Warning: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD for Stabler's return episode of Law & Order: SVU, called "Return of the Prodigal Son."
The long-awaited and much-hyped return of Elliot Stabler to Law & Order: SVU also delivered the reunion with Olivia Benson, which meant Christopher Meloni and Mariska Hargitay sharing the screen again. While I was one of many fans who were more than ready to see Stabler back, SVU had to deal with the circumstances of how and why he left when it came to reuniting him with Benson. "Return of the Prodigal Son" delivered a reunion that was messy at best, but I wouldn't change a thing about it.
As much as the purpose of "Return of the Prodigal Son" was to set up the Law & Order: Organized Crime spinoff, it had to reintroduce Stabler to a Special Victims Unit that had changed a lot in his decade away, and some formerly close friends whose lives are very different than the last time they saw each other. Stabler also didn't get to make a grand gesture in his return, as it was spoiled when his rental car exploded, catching wife Kathy in the blast, and she eventually died due to her injuries.
Basically, Stabler and Benson reunited on the scene of a crime with Kathy's life in danger, so there was no chance to ease back into things, and yet they both began falling back into their old rhythm and old habits for better or worse. Stabler immediately broke his promise to behave himself when Olivia let him into an interrogation room, and responded to Benson calling him out on it by asking if she was going to write him up.
It wasn't until they had a moment alone at the hospital that Stabler did the #1 thing that I needed him to do in his return to SVU: apologize for how he left. Benson held Stabler accountable for how he left, and Stabler both apologized and explained that he thought she'd be able stop him if he talked to her before making his big decision. It didn't justify what he did, but it acknowledged that what he did was pretty messed up.
It wouldn't have been realistic for either one of their characters or the show if they just fell into each other's arms with everything forgiven and forgotten right away, and it made sense that they had to have some uncomfortable moments with each other. Best of all, SVU painted Stabler as the good man he always was who just made a series of very bad decisions about the people he cared about.
I got to be mad at him for leaving (and then learning that he was planning on crashing Benson's ceremony without so much as letting her know that he was in town) because Benson demanded better of him than just slipping back into old habits, and SVU didn't turn Stabler into a saint to sell him as the star of a spinoff. For me, the success of Stabler's return to the Law & Order universe via SVU depended on how the show handled Benson and Stabler sharing the screen again, and to a lesser extent how Stabler interacted with the rest of SVU.
Their interactions weren't perfect, but they also weren't petty, and they felt true both to Benson as of Season 22 and the Stabler who was still stuck in the past to start. And honestly, they felt realistic to me, although that might be down to Mariska Hargitay and Christopher Meloni more than anything else.
Christopher Meloni had suggested that the reunion would be unsatisfying for fans, and I can definitely see that fans might not be happy if they went in expecting Benson and Stabler to pick up where they left off before he bailed without a word. As somebody whose biggest desire was for an apology from Stabler, I was perfectly happy with what went down and the potential for what comes next with future crossovers. After all, the story isn't over just because the credits rolled.
Now, with Law & Order: SVU and Organized Crime airing back-to-back on Thursdays, crossovers should be easy to pull off, and give NBC a second night of the week dominated by a block of Dick Wolf shows, with the exception of Manifest. See what happens next for Benson and Stabler with new episodes of SVU and Organized Crime on NBC Thursday, at 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. ET respectively.