'Law & Order: SVU' Boss Defends "Loaded" Benson-Tucker Romance

LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT - Robert John Burke and Mariska Hargitay  - H 2016
Michael Parmelee/NBC

It's been the best of times for Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) recently, but it's also been the worst of times for some of her biggest fans.

After reports first surfaced in January about a new romance for the beleaguered Law & Order: SVU lieutenant, the object of her affection was revealed to be none other than Internal Affairs Bureau Sgt. Ed Tucker (Robert John Burke) in the final moments of last week's episode.

Although some were happy to see a man in Benson's life above the age of 5 – sorry, Noah – others vehemently objected to the pairing.

"I know the fans have very strong feelings about anything involving Olivia," showrunner Warren Leight tells The Hollywood Reporter. "But we knew Tucker would be loaded. I think for the first dozen years on this show, he was Javert from Les Miz – the relentless, evil prosecutor who couldn't see the good in anyone. The show had a tendency to be a little more black-and-white so he was a bad guy. A lot of what my now-ending reign has been about is about going for the grey and over time, I think Olivia had come to see him differently."

Fans can't be completely to blame. First introduced on the show in 2002, Tucker was frequently seen as a thorn in SVU's side. "I think some of the people hadn’t seen his character and his relationship to the squad evolving in the last five years. So they say, 'Well, he arrested Olivia.' Well, in that episode when he arrested Olivia, she was being framed perfectly," Leight says. "You could argue when he went after people in the squad room, whether it was Amaro or Stabler, it was usually in response to moments where they appeared to have abused their power or they appeared to have overreached. We perceive it as unjust because these guys are our heroes but he's doing his job."

It's the dedication to doing the right thing no matter what that he shares with Olivia. "They both take their jobs very seriously," Leight adds.

Although Leight is well aware it would have been easier to simply introduce an entirely new character to date Benson, he was inspired by previous Tucker appearances to take their relationship to a deeper level. Subsequently, Leight tried to lay "enough groundwork" to paint Tucker in a slightly more sympathetic light. "Every time these two are in a scene together, I lean in. I said, 'Let's use him more.' It evolved out of that," he says. "We just tried to show that this was a human being over time."

Then, at the beginning of the season, Leight and executive producer Julie Martin mentioned the idea to Hargitay. "She's always like, 'Wouldn't it be great if [Benson] could actually be in a relationship?'" he recalls. "I think she felt that they had pretty good chemistry too."

However, their coupling is about to hit a rough patch – and not just by the social media-friendly fan base. In Wednesday's episode, the first of what Leight calls an "intense" two-parter, their relationship will be "tested severely," he says. "Her relationship with Tucker complicates things enormously for her."

The episode centers on a group of girls being trafficked largely from a Catholic school in the Bronx who are being worked at a party where everyone in attendance is either a judge, a cop, a district attorney, an assemblyman or a councilman. The question quickly becomes, "who's running their ring, who's benefiting from this ring and who is going to do everything they can to make sure SVU doesn’t find out the truth," Leight says. "Its one of these episodes where you can't trust anybody, including, at a certain point, the question is raised: Can you trust Tucker?"

Leight teases a particularly tense fight between Tucker and Benson. "But it's an argument that you can only have with somebody you're involved with," he says. "It's very clear in episode 17 that this is an adult relationship."

Even worse, the squad is "in disarray," according to Leight, and "not ready for the battle." After all, Fin's absence, Dodds' pressure to transfer, Carisi's law school studies and Rollins' clash with Benson in the most recent episode.

"At one point, Peter Gallagher, Chief Dodds, says, 'This investigation [is] a career killer,'" Leight says. "There's more pressure on Benson and her career in these two episodes than we've seen since I got here [in 2011]."

Promos for the episode, particularly one image showing someone reaching for Benson's nameplate with boxes behind it, have elicited several theories online.

"She's not just doing a makeover of the office," Leight says with a laugh. "I want the audience to wonder what the hell is going to happen so they'll come back March 23."

Although plenty of questions will arise about Benson's future professionally and personally during the hour, Leight hopes the two-parter puts the "Tuckson" doubters to rest once and for all. He says, "I think it's hard to watch the scenes they have in these two episodes and say, 'I don’t see it.'"

Law & Order: SVU airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC.