For 15 years we’ve seen Mariska Hargitay’s (now) Sergeant Olivia Benson chase, capture, and interrogate some of the worst criminals imaginable on "Law & Order: SVU." She’s one of the most admirable female heroes on network television -- not to mention how inspiring Hargitay’s real life efforts for victims of sexual abuse are. In every way, Benson is “SVU.” It’s impossible to imagine the show without her, and frankly no fan wants to fathom that thought.
The current 15th season, however, has made that possibility closer to a reality multiple times, putting Benson’s life at stake more than once, and now introducing a new presence into her life. (Spoiler alert if you haven’t seen the Season 15 finale “Spring Awakening.”) In May 22's season finale, Benson’s life changed in a major way when the judge allowed her to take care of a baby boy and begin her path to possible adoption.
The new responsibility of raising a child, on top of taking back her office as the squad’s acting commander, seems like far too heavy of a burden for any person who spends their days catching criminals. Wednesday night’s finale only seemed to further the possibility that it could soon be the end for Benson, since a baby and her PTSD are pretty sure ways of slowly writing off a character. Before NBC announced that the series would be picked up for a 16th season, it almost looked as if "SVU" was finally coming to a close, something no fan wants to ever hear. Yet for a brief moment in the weeks before the renewal announcement, a thought occurred to me that I, an avid "SVU" fan for the past 10 years, couldn't shake. The end of "SVU" after this season may have actually been a good thing.
Now I know I'm about to make a slew of enemies and the comments section is likely exploding in protest. But if you really love "SVU," you'll hear me out.
Season 15 has undoubtably been one of the most all-around dramatic, intense, and emotionally unsettling “SVU” seasons yet. According to viewer ratings on IMDb from Graph TV, it’s the most consistently highest rated season of the series yet. The season premiere, “Surrender Benson” has the highest IMDb ratings (8.8 out of 10) next to three other classic “SVU” episodes, including Season 7’s “911,” Robin Williams’ guest starring episode “Authority,” and Season 8’s “Scheherazade.” Yet regardless of high viewer ratings, Season 15 is far from the series’ best, as it has only moved further away from the essence of what we've loved most about the show since 1999.
"SVU" has always been about the detectives’ stories -- you hear those words in the intro to every episode -- but one of the best aspects of the show was that the characters' personal baggage was always left at home. Of course, in the past the show divulged backstories and revealed the job’s troubling effect on the squad’s home lives. Out of everyone, we’ve spent the most time with Elliot's marital and family conflicts, but those storylines never overshadowed the cases at hand. Elliot's personal life only seeped in to further reflect his increasingly wavering stability and ever-growing aggressive behavior. It was always in small doses and always relevant to his character development.
The same goes for Olivia, when the writers included her childhood trauma only when it related to a case, or when a victim reminded her of her own upsetting birth story. We only learned about Munch’s mentally unstable ex-wife Gwen when he needed to get her help on a case, and Fin’s son was only a major part of an episode when he ended up being involved in an investigation, or when his sexuality reflected Fin's struggle with acceptance. The writers managed to give us stories about a squad of relatable characters who evaded their own issues by attempting to assuage the pain of others. But when the lines become blurred between personal and professional, and when the detectives’ struggles take precedence over the victims' "SVU" turns into an entirely different show. Nothing describes Season 15 better than that.
In the second half of the season alone, all three major characters experience their largest downfalls yet and each are brought to their absolute lowest. Benson, Amaro, and Rollins were all on the brink of losing their badges this season, with two of them getting investigated by Internal Affairs (IAB) within the span of four episodes. In the past, IAB's investigations of the squad have been rare but serious occurrences. This season both Benson and Amaro's cases were amplified and then immediately swept away and forgotten by episodes' end. Beyond this, many of this season's storylines felt tenuous and hollow. Amaro was nothing more than a carbon copy of Elliot, with his similar anger management and marriage troubles. As if that drama weren't enough to incite viewers, this season added an even more unexplained and impractical side story of Amaro and Rollins' affair, which was never alluded to before nor resolved after. Season 15 overall was filled with dramatized, haphazard vignettes revolving solely around the detectives' personal lives. In retrospect, those episodes stand out far more than any of the criminal cases, many of which are hardly memorable.
However, my biggest qualm with this season was its treatment of Benson, a heroic character who has faced the worst of criminals and till now has never been completely broken. Season 15 broke Benson, and not just once, but three times.
That’s not to say that a strong character shouldn’t be challenged, or that it’s wrong to victimize them. But to victimize them again and again in a show that is about supporting and fighting for the victims is going too far. Benson already had her most damaging experience in Season 9’s episode “Undercover" when she was almost raped by a prison guard. Yet “SVU” decided to put Benson to the test again with the Season 15 premiere where she was kidnapped, violently tortured, and almost raped by Pablo Schreiber's William Lewis. It was difficult enough to watch and Benson's trauma should've ended there. "SVU" kept pushing though, and next was an agonizing trial in which Lewis continued his verbal abuse towards Benson, and then for a third time, Lewis returned to tie Benson to a table, nearly rape her again, and force her through two rounds of Russian Roulette.
While the Benson-Lewis storyline was gripping and certainly made for highly dramatic, captivating television, there’s a point where you have to stop and wonder why it was at all necessary. Why was this strong female character, who has spent the past 14 years catching the bad guys and consoling the victimized, forced to endure such extreme situations? Why isn’t once or twice enough? Why must a character who has struggled with being a child of rape, who’s dealt with some of NYC’s sickest fictional criminals, and who has even been on the brink of rape more than once have to face it again? Sure, there are bad people in the world and crimes can happen to anyone, even our TV protagonists -- we know this. Yet while watching Benson put a revolver to her head, I couldn’t help but feel betrayed. I'd watched this character prevail for 14 seasons, and now her show kept breaking her down in the most brutal of ways. What kind of message was “SVU” trying to send about rape, victims and survivors?
I don't want to see "SVU" end just as much as the next person, and I really hope that Benson doesn't leave any time soon. And don’t get me wrong, this isn’t an attack on the series or on Hargitay, who gave her most incredible performances yet this season. This is a call of attention to what’s gone awry in “SVU” and a questioning of what a series about the darkest and most disturbing crimes is trying to tell us about those crimes and the people who stop them. What sort of hope are viewers supposed to have in a cast of characters who’ve become weakened targets? How can they fight for the victims when they’ve been devalued to victims of assault and victims of their own anger and addictions?
There was one meaningful and redeeming moment in Season 15 that gave it one last jolt of hope. Munch, an emblem of “SVU” in its golden days, returned and reminded Amaro of his purpose while also reminding us what the series is really about. “You’re police, you’re a detective,” Munch said in the season finale. “You fight for the victims, for the survivors.”
We all may have gotten wrapped up in the sensational drama of this season, and many fans may have loved it. Yet hopefully with Munch’s words we remember what really made “SVU” a beloved show. Here’s to hoping that in its 16th year the series gets back to what it was best at -- catching the bad guys and leaving the personal mess at home.