[Warning: The below contains MAJOR spoilers for Law & Order: SVU‘s 500th episode.]
For quite the milestone, SVU‘s 500th episode — “a monumental feat for any show, we may never see that again,” the returning Danny Pino (who reprises his role as Nick Amaro in the hour) notes — the focus is, as it should be, on the one who has been with it from the beginning and now leads the squad as its captain: Olivia Benson. Mariska Hargitay delivers yet another outstanding performance as the aptly-titled “The Five Hundredth Episode” puts her character through the wringer.
It all starts when Amaro surprises Benson with his visit: He now works for Forym, a company that can test DNA samples that used to be too small or degrade. (He went back to grad school for genetics and forensic science since he left almost seven years ago.) A true-crime writer looking at wrongful convictions for his podcast reached out to him, and that man happens to Burton Lowe (Aidan Quinn), whom Benson dated when he was one of her mother’s students. They’re able to test DNA from that cold case, find the rapist and murderer, and help the victim’s boyfriend, who had been behind bars for 25 years for a crime he didn’t commit.
Along the way, Benson reconnects with Burton, and it’s after she falls into bed with him and they’re closing the case that his editor’s former intern approaches them and accuses him of raping her. Burton insists their encounter was entirely consensual, but Benson has to have her squad look into it (while recusing herself) and it looks like the intern wasn’t the only one. In fact, something about her story is very familiar to Benson, who goes home and finds a cassette tape he’d given her with the same music.
Amaro apologizes for bringing Burton back into Benson’s life and is the one to ask the question: How old was she when they were involved? She was 16, he was 21. It was a different time, and they were in love, she says, and anything they did was her choice. But that’s the thing about predators, he reminds her, the good ones, the smart ones, make their victims believe that. But Benson’s not ready to hear that.
It’s in that scene we see the intensity we were used to seeing with Amaro. “He punches up. He’s willing to speak truth to power, especially if it’s somebody he loves. It’s important to have those people in your life who are going to look at you straight and give it to you straight and potentially shine that light into a blind spot,” Pino tells TV Insider of that scene. “What I love about that scene is that you don’t quite know where their relationship is at the end of it. It was volatile and even though Amaro is a very strong character, so is Benson. And so the way that scene ends leaves sort of a cliffhanger as to where that relationship is, and it’s not answered until the very end of the episode,” when Benson calls to tell him he was right and apologize for being so defensive.
“I love working with Mariska. I feel like we’re always trying to find a different way of doing a scene, a different take, a different approach,” he says of filming that scene. “We both work in similar ways in that we come to set prepared and then we play off of each other. She’s listening to me, I’m listening to her, her commitment to Benson and her character just gives me so much. She’s an incredibly generous actor, and so that makes my job so easy in reacting to her.
“It was take after take after take of listening to her and reacting to her and trying to reach Benson and suggest to her that the way she sees things may not be the way things really are,” he continues. “And sometimes it’s more difficult for a friend to tell you that, and that was the journey I feel that Amaro was going through at that point. Then of course being rebuffed by her. The incredible generosity of that moment is not only in the writing. It exists in Mariska’s matching intensity to Amaro and that volatility building to the point where it couldn’t be in the same room together.”
But Benson does end up admitting to herself — and to Burton — that “technically” what happened between them “is sexual assault.” As she reminds him, “I was a teenager. My house was a mess. You knew that. You knew that I would do anything to get away from my mother.” In fact, now Benson is wondering if her mother was just trying to protect her then.
“You remember the first night we had sex, 40 years ago? I do. You didn’t put up much of a fight,” he argues. Does she want an apology because he was in love with her? “Maybe,” she tells him. “Maybe I wanted some sort of acknowledgment because I was so young.” He refuses to give it to her, and she leaves, taking a moment to throw his cassette tape to her away after she does. Just when we thought it couldn’t get any more heartbreaking for Benson.
It’s through the case that other familiar faces return. The now-retired Captain Cragen (Dann Florek) worked the case in 1996, and not only offers insight but also gets to tell Benson “how proud” he is to call her Captain now. Amaro turns to M.E. Melinda Warner (Tamara Tunie) — “once an SVU detective, always an SVU detective,” she tells him — for DNA to test. Trevor Langan (Peter Hermann, Hargitay’s husband) is the boyfriend’s lawyer and warns Benson to be careful about Burton because he has a “reputation” (as he’s heard from clients in publishing, which makes us think of Hermann’s role on Younger). Flashbacks put Benson’s former partner Stabler (Christopher Meloni), her mother Serena (Elizabeth Ashley), and ADA Casey Novak (Diane Neal) on-screen for the milestone.
So was this closure for Amaro, in a way, or might we see Pino again? “I don’t know that I have an answer for that,” he admits. “Certainly everyone’s intention with bringing Amaro back for the 500th episode was a recognition to the fans who’ve been curious about Amaro coming back. That was not only from the production’s point of view, from [showrunner] Warren Leight’s point of view, but certainly from mine, to give something back to the fans who’ve been incredibly loyal to the show in general and to each person who has contributed creatively to the show. It was our way of paying homage to that.”
Law & Order: SVU, Thursdays, 9/8c, NBC