There's a reason why NBC's Law & Order: Special Victims Unit has lasted for 20 years, been nominated or awarded so many Emmy, Golden Globe and People's Choice Awards and is often cited as one of the most beloved fan favorite shows in history. Without question, Olivia Benson and Eliot Stabler are one of the top ten TV duos of all time. Taylor Swift even named her cat after the former. The supporting cast has also helped make each season a tour de force.
Choosing the best episodes of the series is a tough call, given the fact that there are so many exceptional examples of incredible drama and top notch acting, but there's no doubt about several specific examples standing out above the rest. These are their stories.
During the second season of Law & Order: SVU, an episode aired that was chillingly still relevant to this day. The ninth episode, "Pixies," was not only about the murder of a star gymnast but a series of abuses in the gymnastics community. It was a horror to watch and realize how vulnerable children are in the hands of their own caregivers or mentors, but it's even more horrific to recall that these same abuses continue to go on today.
The trial of former U.S. Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar is one of the worst examples of not only how these abuses happen, but how they continue to permeate our culture over time and do lasting damage to children and teens throughout their lives. Kate Mara also guest starred in the episode.
9 "Scorched Earth"
In 2012, actress and singer Anika Noni Rose was nominated for an NAACP Image Award for her work on an outstanding episode of SVU called "Scorched Earth." The 13th season premiere had big shoes to fill since Christopher Meloni had just left the show. As it often does, the series used a real case as inspiration for the episode--in this case, the Dominique Strauss-Kahn sexual assault case.
Like many episodes, this one pointed to the he-said-she-said nature of so many assault cases, but it also drew attention to what happens under laws of diplomatic immunity. It was also a harrowing episode for fans who had to watch Benson acknowledge Stabler's retirement from the force.
The fourth episode of the 11th season of the show, "Hammered" won the PRISM Award for Drama Series Episode. The highly-rated episode, which guest starred Scott Foley, not only dealt with the effects of alcohol in the case but in the life of ADA Sonya Paxton.
This episode brought out the best of the team, but it also highlighted how much human nature makes us all dangerous to ourselves or to one another. Even Stabler made rookie mistakes with a suspect in this episode, which paralleled the mistakes made by the alcoholics in the episode. SVU often strives to demonstrate human fallibility and the effects of substance abuse but this was one of the most deft examples in the show's history.
Season 15's ninth episode, "Undercover," is one of the most difficult episodes of SVU to watch since our beloved Olivia Benson nearly gets assaulted by a prison guard while she's undercover on assignment. She is beaten and helpless, locked with the C.O. in a basement until Detective Tutuola is able to get to her.
It's not just Hargitay's performance nor Olivia's horrible experience, which leads to PTSD, that made this episode so moving, but also the light it shone on how prevalent prison attacks are, especially those perpetrated by the guards on the inmates. Like many episodes, this one illustrates issues we continue to have to this day.
Nothing is as old as joking about cults and drinking the purple kool-aid, but when Law & Order: SVU tackles the issue, they do it with gravitas and horror to ensure it sticks with you until the end of your days, which will happen if you watch season six's episode, "Charisma." In it, Sons of Anarchy's Jeff Kober plays a terrifyingly realistic cult leader/con man named Abraham who takes out rich women's husbands, destroys most of the people in his cult and kidnaps a 12-year-old who is pregnant with his child... all so he can steal her trust fund.
It's a sickening episode about what monsters people can become, but it also features one of the tensest, most taut scenes on TV when the 12-year-old ends up having to defend herself against her abuser.
One of the most powerful things about SVU is its willingness to address modern issues that often don't get enough attention, from human trafficking to incel violence. In season 10's "Hothouse," Modern Family's Sarah Hyland is featured as a stressed-out student who offs her roommate. It's already disturbing because she's just a teen who still looks like a little girl, but it's also worrisome because it points a finger at the achiever culture in schools today.
While many parents claim they had it harder without the Internet to help with studies, today's students are pressured with advanced studies, competitive programs, and outside forces the Boomer generation couldn't even dream up, and this episode really helps illustrate the kind of anxiety that can result from this culture. It was also just a well-done episode with some twists and turns, one of which included Benson posing as a madam.
Many fans who've seen every episode cite season 10's "Zebras" as the most outrageous episode they've ever seen. Not only does it feature some interesting inside-the-squad drama when CSU Dale Stuckey makes a mistake, but it also turned out that he was a killer! Benson also locks lips with him in order to distract him and save Stabler's life, but only after slapping poor Elliot around to demonstrate she meant business.
This was an incredibly dramatic turn after watching Stuckey's transformation from fresh-faced CSU to sociopath, and his catchphrase, "Bing, bang, bong," took a whole new meaning. The episode also pointed out that people in law enforcement can easily become criminals. Noel Fisher guest starred as Stuckey.
Nothing is more chilling than a kid who takes out other kids, and that's exactly what season six's "Conscience" dealt with. When a 13-year-old is discovered to not only have murdered a five-year-old but to have abused multiple children at camp, he's diagnosed as a sociopath. In a huge twist of events, the five-year-old's grieving father, a psychologist who knows the boy will never feel remorse and may act on his urges again, steals a gun and takes the teen killer down in court.
It's one of B.D. Wong's most interesting cases as Dr. Huang, since he can tell that guest star Kyle MacLachlan is faking every symptom of a grief-stricken father and shot the child in cold blood to prevent further murders from happening. Indeed, after being acquitted in court, he confesses that is what happened.
One of the best things that SVU has done for our culture is to illustrate how boys and men are also victims of assault, and in the first season's 21st episode, "Nocturne," we witness how a piano teacher not only abuses his charges, but how at least one of his charges goes on to grow up to be an abuser himself.
Law & Order: SVU is great at helping us empathize with people in order to see how they became who they are and why they do what they do. Sometimes a monster is a monster, but sometimes it's an innocent kid who was warped by an awful person. That same kid, in this case, a guest role played by Wilson Jermaine Heredia, might have had an entirely different life had they not been abused.
It should come as no surprise that the best episode of all time is the Mariska Hargitay's Emmy Award-winning episode from season seven, "911." In it, Detective Benson has to race the clock to locate a little girl who has called 911 for help from a room in which she's trapped. Her location, of course, continues to change as Benson fights to save her before it's too late.
One of the most gut-wrenching pieces of television ever written, this one never gets old. It features Benson in all her butt-kicking glory as well as some of her most compassionate moments, and it's really just an example of what good TV looks like.