‘Law & Order: SVU’ Tackles Hate Crimes and Deportation in the Charged Season 18 Finale

Law & Order: Special Victims Unit , highlights
Michael Parmelee/NBC

The world has not stopped providing a steady stream of harrowing storylines for Law & Order: SVU, which concludes its 18th season this week. Among recent ripped-from-the-headlines topics: powerful political figures and media chiefs accused of sexual misconduct, rape in the military and violent aggression toward transgender people. “I often think about how they’re going to keep coming up with these stories, and then you get a season like this,” says Raúl Esparza (above, right), who has played ADA Rafael Barba since 2012.

The two-part finale (both installments air tonight) interconnects a pair of hot-button issues: hate crimes against Muslims and the consequences that arise after an undocumented witness is threatened with deportation. “The episode opens with three men who commit rape and murder while robbing a family-run Syrian restaurant in New York City,” says Esparza. “The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement gets involved when an illegal immigrant is a possible witness to the case. Barba has to deal with the fact that he’s losing a witness and figure out how to get him back to New York, despite the fact that he’s a criminal himself.”

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Everyone wants the crimes solved, but getting there might take some improvisation. “The question is how far Barba is willing to push Lieutenant Benson [Mariska Hargitay] to possibly leave information out regarding certain witnesses. Is it justice when you achieve the right end but the means aren’t great? Barba is a good man. I love when we get put in those quandaries,” Esparza emphasizes. “It’s especially fun to work that stuff out with Mariska—we always leave those kinds of scenes with a real high.”

Esparza says fans will respond to these mano-a-mano bouts: “Barba and Benson are hurtling into these messy issues, and they occasionally find themselves on opposite sides. That friction makes for very good television.”

Law & Order: SVU, Season Finale, Wednesday, May 24, 9/8c, NBC