Time heals (almost) all wounds.
For Mariska Hargitay, the longtime leading lady of NBC’s Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, that phrase is especially apt.
As Hargitay and her costar Ice-T rewatched some of the show’s most pivotal moments to celebrate 25 seasons for EW’s latest digital cover, one scene still had tears falling freely down Hargitay’s face, even more than a decade later.
After season 12 of the series ended on a cliffhanger following a shootout between Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni) and a teenage girl in the squad room, Meloni didn’t return to the series for the 13th season, which meant
Olivia Benson was suddenly (and permanently) without her partner.
When Captain Don Cragen (Dann Florek) pulls Benson into his office to deliver the news that Stabler isn’t coming back, Hargitay’s face falls as she realizes precisely what moment in history she’s watching.
“I just remember that. I remember that. It was so hard because that happened,” she says of Meloni’s departure through tears. “It was sad. Just brings me back. It was a hard adjustment, because there was so much unknown.”
Ice-T is quick to echo his friend’s sentiment.
“We just didn’t know how the deck was going to get shuffled at that point,” he says. “Mariska is now out there, she has no partner, who’s going to be her partner?”
Though Meloni returned to the franchise in 2021 to lead his own spinoff show, Organized Crime, his initial departure in 2011 was spurred by failed contract negotiations, and it hit Hargitay the hardest.
“Working with somebody on such an intimate level for 12 years, we were just so close and we built this thing together. So it was going into uncharted territory,” she says. “I think everyone felt a loss of a cast member, but not like I did, because it was an intense relationship. And to go like that, to have it end with no warning… it sort of deteriorated very quickly.”
Still, as the show lost Meloni, it also gained two new cast members in Danny Pino as Det. Nick Amaro and Kelli Giddish as Det. Amanda Rollins. Hargitay calls their company a true “silver lining.”
“It gave us an opportunity for the show to turn into something else, and we got to reinvent ourselves. We’d done something for 12 years beautifully. And then all this newness came, and we got Kelli Giddish, which was such a gift, and we got Danny Pino,” she recalls. “And then off we were, the show was different. So for me, it was like I got to stay in the same place and I was on a new show.”
Both Hargitay and Ice-T joke that it “took a couple years” for the shaken-up show to find its groove, but eventually it did, and Ice-T knows just who to credit.
“We were losing one of our main characters. Will we survive? Can we morph into something that keeps the fans intrigued and watching? So there was doubt. But Mariska, for lack of a better word, manned up and took over the damn place. And now all of a sudden, now we got a captain,” he says.
His praise gets a sweet laugh from Hargitay, who agrees that as “one chapter closed, another one opened.”
“It was exciting to create something new, and to be open [so] that something could morph into something else,” she says. “And I’m just so glad that it did. I look back and think, everything that we were scared of worked out and then some.”