'Law & Order: SVU' Boss Breaks Down Benson's Work Crisis: "It's Her Worst Nightmare"

Showrunner Warren Leight tells THR where Benson is being transferred to and opens up about Barba's "jealousy" about her relationship with Tucker.
Courtesy of Michael Parmalee/NBC

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Wednesday's episode of Law & Order: SVU, "Manhattan Transfer."]

When the writers at Law & Order: SVU first decided to have longtime leader Olivia Benson transferred out of her unit, star and producer Mariska Hargitay got about as much notice as her onscreen alter ego.

"We just handed her the script and said, 'Brace yourself,'" showrunner Warren Leight tells The Hollywood Reporter with a laugh.

Although the special victims unit without Benson seems unthinkable, it became a reality Wednesday when the long-serving cop learned she had been transferred out of her unit of more than 17 years.

Benson's professional exodus largely had to do with her personal ties to Internal Affairs Bureau officer Tucker (Robert John Burke). While investigating a sex ring of underage Catholic school girls discovered to be working at a party flooded with public officials (judges, cops, district attorneys, assemblymen and councilmen), Tucker's name continued to come up as being part of the ring.

Barba (Raul Esparza) told Benson about the allegations, and when she came to Tucker's defense, it didn't take long for Barba to deduce her romantic involvement with the accused. "It's really interesting to see because you can tell Barba is furious at her professionally, but there's a little bit of jealousy too," Leight says. "I don't know that that's a couple that's meant to be, but even if you're not sure that you think you should be with someone, you can be jealous about them being with someone else. It's just really interesting watching Barba, who is the first one to find out what's going on."

She then returns to her office and announces that Sgt. Dodds (Andy Karl) is the squad's new acting commander — news not so warmly received by Rollins (Kelli Giddish) in particular.

"They're just completely in shock. It's a pure 'what the f—' moment for Rollins and Carisi," Leight says, pointing especially to Rollins' distrust of her new boss. "She has a hard time with male authority figures for well-substantiated reasons going back to her time in Atlanta, so she doesn’t like the old boy network … and she sees Dodds as a product of that network."

So where does the shocking transfer put Benson? "We'll see in episode 18, she moves into a little cubicle desk in community affairs. There's a woman saying, 'Oh my God, we're all so excited to have you here. We can't wait. We're going to learn so much from you.' She's starstruck," Leight says. "There are all these 'Policemen are your friend' posters hanging on the wall. It appears to be [Benson's] worst nightmare. It's a little bit of a hat tip to Brooklyn Nine-Nine."

(That show's Capt. Holt, played by SVU recurring guest Andre Braugher, was temporarily transferred to the public relations department at the beginning of this season.)

As for Carisi, Leight praises Peter Scanavino's work in the concluding hour of the two-parter. "That's when our sights are more set on who at the Catholic church is protecting these guys, and Carisi has faith when some others might not," Leight says. "It's really interesting to watch his character grow and watch him develop as a detective."

But it's not just Olivia who gets the boot. Tucker is also asked — or should we say forced? — to step down from his post. "He's out of his job, she's out of her's and the ring is doing a lot of damage. And they're not in a position of power to do anything about it," Leight says. "They are completely disempowered, so that's what they're dealing with."

What does this mean for the couple going forward? The stakes that come with such an entanglement is not lost on Benson. "That's one more person you care about, and that makes you that much more vulnerable," Leight notes. "It’s the question of, do you embrace life or do you cut yourself off? If you don’t risk having people in your life, then you don't risk losing them."

It's the very dilemma Olivia recently faced when she was taken hostage as part of a home invasion. "That hostage crisis played very differently. It's the first thing the psychotic Joe Utley character says, 'Oh good, you have a kid, so you have something to live for,'" Leight says. "The stakes are higher when you're not a lone wolf eating takeout in the apartment at 11 at night."

Law & Order: SVU returns Wednesday, March 23 at 9 p.m. on NBC.