In the premiere episode of Law & Order SVU's 18th season, Detective Olivia Benson is watching her adopted son Noah toddle around the playground in Central Park. It's an idyllic scene — and, frankly, one that's a little out of character for Olivia, who is less likely to be found outside enjoying a sunny day than in the midst of some serious emotional turmoil back at the office. She looks happy — maybe even a little carefree — like any parent watching their beloved kiddo climb the jungle gym. But this is SVU, so it goes without saying that the breezy scene is short-lived. Moments later, Olivia gets a call about a kid who has been left alone at the park in a sandbox. She scoops Noah up and goes to investigate: When she finds the child, he looks innocent enough — but then he pulls a loaded gun out of his backpack. Olivia pushes Noah out of the potential line of fire and quickly swipes the weapon from the child's hand. But for a second there, I was panicked that things were about to take a dramatic, cruel turn. It's not an unfounded concern: SVU has put Olivia Benson through a lot over the nearly two decades she's been on air. Since the show premiered in 1999, she's dealt with more hard blows than possible to recount here, beginning with the fact that — as a product of rape (her mother was sexually assaulted by her father) — she is constantly reliving her past by engaging with special victims and sexual assailants. Her personal connection to the mission is what makes her a preternaturally good investigator. It's also a motivational knife in her side that's always with her, episode in and out.
Her personal connection to the mission is what makes her a preternaturally good investigator.
Then there's her personal life, which hasn't really found any sort of even keel until last season: For years, Olivia played the devoted work wife to Detective Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni, who abruptly walked away from SVU at the end of season 12), despite the fact that there was clearly something more between them. (There are volumes upon volumes of fanfic devoted to this, by the way. If you've always been left wanting a little more, I'm sure series creator Dick Wolf wouldn't mind if you indulged.) Apart from that, she's engaged in a string of mostly unsuccessful relationships, generally maintaining an "it's complicated" status, since, at the end of the day, her real commitment is to the job. Hearteningly, a lot of that shifted when Noah entered the picture. Olivia had to fight to become his mother, but she finally wound up with something she's been seeking since the first day she showed up on the small screen: a family. But while it's good to see a character we've grown so fond of over the years at long last achieve something that gives her true fulfillment, it also opens up another door: Detective Benson has more to lose than she ever has before. And so here we are: on the cusp of a new season, our heroine returning for another year — this time with a kid of her own, a stable romantic partner, and a rocky relationship with her boss that she'll have to surmount or sidestep. In the show, as in the real world, crime has been forever reshaped by the internet and the war on terror. While I would never advocate that a woman quit a job she loves if she doesn't want to simply because she's become a parent, I would be lying if I said I wasn't worried about what's next for Olivia. She's been tied to the whipping post on SVU for so long that I'm having a hard time envisioning a season during which — in even just a single aspect of her life — she's allowed to be happy and safe. I hope that the writers prove me wrong, and this character gets to enjoy this new phase of life. But if not, I truly hope that she'll decide to move on and maybe retire. There's only so much heartache any one person can take. Olivia Benson has already undergone far more than her fair share.