Spoilers ahead for the fall finale of Law & Order: SVU Season 23, called “People Vs. Richard Wheatley.”
The big bad of Law & Order: Organized Crime’s first season went to trial on Law & Order: SVU, with Dylan McDermott back as Richard Wheatley. The case against Wheatley seemed about as solid as could be after the end of OC Season 1, but SVU brought a familiar face back to argue his case, and that may have been enough to ruin a longtime relationship of Benson’s. But is her friendship with Barba really done for good?
She had plenty of reasons to want Richard Wheatley behind bars due to what he did to her former partner and the Stabler family as a whole last season; with Season 23 starting with one of Wheatley’s people allegedly running her off the road and trying to kill her, it’s no surprise that she was anxious to see him convicted for Kathy’s death. And it’s definitely not a shocker that her discovery that Barba was defending him at trial caused some tension between them.
Barba seemed to be taking a fully objective view of the situation, with Wheatley as just another client who needed a defense attorney who could handle the pressure and deliver, but Benson didn’t have quite the same perspective. Even when he seemed ready to drop talk about the case and move on to chat about other subjects (namely: Stabler), she made it clear that his decision to defend Barba was deeply upsetting to her, and there’s no indication that she thought her feelings of betrayal would change after the trial ended.
So, was this the end of Benson and Barba’s friendship? On the one hand, their friendship as of mid-Season 23 isn’t quite what it used to be, due to the departure of Raúl Esparza as a series regular back in Season 19. That hasn’t stopped him from dropping in from time to time, ranging from a quick cameo to tackling a case of the week to now handling the defense of Richard Wheatley. Benson more or less came around to the idea of Barba sometimes defending the people that she and the NYPD are trying to put away, but Richard Wheatley is a whole other story.
Even though Barba has a much less prominent presence on SVU now compared to his run as a series regular, Benson isn’t exactly known for opening up and letting people in. Barba was an exception, and it makes sense that she feels this as a betrayal that cuts deeply. Considering that they don’t have to find a way to regularly work together for the sake of their jobs now, there’s really no reason why she should have to forgive him any time soon, if at all. The declaration of a mistrial probably won’t make her feel especially inclined to let it go.
It does seem that SVU is working on building up Benson’s relationship with another man: Stabler. Their dynamic has been strange ever since he returned and Organized Crime premiered, as they clearly still have strong feelings for each other but there’s the not-so-small issue of the ten years between his sudden departure and return. Plus, there are those pesky feelings that came up due to that letter (even though he didn’t write the whole thing). It’ll be sad if Barba defending Wheatley truly is the end of his and Benson’s friendship, but Benson certainly isn’t short on complicated relationships.
Unfortunately, fans will have to wait longer than usual for whatever SVU has in store next, as this was the fall finale. Barba turned down Wheatley’s proposal that Barba work for him in the long term, so it’s possible that fans won’t actually see him for a while. See what happens in the new year for Olivia Benson with the winter premiere on Thursday, January 6 at 9 p.m. ET, followed by Organized Crime at 10 p.m. ET on NBC.
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