A decade later, and Hargitay's Det. Benson is still kicking butt and taking names as "SVU" enjoys its 22nd season on the air. Meanwhile, Meloni went off and did all kinds of different projects before coming back for a homecoming tinged with regret and tragedy.
Fans have been anticipating his return since NBC teased it in February, knowing full well that Stabler would not be returning to Benson's side, but rather headlining his own spinoff to the franchise that seems to multiply like a wet Gremlin.
But before he could head off to start his new life as the lead of "Organized Crime," Stabler returned to Benson's seedy world where he nearly died ... but perhaps paid an even more dear price.
It turns out that the footage of Stabler and Benson suddenly noticing each other across a crime scene is because when Benson arrived at the crime scene to kick off this week's "SVU," she immediately recognized the victim of a car bomb. It was Stabler's wife, Kathy.
Making matters worse for Stabler, the bomb was meant for him; he'd stepped out of his vehicle to make a call. And then, to compound guilt and suffering, Kathy did not ultimately survive the bombing, leaving Stabler alone and grieving.
So how did Stabler go from retired to back on the streets? It turns out he's been working in Rome as an official NYPD liaison (huh?) tackling sex trafficking and organized crime, thus the shifted focus of his own series.
To the show's credit, they stepped back from their usual case-of-the-week format to really delve into their former leads as they navigate incredibly tense and awkward waters together under more than trying circumstances.
It turns out Benson was slated to receive an award, and it was there that Stabler and his wife had intended to surprise her. Obviously, that didn't work out. But Benson got her chance to really pour her soul out to Stabler for how he abandoned her without the courtesy of a real goodbye, and then they didn't even talk for ten years!
Stabler revealed that it had been a pretty unorthodox journey back to the NYPD for him, including years in private security and even a "walkabout" for a few years. He'd only been back with the force about four years, but even that is no excuse for ghosting her all this time.
Fans hoping for a kinder and gentler Stabler after all these years -- and in the year 2021 -- definitely did not get that wish, as he was about ready to pound the suspect of his wife's bombing into paste within the first 15 minutes of the episode. There you are, Elliot!
And, of course, Stabler never returns to Rome. Instead, in the wake of his wife's death, he sets up stakes in NYC where he will continue his work against organized crime syndicates as part of a new elite task force within the NYPD -- and maybe help find and take down whoever was behind the bombing that took Kathy's life.
In other words, he's now within a stone's throw of Olivia Benson and certainly lined up to see their paths cross again, as there are plenty of times when organized crime and sex-related crimes overlap. They didn't end things on terrible terms, but neither did it seem they've fully worked through everything, based on a brief emotional exchange in the second hour and a letter he gives her which clear leaves her in her feelings.
After we shifted into hour two, and the premiere of "Organized Crime," Stabler's three children entered the story to attend their mother's funeral. We also got to see the establishment of that special task force, as well as Stabler's side mission of bringing down Kathy's killers.
His rough-and-tumble ways are already poised to get him into trouble, but his bullheaded stubbornness says he's going to forge ahead the best way he knows how.
While the bulk of this hour settled into the familiar L&O beats, the arrival of Benson in the closing hours means these two shows may be more connected than usual -- we're thinking more like all those "Chicago" crossovers. We're not mad about it, and neither are the fans.
Fans were loving seeing the two of them chewing up the scenery together -- definitely worth the price of admission! These were the clear highlights of the episodes and fans could not get enough.
Well, they were also weirdly into him rolling up his sleeves and getting nasty in that interrogation room, while also morning the loss of Kathy from the "L&O" family (and speculating if this might mean a Benson/Stabler endgame?).