“Law & Order: SVU”: The 10 best Stabler episodes

Law & Order: Special Victims Unit Christopher Meloni in Law & Order: Special Victims (NBC)

On the eve of yet another L&O spinoff, we pay tribute to the smoldering efficiency of Detective Stabler.

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The Law & Order: SVU and Law & Order: Organized Crime crossover event on April 1st  will mark not only the premiere of a new Law & Order spinoff, but also the return of one Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni). For the first 12 seasons of SVU Stabler and Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) were the SVU team, the perfect partners.

Stabler became as well known for his simmering-to-boiling rage as he was for his crime-solving prowess; punching suspects, shaking suspects, putting suspects into headlocks. Stabler got to carry any number of weighty character tropes upon his broad shoulders: the Angry Cop, the Catholic, the Family Man, each one getting its moment to shine as the weekly case decreed. Along for the ride was the extended Stabler family: wife Kathy (Isabel Gillies), eldest Maureen (Erin Broderick), whose conception led to Elliot and Kathy’s marriage, Kathleen (Allison Siko), twins Dickie (Jeffrey Scaperrotta) and Elizabeth (Patricia Cook), and Elliot Jr., whose conception the audience gets to see on screen in Season 8 (more on that later).

Is it hard to deal with crimes involving women and children when you’re a father? Is it hard on your wife when you’re the angriest man in New York City? Should someone absolutely not allow this man near any more suspects? For 12 years Elliot Stabler was on our screens to answer these questions and more while dealing with a collection of guest stars and plot twists. To prep for Stabler’s reappearance on Organized Crime, here’s a look at 10 pivotal Elliot Stabler episodes. 

“Slaves” (Season 1, Episode 22)

Yes, this is the one with Andrew McCarthy. “Slaves” belongs to a subset of Stabler episodes that, while not specifically built around his character, are important building blocks for what this character would become. “Slaves” has two primary narratives, the first being the titular case itself (a woman is murdered after reporting her niece missing, complete with a little “Stabler pretends to go along with the suspect” roleplay) and the second being that SVU has been picked as the lucky first group required to undergo bi-yearly psychiatric evaluations at work.

As such, we get little snippets of each team member’s session as the episode goes on, touching on John Munch’s (Richard Belzer) paranoia, Benson’s mommy Issues, Monique Jeffries’ (Michelle Hurd) adrenaline junkie habits (including having a one night stand with a former rape suspect), and Stabler’s desire to full-on murder pedophiles. At the end of the episode (also the first season finale), Captain Cragen (Dann Florek) is told that based on the sessions one of his detectives has got to go, and it’s clear the audience is meant to think it’s Stabler, the loosest of cannons. But no, it’s Jeffries. Sorry, Monique. 

“Resilience” (Season 4, Episode 10)

If there’s a case with a twisted father figure, then Stabler has to have a chance to scream at the adults involved and he does some of his best work in “Resilience.” 14-year old Jackie (Rachael Bella) attempts suicide in the subway and is found to have been previously tied up and assaulted. After a few false starts, it’s revealed that Jackie’s father, Tom (Titus Welliver), is an egomaniac who wants complete control over his family, and once both he and his wife were unable to have more biological children, he coerced Jackie into allowing him to artificially inseminate her.

Stabler gets to flex many a fatherly muscle in this episode. It’s Stabler’s interactions with Jackie’s little sister that first tip him off that something is wrong in that house, and when Jackie suffers a regressive breakdown, it’s only Expert Dad Elliot to whom she’ll speak. When he learns that Jackie’s mother knew what her husband was doing, he gets to let loose a glorious Stabler “You’re disgusting!” into her face as she sits in the interrogation room. And you know what? He’s not wrong. 

“Bound” (Season 5, Episode 24)

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “This is a Benson ep, not a Stabler!” But it’s the rare “Benson’s mother issues” episode that doesn’t revolve around said issues and only brings them up at the end. For the majority of its runtime “Bound” (aka “Jane Krakowski kills old ladies”) is a solid team effort on all sides. Munch and Fin (Ice-T) make wry observations at a suspect’s apartment; FBI psychiatrist George Huang (BD Wong) carries the entire investigation; ADA Casey Novak (Diane Novak) goes to get an exhumation order signed by a judge, only to walk in on Judge Poker Night!

It’s also an excellent portrait of “Stabler on the job,” something that a lot of episodes that focus on him somehow miss. He’s roughing up suspects for the crime of being sleazy, he’s doing some very low-key CPR, he’s wearing those tiny sunglasses that Wardrobe gave him for about 8 seasons.

Does Stabler imply that Huang is letting a murderer slide because he’s also a doctor? Of course he does. Does Stabler gleefully agree to pretend to strangle Huang in front of the whole gang? Of course he does. There’s even a signature Stabler and Benson Improv Hour where the partners decide to play “Sweet Cop/Misogynist Cop” for Krakowski’s benefit and enable her eleventh-hour confession. She falls for it despite their dynamic never having been like that for the entire rest of their interactions with her! Classic stuff. 

“Annihilated” (Season 8, Episode 20)

Christopher Meloni vs. Dylan Walsh in a battle for blue-eyed alpha male supremacy, “Annihilated” is a Peak Stabler episode. There’s a reference to his military background, he demonstrates breaking someone’s neck, he roughs up (and how) a suspect, Kathleen gives him lip. The hits! A young woman is found murdered two weeks before her wedding to an MIA fiance who, Benson and Stabler are told, was a CIA agent with many dangerous terrorist enemies. That’s soon revealed to be garbage, and the man was just a married dad from Staten Island whose wife has had about enough of their suburban life.

“Did you ever think that [your wife] might want more?” Walsh’s wife asks Stabler angrily. A stricken Stabler has clearly never thought this.

Shortly thereafter, the detectives discover the family murdered, though Walsh survives and puts it all on his wife; a traumatized Stabler goes to check in on his own estranged family (this is during Elliot and Kathy’s separation) and has a brief reunion with his wife. “We’re your family, not some booty call,” an annoyed Kathleen snaps at him afterward. At least you’ll get a little brother out of this in nine months, Kathleen. When it’s unsurprisingly revealed that Walsh murdered everyone and framed his wife, Stabler is the one they send in to interrogate, which is almost always a terrible idea, but especially in this case.  

“Swing” (Season 10, Episode 3)

“Swing” is the first in a double lineup of “Issues related to Stabler’s children” episodes, this one revolving around the second Stabler child (but number one troublemaker) Kathleen. After taking pills at a party, Kathleen breaks into a neighbor’s house to shower; said neighbors call the police, notifying Benson when they find Stabler’s card in Kathleen’s wallet. Stabler discovers that Kathleen has been on a consistent downward spiral of drugs, sex, and painting wildly on her dorm room walls, so it should be no surprise to anyone who has seen television before that Kathleen is soon diagnosed as having bipolar disorder.

Does Stabler take this news well or does he declare that his daughter isn’t “crazy” and storm out of her hospital room? Which do you think? Stabler goes to visit his mother Bernadette (Ellen Burstyn, who won a Primetime Emmy for this guest appearance) who, it’s quickly apparent, is also bipolar and refuses to acknowledge it. Kathleen is sent to jail since she refuses medical treatment, but after Benson pays a visit to Bernadette and convinces her to talk to Kathleen, Kathleen agrees to receive treatment and the charges are dropped.

“Swing”’s storyline is a culmination of years of Kathleen’s misadventures; it’s also a rare look at a Stabler who has no idea what to do and is terrified.

“Lunacy” (Season 10, Episode 4)

Not a great couple of weeks to be Elliot Stabler. First, he had to confront his daughter’s illness, now he has to learn a harsh lesson about the fallibility of heroes. A young woman, an astronaut who recently returned from the International Space Station, is found raped and murdered while in New York for a symposium. While investigating, Stabler and Benson run into Richard Finley (James Brolin), a former astronaut who was Stabler’s mentor while he was in the Marines, and also the namesake of Dickie, Stabler Child #3.

Finley is perhaps overly helpful (and hits non-stop on Olivia), providing SVU with numerous leads and even punching a fleeing suspect, just like his mentee. Everyone loves Richard until an offhand comment from Dickie Stabler causes Elliot to realize that Finley has been the killer all along, and, rather than just rough up a perp this time, Stabler has a full-blown wrestling match. And why did Finley do it? Because he wants to go to the Moon.

That’s an oversimplification, but really, it all comes down to the Moon in the end. “Is everything all right?” Benson asks Stabler as she arrives at Finley’s hotel to discover him in a police car. It’s not, but it’s going to take a while for Stabler to confront that. Oh, and Dickie realizes that Elliot and Kathy married while she was pregnant with Maureen, which apparently the Stabler parents had managed to keep a family secret until just then. 

“Wildlife” (Season 10, Episode 7)

Gibbon in a basketball? Gibbon in a basketball! “Wildlife” is possibly the perfect SVU episode and that’s a heavy burden to bear. A woman is found murdered, by a tiger, carrying a dead smuggled macaw to boot. When SVU learns that the victim was an animal smuggler to the stars, Stabler decides (on a whim) to go undercover as a dirty Customs official. No one likes this plan, not Fish and Wildlife (who are already working a case involving the smuggling ring), not Cragen, not Benson, and especially not Kathy, who almost leaves Elliot (again) when he vanishes undercover.

Benson has to pretend to be a sex worker Stabler hired! Guest star Big Boi is eaten by hyenas! Stabler eats tiger meat with Andrew Divoff! Stabler takes his shirt off! It’s all here, wrapped up with a heavy-handed message for Stabler about the dangers of losing his family to his work and Cragen being hugged by an ape. Why is an episode of a TV show about a sex crimes unit focusing on animal smuggling? Did I mention that hyenas eat Big Boi? Let’s not worry about it.

 

“Mask” (Season 12, Episode 13)

“Mask” is a dark (even for SVU) piece of business that manages to cram a rape, an elevator interrogation, Stabler undercover, sex addiction, Jeremy Irons, and one of the biggest eleventh-hour redemption cop-outs of all time into 55 minutes. A man in an alarming mask rapes Debbie Shields and brutally beats her girlfriend Ann; Ann’s estranged father, sex addiction psychiatrist Cap Jackson (Jeremy Irons), arrives soon thereafter and pretty obviously knows who the rapist is likely to be.

However, since the likely criminal is one of Cap’s patients, he’s not going to tell SVU a thing. Do you know who hates psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, and their ilk? One Detective Elliot Stabler, getting angrier when it’s revealed that Cap (1) thinks some rapists are acting upon an untreated sex addiction (which he considers a disease), and (2) Is himself a sex addict in recovery, one who may or may not have assaulted his daughter when she was a teenager (he doesn’t remember). Stabler goes undercover at Cap’s residential clinic, where he spends exactly no time blending in or hiding that he’s a cop at all and is easily made by another patient who “used to screw whole precincts”.

Eventually, the rapist is identified and Cap loses his practice, but don’t worry–turns out he didn’t assault Ann after all; he slept with her girlfriend. Oh, and the girlfriend was of legal age, so he’s off the hook there as well. Does Stabler learn any new empathy or compassion for those suffering from sex addiction? He does not, but he does snark at an early suspect that “no uterus, no say” in reproductive health, which is surprisingly progressive for him.

“Bang” (Season 12, Episode 22)

They really decided to put Stabler through the wringer in Season 12 so that no one would be surprised when he retired at the very end of it, which lends a certain poignancy to the otherwise almost run-of-the-mill (for SVU) events of “Bang.” This episode’s Stabler-related trauma comes in the form of an abandoned baby who turns out to be one of the many children of reproductive abuser Ken Turner (John Stamos).

Much like the upcoming “Smoked,” the episode ends with a minor character taking justice into their own hands, but not before we get plenty of Stabler angst in the form of “Stabler looks sadly at babies,” “Stabler is defensive about how many children he has,” “Stabler looks disgusted at the phrase ‘swollen with your child.'” It’s just one more step on Stabler’s swift path to “I can’t do this anymore.”

“Smoked” (Season 12, Episode 24)

Remember that wringer? Poor Stabler goes out with an actual literal bang in his final episode (so far!) on SVU. A rape survivor is shot and killed in front of her daughter just weeks before she was set to testify against her rapist. The team discovers that the rapist had hired a local ne’er-do-well (Michael Raymond-James) to intimidate the victim and he decided to up the action to murder, but before SVU can arrest him, he disappears. Turns out that he’s an ATF informant and his handler (Pedro Pascal) is none too keen to let SVU get their hands on him.

Eventually, things coalesce until the three men (the rapist, the murderer, and the ATF agent) are placed in a holding cell together, where the victim’s daughter storms in and shoots them all, forcing Stabler to shoot her as well. That’s the breaking point for Elliot, and he’s gone. At least he got to participate in one more unconvincing undercover job before he left. 

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