MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD for the 500th episode of Law & Order: SVU.
Law & Order: SVU hit a rare milestone on October 21 with its 500th episode, appropriately titled “The Five Hundredth Episode.” It had some of the bells and whistles that fans could expect from a milestone episode produced under precautions, with the returns of familiar faces. That said, the focus was on the resolution of a storyline that was teased many, many seasons ago, when Mariska Hargitay’s Benson admitted that she had been engaged to a man in his 20s at the age of 16. It was an episode that was heavy for Benson, but could herald some change for her even if it was missing some pieces that might have made the episode perfect.
For “The Five Hundredth Episode,” SVU brought back Danny Pino as Nick Amaro, Tamara Tunie as Melinda Warner, and Dann Florek as Captain Cragen, while also forcing Benson to face the man who had groomed her all those years ago. And it was a poignant episode of Benson falling for Burton Lowe all over again, although with the perspective of an adult this time, ending with her making a decision that shows some serious growth not only from the series premiere, but from the beginning of the episode. So let’s delve into how the episode may have set up some change for her, while also acknowledging the missing pieces.
The Missing Pieces From Law & Order: SVU's 500th Episode
“The Five Hundredth Episode” being produced under pandemic precautions of course meant that fans probably weren’t going to get something on a grand scale bringing back every last former detective, ADA, and family member who ever appeared over the past 23 seasons, but many elements of the case didn’t actually feel like they came out of a huge milestone. A season premiere or finale, perhaps, but not necessarily celebrating 500 episodes. It felt like it needed a little something extra.
And the flashbacks featuring Casey and Stabler really drove that point home for me. The flashbacks were used well, and there had been no news of Diane Neal returning to reprise her role as Casey, but I honestly spent most of the hour expecting Christopher Meloni to show up for at least a cameo as Stabler. After all, even though he was gone for the better part of a decade, Stabler is probably the most iconic character of SVU other than Mariska Hargitay’s Benson herself.
As recently as last week, I was assuming that Christopher Meloni would show up, so I felt like the episode was missing something without Stabler… at first, at least. Now, I’ve come to the conclusion that Stabler’s absence wasn’t so much a missing piece that worked against the episode, but something that made the episode work all the better. And that brings us to what worked and sets up some potential change for Benson!
The Focus Was Rightfully On Mariska Hargitay's Olivia Benson
Benson was at the center of “The Five Hundredth Episode,” and the hour took the time to delve into her as a character with a complex history as well as a captain of Special Victims. She got a little bit of romance and got to hit the sheets with a man, which could have been a wonderful break from spending her days investigating sexually-based offenses if he’d been pretty much anybody other than the guy who groomed her. But it was nice to see her smiling and happy and doing something for herself for once, in the brief window before it fell apart.
Plus, the story behind the man she was engaged to when she was 16 and he was 21 has gone untold on SVU for literal decades. It wasn’t built up as a question every season, but as the flashbacks reminded longtime viewers, both Casey and Stabler were aware that she’d fallen for an older man when she was much too young to make the decision to sleep with and get engaged to him.
It wasn’t a story that would have worked as well if it had been split with a B story and a C story as well. Benson digging out the tape he’d made her way back when wouldn’t have packed as much of a punch if there was a Rollisi subplot or Stabler in the mix or other returned characters taking up the focus. She is the one constant from SVU over 500 episodes, so “The Five Hundredth Episode” rightfully belonged to her. And closing the door on Burton could mean that Benson will be willing to open other doors moving forward.
The 500th Episode Tied Back To The Pilot
By revisiting the story of 16-year-old Olivia’s 21-year-old fiancé, SVU had to revisit her complicated relationship with her mom, although Serena Benson has been dead for years. Noah asked Benson about Serena, and the episode eventually flashed back to the SVU pilot during Benson’s dinner with her mom. It was the fateful dinner that not only revealed that Serena had been raped, but that Benson was the product of that rape.
Over the course of the 500th episode, Benson came to the realization that her mom had wanted to separate her from Burton to protect her. That didn’t excuse everything that Serena did, but it gave Benson some closure with her mom as well. And the flashbacks to the pilot during an episode centered on Benson really brought the show full circle in a way that was worthy of the 500-episode milestone. Everything is different, ranging from Benson’s coworkers to the resources she has to investigate crimes, but this episode still found a way to tie back to the pilot that aired in 1999.
“The Five Hundredth Episode” didn’t need to be jam-packed with everything that happened and everybody who appeared the other 498 episodes of the series. Admittedly, tying back to the pilot did open the door for an appearance from Stabler, since even Ice-T’s Fin wasn’t around back then, but the episode worked without him. Besides, Christopher Meloni turns up on SVU pretty frequently since the premiere of Law & Order: Organized Crime, so it wouldn’t have been as big of a deal for him to turn up in Episode 500 as it would have been even a year ago.
Mariska Hargitay Was Fantastic (Of Course)
Mariska Hargitay brought her best for the 500th episode, although any SVU fan who has been tuning in for a while undoubtedly wasn’t surprised to see her nail her performance. She didn’t win an Emmy and accumulate a number of nominations for being a bad actress! It was easy to feel the emotional blows that Benson felt throughout the episode, as well as her moments of catharsis and even joy.
Unfortunately, my joy for her was tinged by the fact that it was bound to fall apart, since Benson reuniting with her groomer wasn’t exactly a fairy tale turn of events. Hargitay just reminded yet again that Benson is the heart of Law & Order: SVU, and it’s hard to imagine the show going on without her at all. Hopefully fans will never have to face an SVU future without her, as the show is already guaranteed at least one more season, and this episode was a reminder that Hargitay can pull off character work and happier sides of Benson in addition to her tried and true work as Captain Benson.
All of this may point to a potential future of new priorities for Olivia Benson. Sure, there’s the chance that SVU goes back to business as usual with Benson in Captain mode until the 1000th episode, but “The Five Hundredth Episode” feels like it could be a turning point that prepares Benson to make some changes. Or, at the very least, open herself up to changes.
At this point, I’d settle for some more vaguely gossip-y conversations with Rollins, just to let the ladies of SVU share some screen time that doesn’t have to be concerned with especially heinous and vicious felonies. It's worth noting that Rollins did mention Stabler coming back into Benson’s life. Find out what happens next for television’s longest-running leading lady with new episodes of Law & Order: SVU on Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET on NBC!
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Laura turned a lifelong love of television into a valid reason to write and think about TV on a daily basis. She's not a doctor, lawyer, or detective, but watches a lot of them in primetime. Resident of One Chicago, the galaxy far, far away, and Northeast Ohio. Will not time travel and can cite multiple TV shows to explain why. She does, however, want to believe that she can sneak references to The X-Files into daily conversation (and author bios).