Stabler and Liv, together again — but not on great terms. Christopher Meloni‘s character made his long-awaited return during on the Thursday, April 1, episode of Law & Order: SVU, making his first appearance since his 2011 exit from the show.
So, how did he come back? And what was the reunion with Mariska Hargitay‘s Olivia Benson like after 10 years? Well, it wasn’t all rainbows and puppies.
Spoiler alert: Stabler is not in a good place. He reunited with Benson only two minutes into the first hour of the crossover after she arrives at the scene of an accident and sees his wife, Kathy (played by Isabel Boyer Gillies) being taken away in the ambulance. “He tried to kill Kathy,” Stabler says after they come face to face.
It’s revealed that Stabler has been living in Italy as an NYPD liaison, making the situation even more complicated: Someone planted a bomb in the rental car that Kathy was getting into, and it seemed Stabler was a target. Immediately, Elliot acted as though he was leading the investigation — seeming to forget that Benson is now the captain. He later apologized, telling her, “It’s your house now.”
But he needed to apologize further — and he knew it. “Are you sorry for leaving or are you sorry for not giving me the courtesy of telling me?” Benson asked. “You walked away. That’s what you did. … Elliot, you were the most, single most important person in my life, and you just disappeared.”
His response was simple: “I was afraid if I heard your voice, I wouldn’t have been able to leave.”
At the end of the first half of the crossover, Kathy died following the cardiac arrest, and Elliot cried while embracing Benson.
Meloni, 59, last appeared on the show in the May 2011 season 12 finale. During the episode, a murder victim’s daughter shot and killed three people; in a move of self-defense, Stabler fired in her direction, and she ultimately died in his arms. Because he chose to exit the show over negotiations after season 12 wrapped, he never had a dramatic exit.
On the season 13 premiere, it’s revealed that Stabler went on administrative leave and when he was told to go under psychiatric evaluation, he refused and retired from the NYPD without telling Liv.
“How my character left was really unsatisfying, I think,” he told the New York Post in 2020. “How I left was a different issue and had nothing to do with the Law & Order people, the SVU people or with Emily Longeretta Dick Wolf.”
He added, “I left with zero animosity, but I did leave clearly and open-eyed in going forward and finding new adventures. I was like, ‘That’s what I want to do, keep moving forward.’ I had done the Law & Order way of storytelling, which they do really well, and I was interested in telling stories from a different angle — whether comedic or inhabiting a new world or doing it on different platforms.”
In 2016, showrunner Warren Leight also opened up about the abrupt exit, noting that they all know they “could have handled that better” in the long run.
“I think Chris, over time from what I hear, began to realize that the fans were owed a little more,” he told The Hollywood Reporter at the time. “None of the people in the room thought for a second, ‘How will the fans experience this?’ It was a negotiation handled without much empathy on any of the participant’s parts, and I think they all sort of know that now. And there wasn’t much empathy for the fans either. I think everyone probably learned, but you can’t roll the clock back.”
Law & Order: SVU airs on NBC Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET.