[Warning: The following contains spoilers for Thursday's episode of Law & Order: SVU and the series premiere of Law & Order: Organized Crime. Read at your own risk!]
The highly anticipated return of Christopher Meloni to the Law & Order family was promoted so heavily that it almost felt like we'd seen the episode before it aired. But in case you haven't heard, Meloni's Elliot Stabler is back with the NYPD. The embattled detective returned to the Special Victims Unit in a special Law & Order: SVU crossover event that led seamlessly into the premiere of new spin-off Law & Order: Organized Crime, which will see Stabler tracking down crime syndicates with ties to home and abroad. But first, Stabler had to reunite with his old partner, Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay), on SVU to ask for help.
Stabler and his wife, Kathy (Isabel Gillies), have returned to New York City from Italy, where Stabler has been serving as an international liaison for the NYPD, working on terrorism and organized crime cases. Stabler and Kathy were on their way to surprise his former partner at a ceremony where Benson was supposed to receive an award when Kathy was severely injured in a car bombing. Called to the scene on her way to the award ceremony, Benson is shocked to see Stabler, a ghost from her past, as she has not spoken to him since he left 10 years ago. Apparently, Benson does not embrace social media as much as the rest of us do. The ex-partners' first reunion is loaded with tension and emotion. As the rest of the crossover makes clear, these two still need to work out plenty of issues from the past decade.
As the investigation into the car bombing proceeds, Stabler pressures Olivia into letting him question a suspect. The interrogation, which nearly comes to blows, confirms what we already knew: Stabler has not changed at all in the past 10 years. He says he's a better detective now and claims he knows he can't get away with crossing the line anymore, but he still doesn't hesitate to threaten witnesses, suspects, or whoever else he needs to threaten to get the information he needs.
Meloni is in solid form and easily slips back into the Stabler persona, but that persona is the same as it's always been. The real question the show will have to answer is: Is that a good thing? Both Stabler and Benson admit that times have changed, but they also write off a lot of his former mistakes as signs of his passion, so it's not clear how much the new series will force him to evolve. Still, diehard SVU fans could likely set aside that question for the night to enjoy Hargitay and Meloni's dream-come-true reunion. And when Kathy Stabler took a turn for the worse and then died, the series pushed that question further to the side and embraced a time-honored trope as Stabler became the bereaved hero who is now seeking to avenge his wife's death.
The transition from SVU to Organized Crime was seamless, as the second hour established the new colleagues who, like Stabler's former colleagues, seem like they'll be spending a lot of time trying to tell him he can't get away with the stuff he used to get away with. Will that stop Stabler? Of course not! The first episode of Organized Crime threw a lot of ingredients into its big pot of crimes, including selling fake PPE materials, drug trafficking, and terrorism. All of those crimes seem to point back to mob boss Manfredi Sinatra (Chazz Palminteri) and his power-hungry son Richard Wheatley (Dylan McDermott).
Sinatra is an old-school racist who's not shy about making callous remarks about Richard's Black wife and ex-wife and calls Richard's biracial children awful names. To say this father and son have a strained relationship would be kind. By the end of the hour, it's clear that Kathy's death is somehow tied up in whatever business Richard has going on in Puglia, Italy. To protect his interests, Richard shoots his own father in the head on top of a ferris wheel.
Stabler, who's left trying to hold his own family together after Kathy's death, knows a thing or two about strained relationships. Declaring that Rome was Kathy's place, he makes the decision not to return to Italy and decides to stay in New York City, which upsets his son Eli. Even though Stabler is a bit of a problem child, he lands on a new Organized Crime task force, headed up by Ayanna Bell (Danielle Moné Truitt). In a clear effort to drag Stabler's alpha male into 2021, he will now be answering to a smart Black woman who knows the current system better than he does, which looks to be one of the more interesting aspects of the new show. Still, watching SVU and Organized Crime, the saying that came to mind was, "The more things change, the more they stay the same."
Law & Order: SVU airs Thursdays at 9/8c on NBC, followed by Law & Order: Organized Crime at 10/9c.