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[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Wednesday’s season finale of Law & Order: SVU, “Heartfelt Passages.”]
For his final episode ever of Law & Order: SVU, outgoing showrunner Warren Leight did something he’s never done before: he killed off a member of the SVU squad.
“There’s been an emotional roller-coaster that’s gone on internally at this show these last few months,” Leight tells The Hollywood Reporter. “We wanted to mirror that a little bit in the finale.”
In the second of the two-part season 17 finale, Sgt. Mike Dodds (Andy Karl) was shot on his last day at SVU in the midst of a confrontation with a corrections officer (played by Brad Garrett) accused of sexual assaulting inmates.
“We tend to think of our guys almost being like superheroes in a way. There’s an invulnerability to them, and that’s not the reality of that job,” Leight says. “We just also wanted to give respect to the police officers who do risk their lives every day and whose families don’t know if they’re ever coming home. What is that loss like? What is that anxiety like for families of police officers?”
Dodds did his best to fight his way through the injury, but blood clots began forming in his brain and affecting his speech and other functions. He was eventually taken off life support, much to the devastation of Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and Dodds‘ father (and Benson’s boss), Deputy Chief William Dodds (Peter Gallagher).
“We were really exploring, with Dodds and his father, that very complicated father-son relationship where he’s trying so hard to be what his dad wants him to be. Is he going to live his own life? Or is he going to follow the path his father has helped clear for him?” Leight says. “He’s a heroic guy, a little bit hard for people to get to know at first, but in the end, he’s carried out on his shield.”
Behind the scenes, the end of Karl’s season-long tenure on the show comes because of a much more celebratory reason: the theater vet is headed to London to star in the Groundhog Day musical before it makes its Broadway debut. But it didn’t make saying goodbye any easier for Leight.
“It was very emotional to write; it was very emotional at the first read-through,” he recalls. “The scenes of him in the hospital with his dad are just heartbreaking.”
Although TV deaths have become the norm across television, Leight has opted against such fatalities during his five-year stint at the helm of SVU – as well as his years at sister series Law & Order: Criminal Intent. When Richard Belzer and Dann Florek exited, both of their characters retired. When Danny Pino left, his character stepped down from the NYPD to move to California and be closer to his daughter.
“I’m keenly aware that some fans felt a lack of closure in other departures on this show, so I tried very hard, whether it was Munch or Cragen or Amaro or now Dodds, to make sure that there’s a real understanding of his arc out the show,” Leight says. “I didn’t want a cliffhanger for the finale because it’s not fair to the departing showrunner to take everybody to a cliff and then let the new team mop it up.”
Leight remembers all too well being in a similar situation. He first came on board weeks before star Chris Meloni left abruptly after the season 12 finale had already aired, meaning it was up to Leight to figure out how to write out the beloved Stabler in his first episode.
“The first year was very hard. There was so much animosity and loss about Chris’ departure,” Leight says. “There were a lot of people on crew who really wanted to see things change, and then there were people who just wanted to do exactly what we had been doing.”
However, the departure of Meloni ultimately presented Leight and the rest of the writers, many of whom were also new, with a big opportunity when it came to Olivia.
“Her character, when I got there, was stuck in this sad apartment and was eating spaghetti out of the can over the sink. In a weird way, Elliot’s departure freed her up,” Leight says. “It’s not a diss on Chris or Elliot, but that character was in a long-term relationship that prevented her from having the kind of relationships she has since developed. In a way, realizing when he left that she was in many ways the most experienced detective and the most vital detective in that squad room empowered her.”
The same is true behind the scenes, where Hargitay has since stepped up to become a producer as well as a director, having already helmed four episodes and with two more on the docket for season 18.
“I’m very happy both of those things happened. I think the audience was ahead of us on that. They wanted that for her – to see Mariska get stronger and stronger – and her producing role and directing role is a great thing. Nobody hands you those opportunities in television,” Leight says. “Her character earned where her character’s life is now, and Mariska earned where she is now in terms of her role on the show.”
Leight admits it took some heated discussions to convince executive producer Dick Wolf that it was time to shake up Benson’s life, particularly when it came to the question of adoption. “It’s one of the conventions of Law and Order that the characters aren’t supposed to change. I think the problem is when a show runs as long as SVU has run, if the characters don’t change, it begins to look wrong on them,” he says. “Dick and I had many discussions about that and, in fact, still were having them for the finale.”
In the end, it seems like Leight won that last debate. His final episode wraps on a hopeful note, with Benson in the park with her son, Noah, and her boyfriend, Tucker (Robert John Burke). Tucker then turns to Olivia and asks her to go to Paris with him. “I didn’t want to end the season and my run on a funeral, so there’s a fifth act that’s a little bit of trying to come back from that,” Leight says. “[They’re] just still dealing with the loss and mourning it but realizing they’re lucky to be alive and to have each other. I just wanted to give that message at the end.”
Behind the scenes, fans have been worried about Leight’s exit since his overall deal with Sony Pictures Television was first announced in March 2015 – “this has been longer than Kobe [Bryant]’s farewell tour,” he jokes. However, the TV veteran isn’t one of them.
“I feel like I left the show in very decent hands and in pretty good shape,” he says. “That’s what I wanted to try to do this year.”
Season 18, which was picked up back in February, will welcome new showrunner Rick Eid (Law & Order) and will also see Leight’s longtime SVU writing partner and series executive producer Julie Martin take on a bigger role.
“New blood is good five years in. I’m not going to say, ‘Oh, the show needs me to hang around for 10 years.’ I don’t think that’s the healthiest thing in the world in terms of keeping things fresh. I thought it was better for me to go a year early than a year late,” Leight says. “I’m sure the writing team and the crew are tired of hearing me pontificate about the do’s and don’ts’s of the show. They’ve internalized everything that I can possibly leave them with. They’re ready.”
Leight is also keeping busy now that his duties at SVU are wrapped. In addition to throwing out the first pitch at Citi Field last week – a moment he calls “the most nerve-wracking thing in my five years at SVU” – he says he has one project he’s waiting to hear about at a “prominent streamer.”
“I like to exercise different muscles. I’d love to do something in some way with music. I’d love to do something with some political shape to it,” says the writer, who is also known for his work on HBO’s acclaimed therapy drama In Treatment and the FX boxing drama Lights Out. “Part of me would love to do comedy, which is what I started with.”
Leight’s only two caveats? He rules out any and all 22- (or 23-) episode procedurals and any shows that shoot outside of New York. “I know my streets, I know my actors, I know the crew here, I know the directors here,” he says. “[SVU] was not written in New York before I got here, so that’s the other thing I point to with pride: We really turned it into a Made in New York show.”
So will Leight continue watching SVU next season after his departure? “I think so. I didn’t watch Criminal Intent after I left – I plead guilty – and I watched just a few In Treatments after I left,” he says. “But this was five years and 117 episodes, so you draw very close to the cast in that time. I want to see where their lives go, and I also want to see my friends are doing.”
Law & Order: SVU returns in the fall for season 18.