Will ‘Law & Order’ Fans Get the Benson-Stabler Romance They Want? ‘Stay Tuned’

Christopher Meloni and Mariska Hargitay on Law & Order: SVU
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Virginia Sherwood/NBC

Mariska Hargitay and Christopher Meloni get it. Law & Order fans have spent two decades clamoring for their characters—Special Victims Unit’s Capt. Olivia Benson and Organized Crime’s Det. Elliot Stabler—to get together. There’s too much chemistry for the former NYPD partners not to, right?

“It’s undefinable, but you know it when you feel it,” Meloni says of the pair’s magic, adding, “For me personally, one of its main cornerstones is humor.” Hargitay concurs, adding, “I think the mutual love, respect, chemistry and trust between these two characters creates a unique bond.”

The stars couldn’t resist playfully trolling the #Bensler community in late August by posting a provocative “rehearsal” pic of a near-kiss between the characters. Their bantering tweets (“It’s getting hot in here,” she commented) only inflamed the frenzy. And the dream of a more romantic bond seems at least possible now that Meloni, after a decade away, has returned as the tragically widowed Stabler on SVU’s Thursday mate, Organized Crime.

Heightening the excitement, last season Stabler blurted “I love you”—seemingly to Benson—as she and his children staged an intervention to get him to deal with his PTSD over the loss of his wife, Kathy. “It was deliberately [left] open to interpretation,” the actor says, admitting that the “rich, unexpected” scene was one of his favorites. In fact, Organized Crime’s scripts have been subtly advancing the relationship: Meloni acknowledges that the two are playing “deeply emotional and deeply connected scenes that were not part of our [original] relationship on SVU.

“Everyone is working very hard,” he adds, “to create an authentic, satisfying and difficult journey for these two people.” Could that journey take a major step this season? “#Staytuned,” teases Hargitay. Meanwhile, here’s what you will definitely be seeing.

Law & Order: Special Victims Unit

Peter Scanavino as Carisi, Kelli Giddish as Rollins in Law & Order SVU

Virginia Sherwood/NBC

Season 23 ushers in SVU’s extraordinary 500th episode later this fall, with the promise of some familiar faces to mark the occasion. Hargitay, the sole remaining original cast member of the sex crimes procedural, is still going strong as well. Even with a recent broken knee, a fractured ankle and a torn ligament, the trouper hasn’t missed an episode. “My injury is written into Olivia’s story, but true to her character, it doesn’t slow her down in the least,” the actress says, adding, “You might see her behind a desk now and again.”

The two-hour premiere revisits Dr. Catalina Machado (Zabryna Guevara), the supposed Good Samaritan who was moonlighting as a sex trafficker. In a meeting with ADA Sonny Carisi (Peter Scanavino), she flips on her coconspirators, offering to expose a congressman. “The case continues with Benson and her squad going after bigger fish, who are decidedly more dangerous and difficult to apprehend,” Hargitay explains. “Like any good SVU episode, there’s a big twist at the end.”

In the same episode, the captain is attacked by an unknown assailant. Is the assault connected to jailed crime boss Richard Wheatley (Dylan McDermott), the ruthless big bad from Season 1
of Organized Crime? “That’s a working theory,” Hargitay says. “As usual in Wheatley’s world, it’s difficult to know what’s really going on.”

Dylan McDermott as Richard Wheatley in Law & Order Organized Crime

Virginia Sherwood/NBC

Also upcoming: an episode about a nightclub singer (Herizen Guardiola) who is abused by her mob-connected boss, Gabe Navarro (Rhys Coiro). In the “heartbreaking” hour, Hargitay shares, “Olivia comes to her aid when no one else will help her.” That’s what puts her at odds with the team on Organized Crime, which is conducting its own investigation into Navarro, based on the work done by Stabler and the unit’s chief, Ayanna Bell (Danielle Moné Truitt).

Law & Order: Organized Crime

Christopher Meloni as Detective Elliot Stabler in Law & Order Organized Crime

Zach Dilgard/NBC

We’ll learn in the season premiere whether Angela Wheatley (Tamara Taylor)—who was growing closer to Stabler…before he learned of her role in Kathy’s murder—survives the latest attempted hit to keep her from testifying against her ex-husband, Richard.

With him put away, the Kosta Organization, headed by Jon Kosta (Michael Raymond-James, Big Sky), has taken over the drug business. “I’d say his easygoing nature belies his lethality,” Meloni says. The Organized Crime Control Bureau goes to work, sending a bearded Stabler undercover using the alias of an arsonist known as “Ashes.” (This is the first of three major arcs this season. In the others, Mykelti Williamson stars as a powerful kingpin, and Wheatley reappears and is featured prominently.)

Dash Mihok as Reggie Bogdani, Vinnie Jones as Albi Briscu in Law & Order Organized Crime

Zach Dilgard/NBC

Instead of the brutal Kosta or his underboss, “Uncle” Albi Briscu (Vinnie Jones, Arrow), Stabler cozies up to Reggie Bodgani (Dash Mihok, Ray Donovan), a more vulnerable player. “It’s an interesting relationship,” the actor reveals. “There are certain insecurities that he carries with him. He’s my boss, yet I’m his father figure.” Adding to the danger: A simultaneous Narcotics Division investigation could threaten Stabler’s undercover identity.

On a more personal level, longtime fans will recognize guest star Ellen Burstyn, who won a 2009 Emmy for her portrayal of Stabler’s bipolar mother, Bernadette. Battling medical issues, including her failing mental acuity, she asks to see her estranged son. “We have to come together as a family and weather the storm,” Meloni says. Will they? “It’s complicated, isn’t it?” That’s a yes, for everything in the Bensler universe.

Law & Order: SVU, Season 23 Premiere, Thursday, September 23, 8/7c, NBC

Law & Order: Organized Crime, Season 2 Premiere, Thursday September 23, 10/9c, NBC

This is an excerpt from TV Guide Magazine’s 2021 Returning Favorites issue. For more inside scoop on the new fall TV season, pick up the issue, on newsstands Thursday, September 9.