"At the time, we didn't know if the show was coming back. So part of me thought, 'I dare NBC to cancel this show with the last episode ending with a gun pointing at Olivia's head,'" Leight tells TVGuide.com.
Fortunately for the show's devoted fan base, NBC renewed the drama for Season 15 in May and also signed star Mariska Hargitay to a new deal. However, when the show returns on Wednesday at 9/8c, Benson's life-threatening ordeal is far from over. "She's never been in this much danger," Leight says. "It takes her to places physically that's she never had to go and it takes her to places emotionally that she's had never had to go."
The season premiere picks up immediately where the finale left off — with Olivia at the mercy of serial rapist William Lewis (Pablo Schreiber). "At various points, he's drugging her and he's pouring alcohol down her mouth. He's torturing her psychologically and physically," Leight says. "It takes her a long while to accept the fact that this is happening to her. She bargains with him, she gets angry with him. She has to really go through a lot."
Adding to the nightmare is the anguish her squad will be struggling with when they find out what's happened to her. "Our squad is frustrated and desperately trying to get to her," Leight says. "[Every actor on the show] really either wanted to be the one to save her or they wanted to do more. I said, 'That's the problem here; I want you to play the frustration you're feeling, the anger you're feeling for me.'"
However, there was no one challenged more on set than Hargitay. "I've been on shows where the lead actor is desperate to get out of there and makes everyone aware of that, and this is the exact opposite of that experience. I kind of wanted to reward her," Leight says of his leading lady. "So I thought, 'Alright, let's push her a little bit out of her comfort zone.'"
Indeed, Hargitay rose to the occasion. "There are scenes in this episode, when you look at them, I don't recognize her. I don't recognize her voice. I don't recognize her face," he says. "It's almost as if what her character goes through and what she had to go through as an actress changed her."
Although Olivia was nearly attacked and raped in Season 9 when she went undercover in a jail cell, Leight says it was important to go one step further this time around and really pull the trigger, figuratively speaking at least. "I don't think Olivia's character can ever be the same after this. And that's what we'll be playing for the rest of the season is watching her process this," he says. The road to recovery is a "path that she's watched 100 people go on over the last 15 years, so I think for an audience to see her on that path I think will be very moving and cathartic and engaging."
But can she help others if she can't even help herself? That will be a major question going forward. "There will be moments of frustration, there will be moments of people looking at each other and thinking she shouldn't be doing this job anymore," Leight says. In part two of the premiere, "she makes a couple of horrible mistakes early on, and [Captain Cragen] is sitting there and he's pulling for her, but there's a question as to whether this is too soon."
A big part of Olivia's recovery process will be her sessions with a therapist, played by CSI's Bill Irwin, who will appear in multiple episodes this season. "This is someone who would rather chop her arm off than go into a shrink's office normally. She's not overly introspective, she's not someone who likes to talk about her feelings, so a therapist has to overcome, with her, a huge amount of resistance," Leight says. "Initially, it's just to deal with the aftermath of this assault and then it goes into other places."
Although this kind of serialized story line may seem strange on a procedural like SVU, it's very familiar territory for Leight, who penned the therapy scenes for Det. Goren (Vincent D'Onofrio) on the last season of Law & Order: Criminal Intent."Usually in the Law & Order franchise history, an episode like this, if it happens, it happens and the then the next week it's back to work. I think what we're doing that's very different this year is we'll see how it affects her personal relationship with Cassidy, how it affects her ability as a detective, how it affects her squad room relationships. It will keep coming up," Leight says. "The episodes always stand alone, but there will be a lot of continuity in terms of this journey that she's on, and that's pretty different for us."
Adds Leight with a chuckle: "Don't tell Dick Wolf, OK?"
Law & Order: SVU's two-hour premiere airs Wednesday at 9/8c on NBC.