Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Meet the new Stabler, same as the old Stabler—for now—on Law & Order: Organized Crime

Christopher Meloni stars as Detective Elliot Stabler in Law & Order: Organized Crime
Christopher Meloni as Detective Elliot Stabler in Law & Order: Organized Crime
Photo: Virginia Sherwood/NBC

Detective Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni) ended his time as part of NYPD’s Special Victims Unit because he opted not to “jump through all the hoops” the department would surely have put him through after his sixth fatal shooting on the job. That shooting took place in the season 12 finale, “Smoked,” when the daughter of a slain rape victim opened fire in the station house with a gun she’d “just gotten off the street” (the show’s inelegant way of addressing gun control). The girl, Jenna (Hayley McFarland), killed the man who raped her mother and inadvertently solicited her murder, as well as an innocent bystander, Sister Peg (Charlayne Woodard). As Jenna was about to shoot her mother’s murderer again, Elliot fired his weapon and killed her.

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Stabler’s departure came about because Meloni’s contract negotiations fell through, so the show’s writers could be forgiven for not really knowing how to handle it in the season 13 premiere, “Scorched Earth,” beyond acknowledging that the character probably wouldn’t have gone to counseling or followed any of the other steps to get back on the job. There was no sense in laying the groundwork for how Stabler might get back to good, let alone finally address the fact that he’s killed six people on the job, shot numerous others, and bent virtually all of the rules in his time at the NYPD if the character was just gone. Nearly 12 years later, Stabler may actually be on the verge of reckoning with his past as the lead of Law & Order: Organized Crime.

As is his wont, Wolf orchestrated a crossover event to introduce his latest L&O spin-off: The SVU episode, “Return Of The Prodigal Son,” is part backdoor pilot, part homecoming. But Stabler’s shared history with Detective Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) was likely as great a motivator for the crossover as Wolf’s penchant for a primetime network takeover. The two detectives were the heart of the series for much of its first 12 seasons, their chemistry unparalleled (although, if we’re just talking about who we can trust to get shit done without crossing a line, our money is on Munch and Tutuola). Wolf and Neal Baer, who was the showrunner for SVU seasons two to 12, made the most of Stabler and Benson’s will-they/won’t-they dynamic, putting the two in all kinds of flirty and/or compromising positions. They split the partners up on more than one occasion; even in the show’s world, Stabler and Benson regularly acknowledged that they might have been too close. So if you’re going to bring Stabler back, it only makes sense to do it on Benson’s turf.

Of course, Elliot struggles to respect those boundaries in “Return Of The Prodigal Son,” though he has a helluva reason for being less than patient: His wife Kathy (Isabel Gillies) was seriously injured in a car bombing. Director Juan José Campanella throws us right into the action, as Liv pulls over to check on the victim, not realizing that it’s her ex-partner’s wife. She struggles to catch her breath when Elliot calls for her. Liv’s concern is palpable, which is why you wouldn’t necessarily think she hadn’t been in touch with the Stablers at all over the last 10 years. But that’s indeed the case, as we’re told time after time throughout the episode. We’re also given a few details of what Elliot’s been up to for the last decade or so: He worked private security for a while before serving as the NYPD’s liaison in Rome. When he found out he had to testify in a trial against two Italian conmen who were busted for selling substandard N95 masks and PPE, he and Kathy decided to make a trip of it—including attending an award ceremony where Liv was to be honored.

As Stabler, Capt. Benson, and Fin Tutuola (Ice-T) work with the newest member of SVU, Katriona “Kat” Tamin (Jamie Gray Hyder), to find out who set off the bomb, it’s just like old times. Elliot loses his cool in the interrogation room, even after he promises, crosses-his-heart-and-hopes-to-die that he won’t. Olivia regrets letting him join the investigation, of course, but Deputy Chief Garland (Demore Barnes) still ends up taking SVU off the case. Garland says what we’re all thinking and criticizes Elliot’s record (though he admits he hasn’t had a chance to go through all the IAB files). Garland thinks Stabler is a relic of a less than ideal past. As for Elliot hanging on to his job despite all the bullshit? “It wouldn’t happen today.”

Mariska Hargitay as Olivia Benson and Christopher Meloni as Elliot Stabler
Mariska Hargitay and Christopher Meloni
Photo: Virginia Sherwood/NBC
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That’s one of the several occasions that “Return Of The Prodigal Son” and “Puglia,” the series premiere of Organized Crime, touch on what’s happened over the last 10-12 years. It’s naïve of Garland (and the show’s writers) to suggest that the “bad apples” have all been rooted out, or that they wouldn’t be allowed to spoil in 2021. Such sentiments ring especially hollow when you hear how casually ADA Carisi (Peter Scanavino) threatens Sacha Lenski, the car bombing suspect, or the way Fin suggests that they pull Lenski from Riker’s for, uh, “reasons.” Stabler was never the only one bending the rules. And, despite the attempts to acknowledge the push for police reform, SVU isn’t ready for that conversation—few of the people behind crime procedurals are.

That conversation does carry over somewhat into “Puglia,” as Elliot mourns Kathy and grapples with the knowledge that his work—which was more dangerous than he let on—caused her death. But he also doesn’t want to be judged for the six shootings or any other smudge on his record. As he yells at his new boss in the Intelligence Unit, Sgt. Ayanna Bell (Danielle Moné Truitt), he was a “damn good cop” in those days, and he’s an “even better one now.” It’s hard to say whether the episode’s writers, Wolf and series co-creators Ilene Chaiken and Matt Olmstead, actually believe that—the first half of the statement, anyway. Stabler’s return in Organized Crime was teased as a story that would see the veteran detective come to terms with the fact that the system has changed. Right now, that mostly means getting his head around a new hierarchy—Stabler’s boss is a young Black woman who thinks he’s ridiculous for claiming he’s a victim of profiling.

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Dylan McDermott as Richard Wheatley in Law & Order: Organized Crime
Dylan McDermott as Richard Wheatley
Photo: Will Hart/NBC

Just like Stabler’s getting accustomed to working with this team, Organized Crime is also trying out something new: more serialized storytelling. Stabler’s not just trying to figure out who murdered his wife, but as part of the IU, he’s also charged with helping bring down Richard Wheatley (Dylan “I’m not Dermot Mulroney” McDermott). Wheatley is likely the man who ordered the car bombing, though that’s not verbally confirmed in “Puglia.” But he is a man who, like Elliot, wants to be recognized for improving himself. Wheatley’s father is Manfredi Sinatra (Chazz Palminteri), a mobster who was recently paroled. Richard founded an online pharmacy, Contrapos, which serves as a front for his illegal narcotics trade. He’s embraced the new ways, so he’s embarrassed of his bigoted father. Later, when he finds out Sinatra was going to rat him out to Elliot—huh, I guess we do get confirmation on that—for Kathy’s murder, he’s incensed. Richard, who just a day or two before was picking out the right wine to pair for a “buttery cheese” with his sons, murders his father on the freakin’ Wonder Wheel. So maybe you can’t outrun the past.

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Not that Elliot’s trying to—though he’s embraced working with a hacker (Ainsley Seiger as Jet Sloomaekers), for the most part, he’s the old Stabler. He oversteps and promises “it won’t happen again.” Lather, rinse, repeat. But even if he’s not ready rethink his record, with characters like Sgt. Bell, Organized Crime seems to be inching toward a reappraisal. This crossover event gives Elliot plenty of reason to go on a rampage, but though he certainly pushes things at times, he’s not given carte blanche either. There is a whole season ahead, of course, one that seems to be setting up a longer game of cat-and-mouse than we’re used to seeing in the Law & Order universe. Anything can happen as Elliot tries to bring his wife’s killers to justice.

Speaking of possibilities, we have to talk—respectfully, of course—about what it means for Kathy to no longer be in the picture. Both “Return Of The Prodigal Son” and “Puglia” hint at Liv and Elliot’s intertwined pasts; on what turns out to be her deathbed, Kathy even says the two have “always been so in sync.” Olivia’s still nursing the hurt from Elliot’s abandonment, but she also clearly wants to reconnect. At the end of “Puglia,” she rushes to Elliot’s apartment building to tell him she read the letter he gave her. But given that Elliot just took Manfredi Sinatra’s phone off his dead body—though not before opening his eyelids to unlock the phone via face recognition (yikes)—it’s just not a good time to talk about “us.” It’s a move right out of a rom-com; call it an inconvenient proposal. The Law & Order writers know it, just as they know that a widower moving on gets more latitude than a divorced man (at least, that’s what The Unicorn was pushing early in its first season). Again, it’s still too early to know just where this is going, but given how much Wolf et al. love a crossover, it’d be surprising if the show didn’t toy with the idea further.

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Stray observations

  • R.I.P. Kathy Stabler, who had the patience of a saint. This is Gillies’ second Law & Order death. In 1998, she appeared in the flagship series as convicted killer Monica Johnson, the “Bad Girl” of that season eight episode who was executed by the state of New York.
  • When I spoke to Dick Wolf in 2018, he described his Chicago first-responders empire as the “ultimate serialization,” so I guess it makes sense that, for his first L&O spin-off in years, he’d want to test out longer arcs.
  • The plan is also to keep doing these crossover events, in addition to having SVU and OC back to back in the Thursday night lineup.
  • As a Bonehead, I enjoyed seeing Tamara Taylor as Angela Wheatley, who’s clearly got a bigger role to play in all of this.
  • In addition to the talks around police reform, Organized Crime is also working the pandemic into the overall story, including noting restrictions at hospitals and also making counterfeit PPE part of the ongoing investigation.
  • I know this is just a coincidence, but someone name-drops the Organized Crime unit in “Smoked.”
  • Thanks for reading! We’ll be dropping in on Organized Crime throughout the season.
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