Warning: spoilers ahead for the February 7 episode of Law and Order: SVU.

Law and Order: SVU is still going strong in Season 19, and fans have had a regular cast of core characters to follow in recent years. That regular cast is how going through a big change, due to the departure of actor Raúl Esparza, who played Assistant District Attorney Rafael Barba on SVU since Season 14. Barba's exit came in an emotional episode that saw him on trial himself after making the decision to remove life support from a braindead child, resulting in its death. Although Barba wasn't convicted, he decided it was time to move on from his work as a prosecutor. Raúl Esparza has spoken out about why he left the show, saying this:

I've done six seasons, I felt like it was time to go. I had explored a lot of what I thought Barba was about. I just felt it was time to move on. I was also feeling like the role has changed over the years in a way that has been an interesting experience for me. Again, I'm a theater guy, so it's like having a script in front of you that keeps changing every time you go to do it. The learning process of how roles grow over a period of time with a series has been kind of fascinating, and I just felt I had reached the end of what I wanted to explore where they were writing.

As it turns out, Raúl Esparza left Law and Order: SVU because he felt it was time to move on, not due to creative differences or dissatisfaction with his job. While fans of Barba will undoubtedly be sad to see him go, at least he got a solid sendoff. He wasn't sent to prison for acting on what he felt was right, even if he did also feel guilty for ending the life of a child. He wasn't fired or disbarred or anything that might have prevented him from returning to SVU at some point. Barba is still a lawyer and clearly still feels a connection to Benson; it wouldn't take a leap of logic for him to return. Who knows? Maybe he'll turn up as a private sector lawyer who ends up opposing the new Assistant District Attorney who will work with Special Victims in his absence.

Not all actors are lucky enough to be sent off in a way that leaves the door open for a return. In fact, if SVU had wanted to end on a shocker ahead of a brief hiatus as NBC switches primetime coverage to the Olympics, the show could have killed off Barba in the final moments. According to Raúl Esparza, however, Barba was never at risk of being killed off to accommodate his departure. Esparza went on in his chat with EW to say this about why Barba didn't have to die:

I'll say that the one thing we talked about is he absolutely doesn't need to die, because it's not like I'm leaving on bad terms. I think that Barba's become a part of the SVU family, and I think there's a life for him -- I don't know necessarily, but it's possible that there's a life for him as the series goes on. I'm glad they left that door open.

While Raúl Esparza can't say at this point if/when he'll be back on SVU, he certainly doesn't seem to want to rule a return out. Even if he never returns as a regular -- although Barba wouldn't be the first SVU Assistant District Attorney to leave and then come back in an ongoing role -- he could always drop by every once in a while. As long as he doesn't go the Stabler route of disappearing to seemingly never return, fans may be happy.

We'll have to wait and see how SVU moves on from Barba as the designated A.D.A. New episodes don't start up again until February 28, at which point a new A.D.A. will be in the mix, and he may just stay around for a long time. If you're still in the market for new shows in the not-too-distant future, take a look at our midseason TV premiere guide.

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