'Law & Order: SVU' Boss Says Fans "Absolutely Misinterpreted" Benson's Stabler Remarks

EP Warren Leight talks to THR about the decision behind series regular Danny Pino's departure.
Michael Parmelee/NBC

[Warning: Spoilers ahead for the Law & Order: Special Victims Unit season 16 finale, "Surrender Noah."]

Law & Order: SVU said goodbye to a series regular on Wednesday's season 16 finale, but it was a conversation about a long-gone member of the unit that really got viewers talking. 

In the final moments of the finale, an injured Amaro (Danny Pino) informed Benson (Mariska Hargitay) of his intention to retire from the NYPD and move closer to his family. "I know I wasn't what your old partner was for you," he said.

"No, you weren't. I grew more in my last four years with you than I did in the 12 years I was with him," Benson told him. "You know, that relationship, whatever it was, didn't allow for anything else. But with you, your support, I have a family."

Although it was a sweet farewell for the two, their exchange not received warmly by fans of Benson's former partner, Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni), who left the unit suddenly after season 11. "There was obviously a lack of resolution with Elliot's departure, so every time it comes up, it kind of pulls that scab off," showrunner Warren Leight tells The Hollywood Reporter. "There's nothing you can do or say or write about Elliot that will appease the people who don't understand why his character left."

Leight spoke with THR about the decision behind Amaro's exit, why Amaro didn't die and how fans "absolutely misinterpreted" those remarks.

How and when did you come to the decision for this departure?

It's tricky. It was almost in the wind a year ago. Danny did four years here and seven before this on Cold Case. That's 11 years straight [years] of procedurals, and he lives in LA and has a home there so there was some question about whether he was going to stay last year. Then as the season went on, it became something of a questioning process and then [a] decision of: Where can this character go? Because we've put his character through the ringer and in some ways, he probably went through more changes in four years than the entire cast of Mad Men did in eight years.

I tried to be very careful about making sure when Cragen left and Munch left that there was a sense of closure, so that fans weren't left in the lurch, and Danny felt the same way. We weren't even sure until the last four or five episodes of the season that that's where we were going to go. These things are hard. No one likes separation. In his first episode, he almost put his life on the line to rescue Rollins when he thought she was in trouble. He has that gear that if a woman is in jeopardy, he will fly in front of a bullet to try and save her. That's something that's been in his DNA from early on. I wanted him to go out in character, doing something heroic, and I didn’t want him to die. For a number of reasons, I didn't think that was necessary.

You said you put Amaro through a lot during the last four years and you touched on that in this season finale. Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently with the character?

I haven’t done that yet. Off the top of my head, what has changed in the last four years — and I think this is a good change in our society — is that there is less and less tolerance for police abuse of power. I know it's a TV trope, "We'll stop at nothing to get this guy," but in truth, we're all getting very tired of these headlines of what happens when cops go rogue or when people are hurt needlessly. Week after week, there's another Freddie Gray case or another Ferguson. They keep happening. Amaro's instances of overreaction — his intentions were always good. He's a good cop, but he did overreact and so what happened to Amaro was that the climate of tolerance for that sort of behavior has changed. … Sometimes the wrong guy gets made an example of, but it's important at this point that the police departments start making examples out of people. We always try to feather in reality as much as we can into the show. And Danny understood and embraced it. If you look back at the last five episodes, this had been in the works, with his son moving out West, and he played each of those scenes beautifully, without giving away where it was going. Even in the last episode, when things are turning against him, he wants to get the promotion and become sergeant because his character is in denial about where things are going, which I think is also right for Amaro. He tends not to understand when the deck is stacked against him. It made sense from a story point of view. From a personal point of view, it's hard on all of us because he's one of the best guys you'll ever work with.

One of the big moments was the last scene that Benson and Amaro had, when she was talking about Stabler. It got a lot of fan reaction online after the episode. What was your intention with that exchange?

I think some of these fans are always going to misinterpret everything as casting shade on Stabler and that's what they've done here. She was talking about how her relationship with Stabler didn't allow for other things. That's not casting shade on Stabler. That's a statement of fact about the first 12 years. There are some fans who have still not gotten over the fact that Elliot left, so I think unfortunately they will look for any excuse to feel offended. I believe they have absolutely misinterpreted that scene. It is a statement that [says], "My relationship with Amaro allowed me to evolve." Also, the guy's telling her he's leaving her and he's saying, "I know I wasn't what Stabler was," so she's trying to make him feel valued in that moment.

Given that division among the fans, why did you think it was important to bring him up in the first place?

I thought it's on Amaro's mind because he's aware of the shadow of the partnership before his. He was feeling vulnerable and he went there. I always try to write from within the characters in a scene, not from, "I need a twist here" or "I need a turn here." It's what's on this guy's mind. He's telling her he's leaving and I think he has mixed feelings about leaving. He wishes it had ended differently with NYPD. There's some regret and some sense of not having done what he set out to do. So there's an element of nostalgia and maybe he's fishing a little bit and it's her job at that moment to shore him up. And, in fact, the Elliot relationship was its own almost hermetically sealed 12-year run. Since Elliot left, it is that thing of some doors close and other doors open for her. She's able to see — however important that relationship was — there was also an element of co-dependence to it, and she was not as co-dependent with Amaro and that allowed room for other parts of her life to come.

Do you see Danny coming back in the future?

So far, Cragen's come back and Munch has come back, and even Dean [Winters] came back. I try to leave that door open. I would like to be able to bring him back. At this point, it depends on where he is and what he's doing and what the story needs. That's one of the advantages of not killing a character that you like. On Criminal Intent after I left, they killed off Captain Ross and there have been a couple of times where I just wish I had him for an episode. And Jill Hennessy's character was killed off [on Law & Order], and there have been a couple of times where I wanted to bring her in. I'm not sure it's a great idea to kill off characters who have brought a lot to this show.

Law & Order: SVU returns in the fall on Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC. What did you think of Benson's comments?