‘Law & Order: SVU’: Raúl Esparza on the ‘Love’ in That Final Barba & Benson Scene

Raúl Esparza as Counselor Rafael Barba in Law & Order SVU
Spoiler Alert
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[Warning: The below contains MAJOR spoilers for the Law & Order: SVU Season 23 finale “A Final Call at Forlini’s Bar.”]

There’s not much hope to be found in where Law & Order: SVU Season 23 leaves Captain Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and Counselor Rafael Barba (Raúl Esparza), who come into the episode not speaking to one another.

In fact, it’s Detective Amanda Rollins (Kelli Giddish) who reaches out to him to defend a longtime domestic violence victim after she kills her husband. Benson does meet him at Forlini’s to think him for representing Delia (Jordana Spiro), but she won’t stay longer than that. “It’s possible to sit next to someone, have a drink, and not say a single word to each other,” he says. “I miss, you Liv.” She leaves.

Then, in the final scene of the episode, Benson joins Barba at Forlini’s again, for its last call with the bar closing. Delia’s in a better place, “unlike the two of us,” he remarks. “You’re still holding onto this.” She reminds him she asked him not to defend Wheatley, and he in turn, repeats that he was trying to protect her, though he acknowledges that she didn’t ask for that.

“What I don’t get, why you feel more anger at me than you ever let yourself feel towards Stabler [Christopher Meloni],” Barba says. “You don’t know anything about my feelings for Elliot and you don’t know him,” Benson argues. “I’ve known him for 23 years, and he’s always had my back.” But as Barba sees it, they see him through different prisms because she grew up without a father and he grew up bullied. “This isn’t about him. This is about you and me and how you betrayed me,” she insists.

Raúl Esparza as Counselor Rafael Barba in Law & Order SVU

Will Hart/NBC

“We’re going around in circles. You’re denying, you’re deflecting. You defend him. It’s alright, I get it. It’s what you do when you love somebody unconditionally,” he says. “Please don’t tell me how I feel,” she replies. But “in this case I can because I do know what it means to love someone unconditionally. And when you’re ready to stop feeling betrayed by me, I’ll be here,” Barba tells her before going to walk away. On his way out, she does stop him with a “Rafa… I miss you, too.” As for what that means … we’ll have to wait and see.

Esparza addresses the “love” of that scene, discusses working with Hargitay, and shares hopes for a Season 24 return.

In the final scene, Barba says he does “know what it means to love someone unconditionally.” What kind of love does he mean?  Is he talking romantic love?

Raúl Esparza: I’m not telling. [Laughs] That’s for me to know and you to guess.

But it’s a possibility?

I think everything is possible. I think that the scene is so beautifully written. It suggests any number of options and I think it would be wrong of us as actors to land on any one definition. That was the thing we kept trying to wrestle with was how to convey a couple of meanings without hitting anything too hard because it is a fragile story between them and a moment of real tenderness, which exists often between them, but now coming out of a lot of heartache. So yeah, I think all things are possible.

Mariska Hargitay as Captain Olivia Benson in Law & Order SVU

Virginia Sherwood/NBC

How’s Barba feeling about his and Benson’s relationship at the end of the episode? A bit more hopeful after she returned his “I miss you” from earlier?

No. When I was in the scene, I did not feel hope. I felt a sense of kind of hardness, and by that, I mean hope seems a little bit too bright. It’s like, OK, I’m willing to show up if you’re willing to show up, but hope suggests, oh, it’s going to be alright or I can see a light. I think it’s just, alright, we’ll meet in the middle, we’ll acknowledge that there’s work to do

Looking at the Stabler of it, he comments on him here and he previously said him coming back made things more complicated. How much of what Barba thinks of Stabler and his and Benson’s relationship is due to Benson and how much is it just due to who he sees Stabler is?

He didn’t know Stabler at all. He only knew him through Benson and I think he was more open to seeing Stabler as a more positive force in her life or as the ghost of something very positive in her life that was now long gone. But in Stabler coming back, I think there was a great deal of toxicity there that he was witnessing and it’s a lot of pain and years and years and unresolved issues between them that he saw for himself, a kind of bullying aggressiveness that he recognized and didn’t like and wanted to name and stand up to. And that’s all Barba himself. That has nothing to do with Benson. I think from Benson, he got a much more golden version of who Stabler was and he sees that she can’t quite see some of the things that aren’t great about him or at least he thinks that.

Raúl Esparza as Counselor Rafael Barba in Law & Order SVU

Virginia Sherwood/NBC

Talk about filming those two Barba-Benson scenes in Forlini’s — both are equally as intense, but in the first, we see them through the mirror, while in the second, they do face each other.

Yeah, that was a beautiful detail that our director, Juan José Campanella, wanted to play with about when we do and don’t look at each other. Sometimes it’s easier to say things when we’re not looking at one another and then finding the moment to force each other to turn around and actually talk and look at each other’s eyes. It’s a fragile scene. And both of them I thought were just gorgeously written. So it was our job to just kind of live up to them. And there was the extra sentimentality of actually filming at Forlini’s for the last time. So many times we spent together filming there over the seasons that it was very bittersweet to know that the place is actually closing down.

It was so fitting to have those scenes there.

Yeah. It was just really beautiful writing, like almost perfectly structured. It’s a big, beautiful, full circle for me. So I was quite sentimental and nostalgic about it all day while we were working.

And it’s always so good to see you and Mariska in scenes together. You two are wonderful together.

Thank you. That means a lot. I just follow her anywhere. She’s a great human being, but she’s also a seriously, seriously good actor and we bring out good stuff in each other. I just trust her. You know those trust exercises where they tell you to close your eyes and fall backwards? I can do that with her and she can do that with me. We just catch each other. And I don’t think you can plan that, you can’t bottle it, it just happens or it doesn’t. I miss her all the time actually, so every time I get to go back and work with her again and film, it’s a beautiful homecoming. It’s really been nothing but happy every time I show up on set for the last couple of episodes. Not that it never was. Work is work. You go, you film. This is my job, and every job is a job, but this feels really special because I really appreciate it.

What would you say the chances are we’ll see you in Season 24?

I hope better than not, but who knows? I’ve been working on three different series this year between Candy and Retreat and the Law & Order stuff. It’s about carving out time in the schedule, but it also is whatever they want, what stories they want to tell over there. Now with [showrunner] Warren [Leight] gone, who knows, because Warren is Barba’s voice and heart. So who knows. But he’s such a great character that I’m sure that they’ll try to take care of him and it’s a great ending to the season, so I hope that the fans will want some of this story to continue. So I’m more hopeful than not and I will certainly find the time to show up for Barba because I know he’s become part of a lot of people’s lives with this series and they look forward to seeing him and I always enjoy sharing that.

It’s so unresolved at the end of the episode. Everyone’s going to be asking what does that love mean and everything?

What does it mean? Exactly. Exactly. So I’m hopeful.

Law & Order: SVU, Season 24, Fall 2022, NBC