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The Law & Order universe was all but turned upside back in April 2021 when Christopher Meloni finally reprised his role as Detective Elliot Stabler for the first time in almost exactly ten years. It was news to celebrate for fans missing him from Law & Order: SVU (and his dynamic with Mariska Hargitay's Olivia Benson), but there was also the considerable problem of Stabler ghosting Benson for a decade. Law & Order: Organized Crime launched as part of a two-parter with SVU, and the biggest question for Benson and Stabler was about the letter that he gave her. Now, knowing what I do about The Letter circa 2023, my OC pilot rewatch just made it way worse than I remembered.
With Organized Crime months away from returning for the fourth season, I revisited the very first episode of Meloni's solo show, and I'm not sure that I'm glad I did. It was a time when I didn't know the opening narration by heart, was still suspending my disbelief about Elliot Stabler spending ten years as an NYPD cop in Rome, getting used to the idea of a serialized Law & Order show, and completely protective of Olivia Benson... and okay, maybe that last one hasn't changed since 2021. So, join me on a blast to the past to the introduction of The Letter in the pilot and the eventual reveal.
The Introduction Of The Letter
Benson and Stabler got off to a rocky start in the SVU half of the crossover that brought Christopher Meloni back to launch Organized Crime, but she couldn't go too hard in holding her grudge when he was dealing with the death of his wife. After making a mess on SVU, he was a little bit calmer on OC, and had a moment with Benson that left plenty of longtime fans itching for more of their interactions.
In the pilot, called "What Happens in Puglia," they met on a snowy hill and bantered a little bit about Rome before Benson made it clear that she couldn't just slip back into their old relationship just because she was sharing some evidence with him. He then delivered the speech that led to almost six months of speculation from viewers. He said:
When I RSVPed for your ceremony, they asked me to say a few words, and you know me and public speaking. So I wrote this and I was gonna give it to you that evening. Probably a better way to say what I was just about to say, so…Just take it. Read it, don’t read it, throw it away. You know, whatever you decide, I understand.
Sounds legit, right? Stabler was never much of a public speaker on SVU, so that tracked, and Benson's reaction to his return made it very clear that it was probably best that he saved any heartfelt comments for when he wasn't blindsiding her. I was curious about it to no end, and this was back before it was built up so much that I started capitalizing "the letter" to The Letter!
It was also back when I thought we might find out what it said without too long of a wait, but the pilot made sure that it didn't happen in the first episode. Benson's attempt to talk to him about it came when he was on the verge of chasing down a lead, with this chat:
Benson: "I read your letter. I thought we’d talk about it."
Stabler: "I wanna talk. I just can’t right now. I gotta go."
For all that I am and have been Team Benson, I don't hold this or most of the other ways that he was a mess in the first several episodes of Organized Crime against him. Remember how he blurted out to Olivia that he loves her in Episode 4, right in front of all his children during his intervention? The man was struggling.
And he deserved to have his struggles early on with his wife's violent death. I didn't fault him for not finding time to talk about the letter with his former partner for a while. Besides, it's not like there would be any reason to be mad at him whenever they did finally have that conversation, right? He definitely wouldn't have misled her about it, right? Oh, how young and innocent I was in April 2021.
The Reveal Of The Letter
Law & Order: Organized Crime actually aired two episodes in the fateful night when Benson (and viewers) finally found out the truth about Stabler's message. Drugged as part of the case he was working for his unit, he made his way to Benson's apartment. Instead of listening to her as a captain of the NYPD attempting to follow protocol, he started to come clean about The Letter. As it turns out, he didn't even write most of it himself, but his late wife Kathy – who famously was not Olivia's biggest fan during her husband's SVU days – dictated.
So, it was Kathy who said that the former partners had gotten in the way of "each other being who and where we needed to be," and Kathy who wrote that Elliot hoped she'd find a man who is "kind, faithful, and devoted." Stabler, who was seriously out of it due to the drugs, could only admit to writing one portion of the letter, about what would be true "in a parallel universe" of him and Benson:
‘It will always be you and I.’ I wrote that. I slipped it in there before sealing the envelope.
Benson, because she is awesome and learned her lesson about dealing with Stabler's emotional baggage, just called Bell off-screen after he passed out so that his sergeant could take care of his mess before her son woke up. For all that I could have been mad about Kathy trying to come between her husband and Olivia after they'd been apart already for ten years, the reveal just made me sad for the late Kathy Stabler. After all, can even Stabler's biggest fans deny that he kind of did her dirty with his emotional affair with his partner? I love Elliot, but poor Kathy.
Why My Rewatch Made The Letter Worse
Honestly, I can easily believe that the Law & Order: Organized Crime writers hadn't decided what The Letter actually said when Stabler gave it to Benson in the pilot, seeming so very sincere and genuine. Christopher Meloni's performance suggested that his character 100% meant what he was saying and definitely wasn't hiding the fact that Kathy wrote the heartfelt letter. At the time, when I watched the pilot for the first time in April 2021, I was fine with Stabler expressing himself via letter and not prioritizing talking about it with Benson. The man had a lot on his plate.
And then came the Kathy reveal in September 2021 and canonically turned Stabler's seeming sincerity in the pilot into deceit about the fact that most of the words weren't even his. I just can't watch the scene the same way that I did the first time around, and I wish that I could.
That said, this wouldn't be the saga of Benson and Stabler if everything was easy and straightforward, and I'd always said that it would take time for them to get back to anything resembling their former dynamic. In the grand scheme of SVU and Organized Crime in light of how their respective latest seasons ended, I'm happy with how they took their time with building up that relationship again. If we're going to have highs, then we have to have lows... and The Letter was a low.
And I say that as somebody who has never been set on seeing them together romantically, and wasn't bothered when they didn't kiss despite all the hype during SVU Season 24. I just like watching Hargitay and Meloni together, and the characters have come such a long way since the exchange of The Letter that I can't be too upset about it... unless, of course, I've just rewatched the pilot and been reminded about what he did.
For now, I can just be happy with where they are in the present as of the end of SVU Season 24 and OC Season 3, and cross my fingers that SVU at least will be able to start production soon enough for new episodes before the end of 2023 TV schedule. That will depend on whether the WGA writers strike and SAG-AFTRA actors strike resolve in the foreseeable future. The most recent seasons of SVU and Organized Crime are both available streaming with a Peacock Premium subscription.