‘Law & Order: SVU’: Raúl Esparza Says Barba & Benson Are ‘Stumbling Towards Reconciliation’

Raúl Esparza as Counselor Rafael Barba in Law & Order SVU
Will Hart/NBC

Rafael Barba (Raúl Esparza) returns with two goals in the Law & Order: SVU Season 23 finale. He wants to help the victim he’s defending and try to fix things with Captain Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay).

In “A Final Call at Forlini’s Bar,” Detective Amanda Rollins (Kelli Giddish) turns to Barba when a longtime domestic violence victim winds up at the defendant’s table in court. It’s a surprise for her boyfriend, ADA Sonny Carisi (Peter Scanavino). As for why Rollins is the one to reach out instead of Benson, last time the captain saw Barba, she told him she felt betrayed because he represented Richard Wheatley (Dylan McDermott) when he was on trial for the murder of Detective Elliot Stabler’s (Christopher Meloni) wife.

Esparza previews his return and offers a bit of hope when it comes to Barba and Benson.

Preview the case that brings Barba back into the squad’s orbit. What makes him the right defense lawyer for this one?

Raúl Esparza: Because it’s one of those unprovable cases, one of those situations where people think there’s no way, you can’t get a woman off for having murdered her husband and done it obviously so and just sat there waiting. So one, I think that’s definitely part of what draws Barba to it, because he’s always drawn to cases like that that seem impossible. The first case that we met him on was [one] that everybody said there’s no way you can win it. And the other thing is it just completely circles around about Benson. It’s really about getting back into her circle.

Speaking of that, how is he feeling about how they left things during Wheatley’s trial? That relationship is so complicated right now.

Yeah. Raúl loves that. [Laughs] the more complicated, the better, I think that just makes for good TV. And I think it’s when we’re at our best, particularly Mariska and I, when we get to play opposite sides of the field and figure out how to crack that kind of storytelling.

Mariska Hargitay, Raul Esparza in Law & Order SVU

Michael Parmelee / © NBC / Courtesy Everett Collection

It’s also really fun because for fans, I hear it all the time. Though the fans were out of control on what happened with the Wheatley stuff. Personally with Barba, I think, he might have underestimated how much damage it was going to cause, but it was another one of those cases where he felt like this is the law and I have to stand by it and these things are absolute. He’s become a bit of a hard-ass about that stuff. He always was, but she tempered that a bit with him. Benson always gave him a bit more softness and empathy. And in this case though, I think he bit and he wouldn’t let go. So after the fact, yeah, I think he’s definitely not regretting, but aware of how much damage was caused and looking to see how things can be fixed.

What can we expect from them in this episode? Are they on the road to reconciliation?

I think they’re stumbling towards reconciliation. I don’t know that they’re actually on the road, but I feel like the episode sets them on a possible path. It ends with a beginning and it’s a season finale that’s all about, what is suspended between them, whatever the next year brings, but there is some possibility in there. I don’t know that it gets easily resolved. They’re too deeply tied into each other in too many ways. And Benson is too much of a workaholic without anything real and good and supportive in her life. The episode circles that idea all the time, what does she deserve? Who can she love? What does it mean to be loved? Or to love someone in a situation that hurts you? The episode tracks that theme in the case and personally, so we’re kind of left in that limbo of wondering what’s in store for her, but it’s definitely not easy.

Raul Esparza as Rafael Barba in Law & Order SVU

Virginia Sherwood/NBC

Talk about the Barba and Carisi dynamic in court, because I remember when Carisi was following Barba around. Is anything different about at this time?

Oh, I think Barba just likes to school Carisi all the time. [Laughs] Carisi comes back with a few where he is like, “Oh, I know how to get him. I know how to fight back,” which is actually a Scanavino thing. “It better be time for me to fight back.” It’s one of my favorite dynamics in the whole series, how much Barba likes to ride Carisi’s ego. He just likes to just take him down and we’ve always found it really funny and fun to play, but there is a kind of mutual admiration and respect between them that’s fun.

In this case, Carisi steps up a little bit more, which is good, as he should, because Barba’s being a total dick as usual. [Laughs] I spend so much time with Pete on set. Because I’m playing the defense, that becomes the center of the story for me now, whenever I come in, and every time is a total joy. I can’t tell how it’s perceived from the other side, but for us, it’s just trying to one up each other in front of the cameras. I’m assuming that’s what Carisi and Barba are doing on screen. [Laughs]

Do you think it’s easier for Barba to be back as defense? Not exactly working with the squad always, given the history?

Yes and no. I think it’s easier because it’s not as entangled, but I think it’s harder because he isn’t part of the team. He’s not in where he used to be. And I think also his own moral code really drove him to the prosecution work and made him feel that there were more black and white issues that could be resolved on that side.

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It’s much harder in defense. You can twist the law in interesting ways to help it say whatever you want it to say on the defense side. You can also make a lot more money. And those aren’t the things he necessarily motivated him. He was a bit of a purist, smartest man in the room. Doesn’t always make him most pleasant man in the room. But I think that was what he appreciated about the prosecution side of being part of the investigation, really smelling things out, tracking them down. So, yes, it’s easier on one hand, because you’re not involved, but also harder because you’re not involved. I know personally, I miss the time with the gang, too, because so much of this shows is about the ensemble for me and how we kind of bounced off each other.

Given his history and everything. Do you think he would ever be ready to return to prosecution or would it be too hard?

I think it would take a little bit more time, but I think he could return to prosecution. There’s that pesky baby he seems to have murdered. But other than that, yeah, I actually could see him going back to that. Or maybe on a bigger level, on a federal level. We had a section in there at one point where we talked about him working in politics. It’s another thing I can see him doing, but yeah, I think he still believes in it. He believes in it enough that he would be drawn back into it. It seems to be his life’s blood.

Law & Order: SVU, Thursdays, 9/8c, NBC