son, Noah, over to his family's home to celebrate Christmas and Benson establishing that she and Stabler were friends "for now."
Did Benson and Noah make it to the Stabler family gathering? We still don't know, and even asked Meloni at a "Law & Order" press event last month.
“What do you think?” Meloni replied, and we explained the scene could be open to interpretation.
“There you are. I do too,” he said.
(But after Thursday night's episode, it seems Stabler has yet to meet the younger Benson.)
This week's episode of "Organized Crime" saw Benson and Stabler together again for the first time since that Christmas crossover episode last year, and the two appear to be in the same exact friendship (for now) zone viewers last saw them in. They appear to be so aware, in fact, that they, or at least Hargitay and Meloni, are really playing up the "friend" label in anticipation of what's to come after "for now." There is hope we may see more Benson on "Organized Crime" in this final arc of season two, as Stabler is once again undercover: This time rather than looking into an outside organization, however, he's investigating a group of dirty cops within the NYPD.
In the first few moments of the episode, we learn Stabler has been suspended by the NYPD pending an internal investigation after his involvement and behavior in the show's last arc, when he was trying to bring the man suspected to be behind his wife's murder, Richard Wheatley, to some sort of justice after a mistrial. Enter Frank Donnelly (Denis Leary), who's also a member of the NYPD. More than that, Donnelly and Stabler's fathers knew each other: So these two have history.
While on a jog, Stabler runs into Donnelly, who plays audio of Stabler's current partner, Sgt. Ayanna Bell (Danielle Moné Truitt), on an NYPD podcast talking about Stabler's suspension.
"Det. Stabler's future is out of my hands, but no one is above the law," she says.
"No one person is indispensable," she adds.
Already, these comments seem a little suspicious to viewers since they know Bell has always had Stabler's back.
Stabler confronts Bell in the busy lobby of One Police Plaza, where they begin arguing.
"Thanks for throwing me under the bus," he says.
The two continue their heated, loud exchange about the podcast comments for everyone in the lobby to see and overhear.
"In my day, cops — they didn't throw other cops under the bus. We had each other's back," Stabler says.
Bell reminds Stabler he works "under" her and continues to put him in his place until Benson walks in.
"What the hell is going on here?" Benson says.
As Bell walks away, Stabler follows Benson and asks her to talk to her boss, Chief McGrath, about his suspension.
"Are you kidding me?" she tells him. "What are you doing? Having an outburst in the middle of 1PP — I'm sure (McGrath's) going to find out about it, and when he does, he's more likely to extend your suspension."
Cue Stabler at a bar with a bunch of cops, throwing back shots. To his credit, he does a good job getting them on his side, earning their sympathies for his suspension.
"We're cops. We take care of each other," Donnelly says. "But this group, really, we take care of each other. You can depend on us."
Benson later arrives at the organized crime offices to talk to Bell and we quickly learn that, yes, their squabble in the lobby of 1PP was really all an act.
"This has to be a priority for all of us," Benson says, before asking where Stabler is.
Then Stabler walks in, fresh off his outing at the bar.
"That was uncomfortable," Benson says to him.
"It really was," he replies. "There's nothing like a screaming match in the middle of 1PP to get the NYPD rumor mill going."
When Benson asks if Donnelly believed their heated exchange, Stabler seems confident he did based off "the eight shots" he shared with him at the cop bar.
Benson and Stabler leave Bell's office to have a private conversation down the hallway in a corner, which some fans have deemed their spot as the two also shared a personal conversation and lingering handhold there last season (see below).
Benson tells Stabler that his undercover officer was correct about Donnelly "taking bribes from the Marcy Killers." The group was introduced in a previous arc, and their events have played more of a background role and set the stage up until this point.
While Stabler says he's aware of the stories about bad cops, he didn't expect Donnelly would be one of them.
Stabler then brings up to Benson that his father was friends with Donnelly's.
"My old man would've hated this," he tells her.
"Elliot, that was a different time," she reminds him. "You had to go along to get along."
"He was a tough ass, not perfect, but he was a good cop," Stabler responds.
"Elliot, my friend, you're doing the right thing," Benson tells him.
"Olivia, my friend, can I take you and Noah out to lunch this weekend?" (Friendship era banter remains supreme for now. Relationship when?)
"Let's wait, OK?" she replies. "Noah, you know, he gets attached very easily, and you're undercover again."
"Am I?" he asks.
"You are," she says, in a voice reserved only for him. "You're undercover as Elliot Stabler."
Well, Stabler tried to shoot his shot again, and Benson didn't say no but rather delayed — again! He did ghost her for 10 years, so Stabler has more work to do, and at least this time he's undercover as himself. She would rather "wait" until he can commit to being completely present so he can fully be there not just for her, but for Noah too.
We've been waiting over 23 years for these two to own up to their feelings for each other, and can only hope everything that's happened since Stabler's return is laying the groundwork for that to happen. Why else, really, would the franchise kill off Stabler's wife in his first episode back and over the course of the following episodes have him and Benson share personal moments unlike ones we ever saw in their first 12 years on "SVU" together: from Stabler writing in a (very complicated) letter to Benson that "in a parallel universe" it was always the two of them to staring across the room at her and saying "I love you" in front of his kids (and don't get us started on how these two have redefined the true power of the handhold).
In the words of our friends Mariska Hargitay and Chris Meloni, Stabler and Benson's journey must be "earned," and quite honestly, who thought Elliot Stabler would ever return to the "Law & Order" world? We're grateful to see Benson and Stabler on our screens again and will be lighting our prayer candles in the hopes that the friendship era accelerates into the more than friends era soon.
And it's clear, the fans were just as happy as we were with last night's scenes.