Danny Pino and Raul Esparza
This week, both Law & Order: SVU and Scandal will rip from the headlines of the Anthony Weiner firestorm. So is SVU showrunner Warren Leight worried about any possible — ahem — overexposure?
"No because we go first," Leight tells TVGuide.com with a laugh. "They're very different shows. This actually gave us a way to explore Barba and where he comes from and his relationship to his youth that he left far behind. So it was a springboard to a deeper story while allowing us to keep in all of our cheap jokes at the same time."
For better or for worse, Wednesday's episode (9/8c, NBC) hits very close to home for D.A. Barba (Raul Esparza) when his childhood best friends from the South Bronx, Eddie Garcia (Kirk Acevedo), and Alex Muñoz (Vincent Laresca), become involved in a case. "On the eve of Muñoz's election to become the first Hispanic mayor of New York, the scandal starts to break. He basically starts off by trying to get Eddie to help cover it up, and when Eddie gets in trouble, he goes to Barba to get Eddie off the hook," Leight says. "The question is how much pressure can Muñoz put on Barba as a result of their shared past."
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Although the trio was once known as the "three musketeers of Jerome Avenue," their lives have gone in very different directions since, which further complicates the conflict between Barba's personal and professional obligations. "Muñoz stayed in the neighborhood, and Barba went to Harvard and became a very well-dressed downtown D.A.," Leight says. "Muñoz tries to make Barba feel guilty for the choices he's made in his life."
Barba's personal connection to the high-profile case will quickly be exposed to the rest of the SVU squad, leaving the team just as divided about Barba as he is about what to do. "Olivia and Barba are very close and she tries to see his side of things," Leight says. "Amarro, who's always a little bit black and white in thinking about these things, is furious," Leight says. "They get pretty hot with each other because Amarro calls Barba out on what he perceives to be Barba taking care of his friends instead of following the trail of the crime. It's a pretty contentious episode."
Unfortunately, that bad blood between Barba and Amarro (Danny Pino) won't simmer down anytime soon. Tensions will be at a high in the squad room following the loss of one of their most beloved figures, Sgt. John Munch (Richard Belzer), who retired from the force last week. "We're going into a period where the squad room is a little bit on edge in general. Munch is leaving and he was sort of a mentor to a lot of people and was a calming presence," Leight says. "The squad room is beginning to feel a little disjointed and ragged."
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Making matters worse in the precinct are the rumors about the departure of Capt. Cragen (Dann Florek). "Cragen knows at some point in the season or by the end of the season he will have hit mandatory retirement so he'll have to figure out when that moment is. We're playing that anxiety that the Captain is leaving at some point," Leight says. "When you know that a regime change is coming, but you don't know what it might mean."
One thing it will mean is more responsibilities for Olivia (Mariska Hargitay), who was urged by Cragen at the end of last week's episode to take the sergeant's exam. "There may be times where she's called upon," Leight says. "The same way I've been using Munch in the last few years: When Cragen wasn't there, Munch was second in command and we may see some of that with her."
So does this mean Olivia might get bumped to Captain if or when the position opens up? Not so fast, Leight warns. "She can't be captain because she's never even been a sergeant or a lieutenant," he says. "In truth, that's like going from councilman to vice president. Usually there's something in between."
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Instead, someone completely new could come in to fill Cragen's spot. "It's a tricky transition," he says. "If someone does come in, what are the odds that an outsider is going to come in as captain and know more about sex crimes than these guys do? It's always annoying to take orders from somebody who doesn't know what they're doing and doesn't know the world as well as you do. Although, with that comes some fresh perspective."
However, Leight stresses that if or when Cragen leaves his post, he won't be gone for good. "We're not even saying for sure when or where he's going, but I think Cragen's character, when he goes, might still be there socially," Leight says. "Once he's done with this job as Captain, I think he's more the gone fishing kind of guy. But he's very close to Olivia. He's close in a mentoring capacity to Rollins, who's going to be going through some stuff pretty soon."
Although it may be hard for the show's devoted fan base to face the possibility of losing not one, but two longtime cast members, Leight is optimistic about the future. "I like the notion of shaking things up a little bit for our cast," he says. "You have to just try to reinvigorate in different ways and acknowledge the reality of where people are in their lives. I think it's awkward, but they're good guys who have had long runs with the show and kind of understand the why of it."
Law & Order: SVU airs Wednesdays at 9/8c on NBC. What do you think about Cragen's impending retirement? Are you excited to see Olivia take on a bigger role?