Back in Season One of “Law & Order: SVU,” Elliot Stabler looked into his partner Olivia Benson’s eyes and said, “I’m your partner —for better or worse.” Now, 24 seasons later, despite many highs and lows, those words still ring true, and — for the first time ever — in a very intimate way.
It only took over two decades, but after countless lingering stares, life-or-death moments and just three hugs, the beloved partners played by Chris Meloni and Mariska Hargitay almost got romantic for the very first time.
In the Jan. 26th episode of “Blood Out,” Benson and Stabler touched in ways fans of the beloved pair had only dreamed about, especially after the promo alone sent stans into a spiral.
Benson called Stabler for a favor — to pick up his son, Noah, who had been staying with his half brother’s family outside of New York City after two hooded figures attacked his mom outside of their home. At the time of the attack, Benson made his son go inside and called for help while he was fighting off the teens. In the next episode, “Soldier Up,” she realized after assuming the attack was meant to be on her, that Noah was the intended target.
Viewers hadn’t seen Benson and Stabler share the screen since this season’s historic premiere, which was a three-way crossover among all the “Law & Order” shows.
Prior to that, Benson had shot down Stabler’s attempts to spend time with her and her son. Stabler did meet Benson’s son by chance on Mother’s Day, when he ran into the two on the street.
In “Blood Out,” Benson told ADA Dominick Carisi (Peter Scanavino) Stabler went to pick up his son and bring him home, adding, there was nobody he trusted more to bring Noah home “in one piece than Stabler.”
Back at her apartment, Benson nervously looked through the cabinets while Stabler said they were “family.”
“Why didn’t you call me?” Stabler asks.
“Because I knew that you would try to protect me,” Benson responded.
“And there’s something wrong with that?” Stabler questions.
“I care for you,” he added. “Look at me.”
The two touch foreheads, and Stabler appears to go in for a kiss, but Benson nervously pulls away.
“Elliot I want to — I want to, but I can’t,” Benson sighs.
When Stabler questions why not, Benson responds, “Because what if it doesn’t work out?”
“And what if things work out?” he replies.
“Elliot I’m not ready for this,” she says. “I’m not ready for this.”
(So still no kiss — yet… but progress!)
Starting in 1999, Hargitay and Meloni worked side by side as partners in Manhattan’s Special Victims Unit for 12 seasons. Meloni left the series in 2011 after the contract negotiations failed while Hargitay stayed on, and her character rose through the ranks to become the unit’s captain. During that time away from the person who once knew “everything” about her — even forgetting the parts she’d “rather,” Benson adopted a son but also experienced some of the most traumatic moments of her life.
Meloni reprized Stabler in the “Law & Order” universe 10 years later on his own spinoff, “Law & Order: Organized Crime,” and reentered Benson’s orbit during his return episode in Season 22, “Return of the Prodigal Son.” That episode was essentially the first and last time that fans saw any sort of conversation between the two that offered insight into why Stabler left and how much his abrupt, gutted Benson’s unexplained departure.
The two sat in the hospital where Stabler’s wife, Kathy, was admitted for treatment after being injured in a car bombing.
“I think if I talked to you about how –“ Stabler began before Benson cut him off and emphasized how he just “walked away.”
“You were the most, single most important person in my life, and you just disappeared,” Benson said. (Fun fact: It was revealed during a “Law & Order” fan day event in February 2022 that Hargitay came up with that line herself.)
“I was afraid — if I heard your voice, I wouldn’t have been able to leave,” Stabler told her.
Later in the episode, Stabler’s wife died, and despite the 10-year absence, the first call he made was to Benson. Over the 12 seasons of Benson and Stabler’s partnership, anytime someone asked either if the two were ever more than friends, Stabler’s marriage was often the response given as a reason for why they weren’t.
Stabler and his wife separated two times during his time on “SVU” — in Season Six and Season Eight — and the tension between Benson and Stabler was through the roof in Season Eight. Fans were hoping that could be the time for the duo to explore if there was more there, until Stabler broke the news to Benson in that season’s finale that Kathy got pregnant during the one night they reconnected during their separation.
Previously, Benson and Stabler had only embraced it three times. Stabler pulled Benson in for their first hug in Season Nine’s “Paternity,” after Benson helped save his pregnant wife’s life following a car accident and safely delivered the Stablers’ fifth child.
The two literally ran into each other’s arms in Season 12’s “Pursuit” when Stabler returned from out of town to comfort Benson after their ADA died in her arms.
“I’m really glad you’re back,” Benson said to Stabler.
“I should’ve come back sooner,” he responded.
Until the Jan. 26 episode, the last hug between the partners took place after Kathy died, when Stabler pulled Benson into his arms in the hospital hallway and nuzzled into her while crying.
In episodes of both “SVU” and “Organized Crime” leading up to “Blood Out,” Benson and Stabler had discussed their feelings about each other with other people.
In the Nov. 17 “Organized Crime” episode, “Whipping Post,” Stabler drunkenly confessed he was in love with a woman to an old friend.
A few weeks later in the “SVU” fall finale, “And a Trauma in a Pear Tree,” Benson told longtime friend Detective Amanda Rollins (Kelli Giddish) while the two sipped boxed wine she felt like Stabler was her “home” but she wasn’t “over” him leaving her.
She also said she felt she “didn’t have a right or a claim.”
“He’s somebody else’s husband,” she added. “I know this sounds crazy, but sometimes I think it would almost be easier. …” she said, before Rollins added it Stabler’s wife had not died.
“She was the boundary,” Rollins added.
“With her gone it’s like there’s nothing but possibility, which is paralyzing,” Benson agreed.
This article was originally published on TODAY.com