When last we saw SVU Detective Olivia Benson she was in her darkened apartment staring down the barrel of a gun held by “The Beast”, aka sadistic criminal William Lewis.
Wednesday night’s season opener picks up a days after May’s finale. All summer fans have worried about the fate of Benson, many speculating about what she may have to endure at the hands of Lewis.
Executive Producer Warren Leight spoke to me extensively about the season premiere and the continuing effect this storyline will have on Benson, as well as the rest of the squad, throughout the season.
Mere glimpses of what’s to come in the episode, entitled “Surrender Benson,” spawned a campaign on twitter to #SaveBenson , a phrase that has taken on a life of its own with show personnel and fans alike wearing shirts and creating artwork adorned with the phrase.
“I’m not sure if NBC started that or the fans started it but it really feels like an organic grass roots thing and we happily grabbed onto it,” says Leight. “If it were up to me I would have had ads with #SaveBenson everywhere. The fans are really doing it up with their own posters, shirts, everything and we love it.”
One of those ads was a banner that was flown over Giants stadium during a recent NFL game. “That banner was courtesy of an anonymous benefactor who took that upon himself,” explained Leight, and with a laugh he was quick to point out, “It wasn’t me, but I’m very grateful for it.”
He believes the reason for all of the excitement from viewers is quite clear. “In my mind Olivia is an icon and she means a lot to people and they’re worried about her. That’s a sign of how much a part of everyone’s life she’s become, and it feels like well–placed concern for this character.”
And, having seen the episode, I can assure everyone that the concern is as warranted as Leight says it is. Lewis and Benson engage in a battle that’s physical, psychological, and downright dirty.
“It’s disturbing and very viscerally charged,” explained Leight. “It’s hard to watch Olivia go through these things.”
The range of emotions that Olivia goes through in the course of this ordeal is expertly played by Mariska Hargitay. Now, one may think that having played this character for a decade and a half would mean that the Emmy Award-winning actress could just pull this out instinctively, but the amount of work that went into extracting all of the layers necessary to make this journey seem authentic is more than evident on screen.
“Mariska truly inhabited it,” revealed Leight. “She went inside the character in that situation and she was very brave to show the level of vulnerability that she does in those scenes.”
Pablo Schreiber is spot on as he portrays Lewis as a cold, calculating psychopath with the ability to act without empathy of any kind.
Leight knew that Schreiber was up to the task, saying “Because of the work he’d done in last season’s finale, he had this character under his finger. He came to set ready to go. And, I know Pablo well and I knew that he’s not only a brilliant actor but a very good guy as well. Mariska needed to feel safe doing those scenes and he made her ok with it. They were aware that they were doing something very loaded, but at the end of the day they could relate to each other as humans and that made it safer for them to go further into their characters.”
It’s not giving anything away to say that the two characters spend a great deal of time together, volleying highly charged exchanges back and forth. Leight, a Tony Award-winner for his, provides the dialogue that drives the story in a frighteningly satisfying manner. This could only be achieved by someone with his extensive experience in creating this sort of catalyst for two characters. His master of the craft is on full display here. “It’s all about that dance and the rhythm of those conversations and the rhythm between these two people in this extremely tense situation,” clarifies Leight.
But not needed everything is conveyed verbally by Benson and Lewis. He expresses many of his decisions with his body language while she works through her thoughts and actions with many silent expressions. Leight says, “You see a lot in her eyes at very key moments. You know what she’s thinking without her saying anything.”
While this exhausting exchange continues outside the precinct, back in the squad room, Benson’s worried coworkers hustle to track Lewis’ movements to find her. While shooting those scenes, the actors had no idea what was going on between Hargitay and Schrieber, but “Boy did the other actors bring it,” says Leight. “They knew they had to show a high level of intensity and they did. Then when they saw the footage of what Mariska and Pablo had done, they were like, ‘Oh my God.’”
Leight went on to say that he feels that this episode is very cinematic and that it goes by so quickly that it doesn’t feel like a typical 42 minute episode of the “Law & Order” franchise. “The stakes are extremely high, the story moves very rapidly, it’s a little tough to catch your breath when you’re watching this, and that’s just wanted we were striving for.”
In early September Leight was asked, via Twitter, if the premiere turn out as he expected. To this he answered, “It actually came out better. Everything went right.”
Encouraged to elaborate, he explained, “There’s so much work from so many people that goes into an episode. Sometime it’s a good script but you couldn’t get the actor that you wanted or there’s something not right in the directing or the editing or you don’t get the locations that you‘d hoped for or the weather doesn’t cooperate. This is that rare episode where everything broke right. I think the script was strong and it pushed Mariska and Pablo to go to places they haven’t gone as actors, but they loved being pushed there and they really, really went there. We were sitting on set watching them just going, ‘Wow, this is amazing.’ And, it wasn’t just that, it’s that everyone stepped past what I expected of anyone. Michael Smith’s direction and the editing, just everything, it all just kept falling into place and falling into place. I can’t really explain it, but something just clicked. Sometimes the first episode back after hiatus is rocky, but this one wasn’t in any way.”
This is why the powers that be behind the show are so eager for everyone to see the final product.
“In a funny way this flew under everyone’s radar for a very long time,” says Leight. “NBC has all the new shows that they’re launching and I think there was a sense of ‘yay, yay, whatever, the 15th season premiere of ‘SVU.’’ Why would anyone focus on the 15th season premiere of ‘SVU’? That’s why it sounds like I’m shouting when I’m on Twitter. I feel like this is an episode to which attention must be paid. Little by little, it’s been filtering up. Everyone at NBC has been buzzing about it. Word has gotten out. We pushed things and people appreciate it now.”
The struggle for attention waged by Leight has been a lengthy one and he admits that at this point, he’s ready to move through the premiere and get on with the season. “We’re sort of almost at the point where we just want it on. We’ve been hyping it and it’s worth the hype but now I really just want people to see it. We’ve been living with this for a long time. We shot the first part, the season finale, in early May and then we shot this episode in July so that’s a lot of time to be holding this in. We’re ready for it to be out there amongst the people. There’s so much of anticipation on our end that it’s a bit overwhelming, but in a very good way.”
Setting such a high bar in the premiere has caused a bit of trepidation for Leight. “Yes, I’m a little worried about keeping the momentum going because you can’t do something like this every week. You can’t have something this apocalyptic happen every week, but I do think that this definitely resets the show for the new season.”
Viewers will recall that season 13 was a year for transitions and season 14 explored the many secrets that lurked both in and out of the squad room. For season 15, Leight says that the focus is on recovery. “The notion that Olivia has spent 14 years counseling women who’ve gone though this and now she is one of those women changes everything. We’ll be watching her character going through the prism of this traumatic experience. Cases will push her in various, often unexpected, ways. The very next case that she’s dealing with involves three women held hostage in a basement for several years. Having just been held hostage herself, this is probably the last case you needs to deal with. Or, maybe it’s exactly what she needs. She doesn’t know, but she’ll find out. Watching her pull herself together, maybe lapse at some point, watching the others in the squad room and how they react to her, these are all things that will unfold episode by episode.“
Many fans are also uneasy about what this means for Benson’s relationship with her boyfriend Brian Cassidy. “How do she and Cassidy navigate the effects of this on their relationship – does it pull them together or push them apart? Can he be emotional present for her? Can she handle that? Again, this is so much of what real life victims go through that we didn’t want to shy away from any of it.”
Also, true to life will be Olivia’s ongoing work with a therapist. “That’s another aspect of all of this that we really wanted to show. None of this is going to be easy for her and we’re going to show it all,” declared Leight.
While tackling this character and series-altering episode has been a bit emotionally taxing for the cast and crew, it has had an unexpected side effect as well. “Right now I think everyone associated with the show is really in sync,” says Leight. “Things are very good. Yes, you want to keep it fresh for the audience and the network and all but it’s also just more fun to come to work when everyone is eager to see what the next script holds. We’re all a little hyper around here and there’s more bounce on the set. It’s a different vibe all of the sudden. And, out of everything that comes out of the premiere, that might be the best thing because it’s given everyone a sense of ‘wow, we really can do things that we hadn’t realized we could do.’”
“Law & Order: SVU” premieres Wednesday night at 9e/p.