Barba Returns to 'Law & Order: SVU' & Puts on a Show Against Carisi (RECAP)
[Warning: The below contains MAJOR spoilers for Season 22, Episode 4 of Law & Order: SVU, "Sightless in a Savage Land."]
He's back! Raúl Esparza returns to SVU, but Rafael Barba is on the defense this time, facing off against the man he mentored, ADA Sonny Carisi (Peter Scanavino), as they treat the courtroom like a boxing ring (an apt description from showrunner Warren Leight).
So what brings Barba back into the fold? The squad responds to an Amber Alert for a missing girl, Nydia Davis. Her foster father, AJ, says he saw her thrown into a truck. However, once she's found, the truth comes out: AJ raped her then slipped the abortion pill into her smoothies.
Nydia's mother has a record of possession and prostitution, while her father, Mickey Davis (Brett Parks), a vet, hopes to gain custody after he finishes rehabbing at the VA (he lost his leg while serving). But after AJ pleads not guilty to charges of rape and reckless endangerment, Mickey shoots him three times, drops his gun, and recites his name and rank as Sergeant Odafin "Fin" Tutuola (Ice T) steps between him and the other officers.
Captain Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and Fin turn to Barba for some "hypothetical" advice and hope he can cut a deal for Mickey with Carisi. "He won't have the stomach to take this to trial," Barba says of the former detective. But the "hypothetical" is thrown out the window when, during his visit to Carisi, Barba decides he's going to represent Mickey—and get a "not guilty" verdict for the man he doesn't think should serve any time.
While Deputy Chief Christian Garland (Demore Barnes) and Olivia are worried about the message this could be sending—that it's OK to take the law into your own hands—Barba doesn't have to think about that as the defense. And so he and Carisi trade jabs—it really is like a boxing match—in front of the jury and throughout the trial (Barba really is charming and so likeable). But when Mickey takes the stand, Carisi gets him to admit he knew what he was doing (as opposed to reacting as he was trained to in Afghanistan) and would do it again "damn straight, every day of the week."
The lawyers end up back where they started (in the initial deal offer): manslaughter in the second degree, with Mickey serving the minimum three and a half years.
For those holding out hope of seeing that dinner Olivia and Barba had talked about last season, unfortunately, that doesn't happen. Instead, the two briefly chat about how much of the case was about Barba himself because "the way that you had to leave, maybe you weren't defending him, maybe you were defending yourself," she suggests. They do admit they miss each other, but then he's on his way. Leight did also say he already has a plan to bring back Barba, so who knows what the future may hold.
But one thing's for sure: Barba has been sorely missed, and this SVU episode proved just how much he (and Esparza in the role) add to the show. Nothing against Carisi as ADA, but there is nothing quite like seeing "a Rafael Barba show" in the courtroom. Plus, we'd always love to see more Olivia and Barba and, after their brief scene, now more Barba and Garland.
As for the rest of the squad's personal lives in the 2021 return, Olivia spends New Year's with her son Noah (who falls asleep before midnight), while Officer Katriona "Kat" Azar Tamin (Jamie Gray Hyder) is with her girlfriend ... until the case interrupts.
Detective Amanda Rollins (Kelli Giddish) invites Carisi over for the countdown when she finds out he's planning to spend it alone. They seem to still be in a holding pattern — will anything ever happen between them? — but he's good with her daughter and she falls asleep against him, so enjoy the tiny bits we get?
Plus, Fin plans to propose to girlfriend Phoebe Baker (Jennifer Esposito) but only gets as far as reminiscing about their past and pulling out the ring box before work interrupts their nice dinner to close out 2020. But good news: they're engaged by the end of the episode! SVU wedding, here we come?
Law & Order: SVU, Thursdays, 9/8c, NBC