Law and Order: SVU

NBC

Can Olivia Benson catch a break? Turns out the answer is...not right now.

Since Law & Order: SVU returned for season 21, Mariska Hargitay's character was promoted to captain, welcomed a new green member to the squad, navigated the changing relationship between her department and the DA's office, had one of her squad members kidnapped and lost her brother to an overdose, among other weekly challenges. But she can't catch a break—yet. In the second half of the history-making season, Benson will be tested even more, executive producer Warren Leight teased.

"Not to give too much away but there's some stress coming up for Benson in the next few episodes...some real difficult episodes for her coming up," Leight said. "So, it's never easy for our guys."

Read on for more about season 21 of Law & Order: SVU below, including diversity in the squad room and returning characters.

DIVERSITY
When E! News spoke with Leight ahead of season 21 premiere, he promised the show would start to reflect the real makeup of New York City. For years, the show has been without a series regular LGBTQ character. Then viewers met Jamie Gray Hyder's Officer Katriona "Kat" Tamin, bureau chief Vanessa Hadid (Zuleikha Robinson) and Sergeant Joe Park (Nelson Lee), with more to come. Leight teased episode 14 will guest star A Band's Visit veteran Ari'el Stachel.

"We're kind of getting their slowly," Leight said.

Regarding the LGTBQ representation, and whether viewers will find that in Kat, Leight said that's a possibility, they're still fleshing out the character. "In episode 13 is the first time we actually fully reference that she's Lebanese," he said.

A ROLLISI LOVE TRIANGLE?
In the midseason premiere, Rollins (Kelli Giddish) was held hostage, but safely turned the tables and brought in her kidnapper. That doesn't mean she's unscathed after having a gun pointed at her head for hours and traveling around the tri-state area with her captor. The end of the episode featured her breaking down in Carisi's (Peter Scanavino) arms. Now the relationship between the two will be tested.

"I hope to, at some point, delve a little more into Carisi, what's going on there," Leight said. What would happen to the two if a third party entered the equation? "They're kind of in an interesting relationship because neither of them seems to be involved with anybody and they're dependent on each other, but at some point, someone's going to pair up or go out on a date. What's going to happen when that happens? Maybe co-dependent is too strong, but they're intertwined."

Mariska Hargitay, SVU Hair Gallery

Will Hart/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

RETURNING FACES
Yes, Leight knows fans want to see Raúl Esparza return as Barba and Christopher Meloni back in the fold for the first time since season 12 as Stabler. Both actors sat for new interviews included in The Paley Center Salutes Law & Order: SVU, giving viewers some hope they may be back with the squad at some point, especially in the season that makes SVU American TV's longest-running scripted drama.

Regarding Barba, Leight said, "I hope I can make that work. Raúl and I are partners in crime…I'm hoping we can make that work sooner rather than later." Leight said he views the season as a three-act story with episode 12 serving as the middle of the season and the middle of the second act. "I think we'll see Barba before the third act begins."

And Stabler in the third act? That one is a little more complicated.

Meloni left the show between seasons 12 and 13, then Leight took over the show and was tasked with explaining Stabler's off-screen exit. Leight said whether Meloni makes a return appearance is still "above my pay grade," but he has thought about the character and his history with the show, including the possibility of bringing in Stabler's wife Kathy (Isabel Gillies) somehow.

"But you can't bring her back…it's tricky…That's sitting there at some point. I don't know when we'll see it," he said.

BENSON'S CHALLENGES
"I think we're kind of testing our characters. And we're getting to difficult low points," Leight said about what's to come. "We lost Simon in one episode, there will be some more low points coming up and then it's how do you deal with grief? How do you deal with loss? How do you recover and go forward?

Sure, Benson's brother Simon (Michael Weston) wasn't a major part of her life, but he was her last living blood relative (aside from Simon's kids who are in the wind with his ex), and his loss is still felt by Benson.

"When you lose that last connection, it's untethering. It kind of lowers your resistance for blows to come, so we'll be watching Benson to see her—she is the ultimate survivor, but she's going to be tested in a different way than sort of the William Lewis way. She's got some crosses to bear, I guess," Leight said.

Benson will also come face-to-face with Tucker (Robert John Burke), her former boyfriend. "The one she let get away," Leight said. "It's bittersweet when they meet up again…it's not to the altar we run."

While Benson will face her challenges, there is light at the end of the tunnel.

"Sometimes, it's only after you—not by design—but after you've been through a lot of loss, do you begin to open yourself, are you available for other opportunities," Leight said. "I think there's a line in the script coming up about once the roof is gone from your house, you can see the stars. And so that's what we're hoping she'll see toward the end of season, but the long road." 

Law & Order: SVU airs Thursdays, 10 p.m. on NBC.

(E! and NBC are both part of the NBCUniversal family.)

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