"Dann said, 'I don't like parties. I don't want a party,'" Leight tells TVGuide.com with a laugh. "But he does have a nice 'farewell to the troops' moment in this episode."
On Wednesday's episode (9/8c, NBC), Capt. Cragen will retire from the force after 15 seasons of SVU and three seasons on the original flagship series — all of which makes him the longest-running character in Law & Order history. "We set this thing in motion where, for the first time ever, he had a hint of a social life," Leight said in reference to the recent introduction of Cragen's former girlfriend, played by Mel Harris. "There have been hints that it's coming. He's been playing a captain who's beginning to see the finish line all season long. His departure is somewhat arced, and he does get to take a curtain call at the end of the episode, both of which I think he deserved."
Cragen is the second member of the squad to retire from the force in one season, following Sgt. John Munch's (Richard Belzer) festive farewell in October. "Dick [Wolf] wanted to be sure that we spaced their departures apart so they didn't go one immediately after the other," Leight says. "There was another way of going, which was to spread Florek's episodes out over the season. My feeling was both of these guys deserve a good curtain call, and if they were going to end up leaving, the last episodes of the season always have cliff-hangers and other distractions, and who knows if it's the end of the series. I don't want their departures to get lost in whatever happens at the end of the season."
The exits of longtime Law & Order characters are usually given far less pomp and circumstance. However, Leight was determined to do things differently, especially after fans had to grapple with the abrupt departure of star Christopher Meloni. "I wanted to have a little more emotional continuity than the series has had," Leight says. "Clearly, the Meloni exit was not handled expertly by Chris or NBC or Dick."
Meloni's sudden decision not to return was a big part of why the Munch and Cragen characters stuck around past the point when they hit the NYPD's mandatory retirement age. Leight says the farewells have been emotional both on-screen and off for the tight-knit cast and crew, especially in the post-Meloni era.
"Mariska [Hargitay]'s acting partner was gone as well as her character's partner, and she looked to Dann for some stability and guidance," Leight says. "He was very much mentoring her during that transition and Richard was very quick to mentor Kelli [Giddish] and Danny [Pino] when they came in. You can see what was happening with our actors is sort of what will be happening in this winter run for our characters. Those guys stepped up in real life and we wrote to it, and now when we remove those characters and those actors from our set, what does that do to everyone else?
That question will be a tough one to answer, especially when Amaro gets into hot water in Wednesday's episode. "In some ways, he's leaving at a horrible time for the squad," Leight says. "Olivia's now dealing with her PTSD from the trial, so she's pretty raw. Amaro has just shot a 14-year-old and becomes a target of the new mayor administration. ... He's falling apart. Rollins we all know has slipped, and then the captain leaves. It's horrible timing. Therefore, I think its good dramatic timing"
So who will lead the squad during this rough period? "Olivia will be stepping up. She's the highest ranking officer in that squad when Cragen leaves, so there's a transition for her from player to player-coach, or at least interim player-coach," Leight says. "Is there someone stepping in or is she going to be handed the reigns?"
Leight says that question will be answered within the same episode as Cragen's exit. "Is she ready? I think she is," Leight says. "Does she think she is? How will the squad react to it if it happens, even temporarily? It is very tough if you've been someone's partner, to suddenly be their boss. ... But sometimes, what you think is the last thing you need is something of a blessing."
But the possible promotion has been a somewhat a long time coming for Olivia. Shortly before Leight joined the drama for Season 13 and before Meloni decided not to return to SVU, reports surfaced that Olivia would be promoted to a supervisor position and that a new female detective would be brought in. "When I came in, I wasn't sure if that was a good idea," Leight admits. "I think her character is ready now. "It will be very hard for her to take orders from somebody when she's been here 15 years and knows 15 times as much as they possibly can about what SVU is."
However, if Olivia is promoted, that will also present its own unique challenges. "The social order of her work life will be changing, but I don't think she's ever going to be a behind the desk all the time," Leight says. "There are some people who are real hands-on, and I think as she gets more responsibility in the squad room. She's not the kind of character who will delegate well. She's going to want to stay involved and keep her hands on and go into the field."
Law & Order: SVU airs Wednesdays at 9/8c on NBC. Do you want Olivia to get promoted?