Major spoilers below for the latest episode of Law & Order: SVU, so be warned.
Law & Order: SVU's cast and crew may be celebrating the show's distinction as the longest-running drama in TV history, but Season 21 has been a pretty brutal one for Olivia Benson so far. Her half-brother's promising return ended in his fatal overdose, and her reunion with former flame Ed Tucker was punctuated by his suicide following a brain cancer diagnosis. Benson was in need of some good vibrations for a change, and they finally appeared in the form of former ADA Rafael Barba!
The episode "Redemption in Her Corner" kicked off with a long-awaited return cameo from Raúl Esparza's Barba, who wanted to check in with Benson to see how she was doing. The appearance, which happened via video call, threw fans for a loop, and it's one that the creative team didn't want to use with anyone other than Benson. Here's how current showrunner Warren Leight explained it:
We wanted a private scene at the top of the episode of Barba checking in on Benson after Tucker's death. If we'd put him in the squadroom, we would have had to have him interact with Fin and Rollins as well, so we decided to have him check in from afar. It was also fun to speculate where he is in his life, now. The fact that he's investigating possible corruption in the Iowa caucus is an odd fluke. We wrote it last year.
Considering Benson is the character who has faced the lion's share of heartache in Season 21, she's the one that got to anchor Barba's return rather than the others. Beyond all the other reasons Mariska Hargitay's character deserves things, of course.
Since the cameo took place over a video call, viewers might have suspected that Raúl Esparza filmed his part somewhere else in the country, but that wasn't the case. Warren Leight told E! News that the actor filmed his appearance on the Law & Order: SVU set, and that Mariska Hargitay was running the lines with him off-screen.
The show shared a snippet of the scene in a post celebrating Mariska Hargitay's birthday, too.
As fans are well aware, two years have passed (almost to the day) since Raúl Esparza exited Law & Order: SVU in the midst of Season 19, after a six-season run. His final episode was something of a controversial one for the character, as Barba was acquitted in the death of a comatose infant, and quickly replaced by Philip Winchester's Peter Stone. It was good to hear that he was dealing with political snafus and not still dealing with grief.
Now, if we're talking return cameos, I think the one that fans would love to see the most is Chris Meloni's Stabler. It's something that's come up over the years, with the actor not flat-out denying the possibility. Hargitay and Meloni spoke about their awesome chemistry just last month during a special event honoring the show. So here's hoping Warren Leight stoked a fire with Barba's return that won't be extinguished until Benson and Stabler are together again.
Following another show about cops that strikes a completely different tone, Law & Order: SVU airs Thursday nights on NBC at 10:00 p.m. ET.