[WARNING: The following contains spoilers from Wednesday's episode of Law & Order: SVU. Read at your own risk!]
Law & Order: SVU fans spent 12 seasons waiting for Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and Stabler (Christopher Meloni) to get together to no avail, but it took less than three for romance to ignite between two of the squad's other detectives.
"I had no idea until we walked into the read-through," Danny Pino tells TVGuide.com of the big reveal about Amaro and Rollins' affair. In the blink-and-you'll-miss-it scene, Rollins (Kelli Giddish) was watching a TV news interview with a high-profile child molestation suspect (played by Bradley Whitford) when Amaro suddenly emerged from her bathroom in nothing but a towel. In addition to eating "a few less cupcakes" in the days leading up to the revealing scene, Pino says he had to emotionally wrap his head around his character's unknown office romance.
"Warren Leight, our showrunner, said, 'There have been some slight changes to the script.' I had read the script prior to the read-through, so I wasn't quite sure as to what he was referring to," Pino recalls of the first read-through for Wednesday's episode. "A little bit of a rustle started in the room and I doubled back up the page. I started looking at the stage directions and saw that Rollins was not alone in her apartment. ... Needless to say I was caught by surprise."
As were fans. The move is not just shocking for the recently downsized SVU squad, but in the grand scheme of the entire Law & Order franchise. The flagship and its many spin-offs have normally steered clear of such romantic entanglements, either by keeping the characters in a perennial will-they-or-won't-they state, a la Benson and Stabler, or by only exposing it after the fact, like when Jack McCoy's affair with Claire Kincaid came to light following her death. "I think we all know it's Season 15 of Law & Order: SVU and there's no reason to go small," Pino says. "I'm incredibly proud to be a part of a show that is not resting on its own legacy. It's a show that is, I feel, finding a new voice."
Although it's a big step away from the Law & Order norm, the surprise plot twist is just the latest in a string of very serialized and very personal stories told by SVU this year. After Benson's battle with PTSD following her tango with William Lewis in the season premiere, Amaro shot and killed an unarmed teenager and Rollins almost lost her job, and her life, because of a crippling gambling addiction. "It's not even the same show that it was only three years ago," Pino says of SVU's evolution since he and Giddish joined in 2011. "People who watch the show are rewarded for really being able to track where a character's emotional state is from episode to episode. And yet, we don't sacrifice any of the law and the order of it all. I think the show is, creatively, in a fantastic place."
So what's next for Rollins and Amaro? Will anyone at work find out their secret? Pino teases all that and more below:
What did you think of that twist? Looking back did you see pieces of where it could have led to this?
Danny Pino: Absolutely, without question. I feel like the writers had been planting certain seeds throughout the season where it was more of an insinuation. This certainly solidified what these two characters had been going through. Both characters have been in search of companionship, in search of somebody or something that would make it feel like fulfillment of some sort. Certainly, Amaro losing his family and still [carrying a torch] for his wife, his difficulties at work, the obstacles that he's tried to overcome, and Rollins with her gambling addiction and her difficulties professionally — the two of them found each other both in need and so, to me, all of those dots do connect. Now, they didn't connect immediately while I was sitting there in the read-through. It was a very complicated, complex wave of realization, emotion, and embarrassment of not really knowing. I felt like most of the writers did know, so I was the one in the relationship and yet I didn't even know it. It was a highlight of the season certainly in terms of what went on in that read-through.
Will the viewers be able to figure out how long this has been going on or get more information about their relationship in the last two episodes of the season?
Pino: I think that there are breadcrumbs. Anyone who is interested will be able to pick up those breadcrumbs, but I think that is our writers' way of rewarding the fans who watch the show week in and week out and know what these characters have been going through, to give them some kind of a compass for what is happening behind the scenes.
There are potentially huge consequences for colleagues who sleep together. Will we see any of those consequences play out over the rest of the season? Will anyone in the squad find out?
Pino: I'll put it this way: It's not a regular run-of-the-mill, 9-to-5 job. It is a squad room full of inquisitive, instinctual detectives who have a nose for things being off. So what is happening behind the scenes may begin to pique certain characters' interests. But at the same time, you're dealing with a former undercover cop and a cop who's been undercover before in Amaro and Rollins, so they're pretty good at hiding as well. I think that is one of the things that I'm looking forward to in the coming episodes; to really find out whether it is ever revealed. I don't know whether it's ever revealed, but I do know that we have very smart detectives all around us. The smallest slip-up could blow the whole roof off of it.
Warren Leight has said that the season finale is a big episode for your character. What can you tease about what Amaro will be going through?
Pino: In the finale, Amaro stands to lose not only his family, but his career. And it could happen that quickly and that easily, and it's only his current friends and perhaps some very close friends from the past who he has to rely on to get him out of the situation.
So will Laura Benanti return for that episode?
Pino: Laura Benanti will be in the episode prior, in the penultimate episode.
It's been awhile since her character has been on the show. What can you say about Maria and Amaro's dynamic?
Pino: Amaro is hopeful. He's positive and he feels that he is going to be able to bring his family back under the same roof ultimately. He's resolved to make that happen. He's one of those people, and I feel like maybe a lot of us are, that when things are crumbling around you, all you want to do is restore where you find the most peace at all costs. That relationship with Maria and Zara, his daughter — they represent peace to him. ... Then again, he is not clear-eyed in his perception of what Maria's intentions are, which only leads to disappointment and for him to act out, which is what gets him in trouble in the finale.
It's been a big year for your character not only because of the family issues that he's been dealing with, but also because of the shooting. What kind of impact have these events had on Amaro?
Pino: Amaro, certainly from the beginning, is a cop who likes to dot his i's and cross his t's and do everything the right way. Shooting the unarmed teenager was a pivotal moment for him. It was an example of his not being able to control certain situations and his frustration in that. That has certainly caused a stress at work. It's driven his family away from him. He worked narcotics, and he was in the warrants bureau prior to coming to SVU. Narcotics, undercover, warrants — these are high-stress situations and he was able to maintain his family, and have some level of some happiness. It was only upon coming into SVU that things started to crumble around him personally. ... The things that he sees everyday and the conversations he has to have everyday with survivors, perpetrators, witnesses leave an indelible mark on him and I think that's what Maria sees which is why I think she wanted to leave and take their daughter with her.
Amaro feels like he can keep all these balls in the air and that first ball that fell was shooting this teenager and after that, he lost his focus. He's really his worst enemy and the more he tries to stay above water, the more he struggles, the more he's actually harming himself. In the finale, it's ultimately the relationships that he has around him, the friendships he has within the squad room that save him.
Do you think he'll ever be able to get closure over the shooting?
Pino: I don't know if you ever get closure. I read a lot about police officers who shot unarmed victims, unarmed subjects and some of the things that I read were just after the shooting and then I was able to find some articles that interviewed these police officers several years after an incident and it's just not something you get over. That's what I love about our show. The bad guy doesn't always get put in prison. The survivor doesn't always get the help that he or she needs or deserves. A police officer doesn't always reconcile with his demons. ... How do you get over shooting an unarmed 14-year-old boy? How do you sugarcoat that? And you don't. It's a tough road back, if you ever get back. I think it's just the new normal for him and he's experiencing that and he's trying to figure that out, just like we all are.
Law & Order: SVU airs Wednesdays at 9/8c on NBC. Watch the latest episode here.