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See How Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler Have Changed Since SVU Season 1

Look back at Mariska Hargitay and Christopher Meloni's two-decade Law & Order journey.

By Jessica White

While the courtroom chills and criminal thrills contribute to Law & Order: Special Victims Unit's sprawling primetime reign, it is the beloved relationship between Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni) that has hooked fans since 1999. 

How to Watch

Watch the Season 26 premiere of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit Thursday, October 3 at 9/8c on NBC.

Benson and Stabler, lovingly dubbed "Bensler" by fans, were partners for over a decade, with viewers adoring their complex, heart-felt friendship. They went through everything together for 12 years but then Stabler left New York (and Meloni took a step away from the series).

RELATED: The Complete Timeline of Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler's Relationship

To the delight of Bensler fans everywhere, Meloni reprised his role as Stabler with the 2021 premiere of Law & Order: Organized Crime. Benson and Stabler have been navigating a new chapter of their relationship ever since. 

Look back at Law & Order's mythic Benson and Stabler, who boast a 25-year friendship, an indestructible bond, and a will-they-won't-they chemistry that fans never tire of watching. 

Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler in SVU Season 1

Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler on Law And Order: SVU Episode 103

From the debut episode of SVU ("Payday"), Bensler's relationship dominated the spotlight as the two detectives expertly put NYC's most horrendous perps behind bars. 

“I have a million memories from the pilot, especially the immediate chemistry with Chris. We were filming in the Meatpacking District, and it was really hot and raining, so we all had to wear baseball caps,” Hargitay recalled to TV Insider in 2018. “I was going, ‘How lucky is this California girl to be shooting a television series in New York with this fantastic actor and fantastic crew!'”

Benson and Stabler in SVU Season 2

Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler on Law And Order: SVU Episode 214

The partners never fell into the good-cop-bad-cop stereotypes when closing cases, quickly becoming the SVU's hidden weapons. 

"From the second we met, bells went off," Hargitay told TV Insider in 2018. "We knew we were going to be a huge force in each other’s lives. He was intense and mercurial but also fun."

SVU Season 3 showcased Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler's uncanny connection

Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler on Law And Order: SVU Episode 302

Benson and Stabler's ability to know what the other is thinking was one of the best parts of watching their friendship form in the early seasons of the NBC nail-biter.

RELATED: 17 of Benson and Stabler's Most Dramatic Moments on SVU

When you got those two SVU detectives into an interrogation room, they were bound to succeed, usually by expertly volleying back and forth until the perp folded. 

Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler in SVU Season 4

Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler on Law And Order: SVU Episode 422

By Season 4 of SVU, Stabler and Benson had perfected the art of criminal-catching.

"[Law & Order creator] Dick Wolf is truly a visionary," Hargitay told Fox News Digital in 2023. "And I think that's a very singular thing to be a true visionary who understands our culture in a very deep way but also understands it's sort of ironic that a crime show would be actually calming in a way to our nervous system, knowing that somebody is out there taking care of it. That our voices are heard, and there are people that are on it. So that is it."

In Season 5 of SVU, Benson and Stabler continued to amaze

Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler on Law And Order: SVU Episode 509

Benson and Stabler continued to develop an unbreakable bond in Season 5 of SVU, which tackled some seriously twisted torn-from-the-headlines cases. The impact of the show's message is never lost on Hargitay, who respects the SVU writers' ability to weave topical subject matter into the series. 

"When the material is so good and layered and complex, you want to do it justice and elevate it if you can," Hargitay told USA Today in 2019. "Because of the subject matter, we all feel such a profound responsibility to do it right, and to do it with empathy and love and authenticity." 

Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler got closer in Season 6 of SVU

Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler on Law And Order: SVU Episode 616

Season 6 of SVU was a turning point for the partners after Benson started to open up about her childhood, often confiding in her partner, Stabler. As a child of rape, Benson felt doomed by her gene pool due to her alcoholic mother and an absent father. The typically tight-lipped Stabler was keen to remind Benson that she'd defied the odds, turning out great in the end. 

RELATED: Olivia Benson's Had So Many Legendary Hairstyles on Law & Order: SVU 

After that heartwrenching scene, the floodgates only opened for the SVU partners to get closer.

Mariska Hargitay won an Emmy for Season 7 of SVU and thanked Chris Meloni

Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler on Law And Order: SVU Episode 708

Hargitay scored an Emmy Award in 2006 for her performance in Season 7, Episode 3 ("911"), taking viewers on a whirlwind missing person case. It was a heart-pumping watch as Benson raced against the clock to save a young trafficking victim, with Hargitay's raw emotion establishing her as an Emmy winner and Law & Order legend.

As she accepted the honor, Hargitay gave a touching shout-out to her SVU co-star, commending Meloni for being someone "who makes everybody around him better, truly."

Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler's complicated relationship in SVU Season 8

Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler on Law And Order: SVU Episode 820

By Season 8 of SVU, it was clear that Benson and Stabler had gone beyond "coworkers." Seeing the horrors of their job built an intense friendship between the pair, with Benson and Stabler deemed "codependent" by their colleagues.

RELATED: The Sweetest Things Chris Meloni and Mariska Hargitay Have Said About Each Other  

Plus, Stabler and his wife, Kathy (Isabel Gillies), were going through a divorce at the time. Bensler fans wondered if that would lead Stabler and Benson to get together, but it wasn't so. Stabler and Kathy ended up getting back together by the end of the season. 

In SVU Season 9, Benson and Stabler's friendship shone through

Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler on Law And Order: SVU Episode 903

Season 9 of SVU featured some intense criminal cases and, at that point in the show's run, viewers were glued to the screen, entranced by Benson and Stabler's heroics.

Ir also featured the first-ever Bensler hug, as well as the unforgettable quote between the two partners after Stabler told Benson he would give her a kidney, to which she responded: "Not if I gave you mine first."

"[Benson and Stabler] was an instant, instantaneous connection that is inexplicable, that has only grown," Hargitay told TODAY in 2021. "There’s so much love and there’s so much trust and there’s so much ease and there’s so much chemistry. And the gift of it is that it has truly stood the test of time."

Stabler went shirtless with Benson in SVU Season 10

Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler on Law And Order: SVU Episode 1016

Season 10 of SVU featured many thrilling cases — one of which required Stabler to go undercover as an exotic animal smuggler in Season 10, Episode 7 ("Wildlife"). The episode remains a fan favorite thanks to the shirtless scene between Benson and Stabler.

"There was something about that exposure — a literal exposure — that made it very dynamic," Meloni reflected to TODAY in 2023. "I just remember that feeling, and I remember she and I — we were extra, I don’t know, vibrant or vivacious or whatever, and that was our expression of, ‘Oh, my God, this is really pushing these characters towards an uncomfortable place.' I remember it clearly."

RELATED: What Chris Meloni Remembers About *That* Shirtless SVU Scene With Mariska Hargitay

SVU Season 11 was filled with guest stars opposite Benson and Stabler 

Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler on Law And Order: SVU Episode 1114

Season 11 of SVU continued to see Benson and Stabler push the envelope as they cracked sinister criminal cases, adding to their impressive portfolio of arrests.

RELATED: 25 Celebrities Who Guest Starred On Law & Order: SVU

Aside from Benson and Stabler's beloved bond, fans enjoyed a rousing lineup of SVU guest stars, including Sarah Paulson, John Larroquette, Sharon Stone, and Kathy Griffin, to name a few. 

Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler split up in Season 12 of SVU

Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler on Law And Order: SVU Episode 1218

Season 12 of SVU was Benson and Stabler's final season together. After over a decade of interrogations, heart-to-hearts, and high-stakes investigations, Stabler left the SVU after the series finale to move to Italy, without even telling Benson. 

"In television, when somebody leaves, obviously there's a grieving period, but the fans never moved on," Hargitay told People in 2021. "And I think that is just so incredibly beautiful and so incredibly powerful."

Benson and Stabler's Emotional Reunion in SVU Season 22

Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler on Law And Order: SVU Episode 2216

Upon Stabler's exit, Benson established herself as the series' rockstar and climbed the ranks of the NYPD, eventually becoming the SVU Captain. Then, after years of fans crossing their fingers over the possibility, Meloni returned to the franchise as a guest star in SVU's Season 22, Episode 9 ("Return of the Prodigal Son") — which also established Law & Order: Organized Crime

RELATED: Mariska Hargitay Revealed Benson and Stabler's Friendship Song, and It's Perfect 

"[It was like] zero time had passed," Hargitay told ET in 2022 while chatting about her reunion with Meloni. "[We] didn’t miss a step, and it just felt so good. It felt like home."

Meloni wholeheartedly agreed upon his return to the Law & Order universe. "Whatever comes out of the duet is very unique. And so, that is refreshing and gives life to both of us," he said. 

Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler on Law & Order: Organized Crime Season 1

Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler on Law And Order OC Episode 108

After returning to New York in SVU, Meloni officially reprised his role as Stabler with the premiere of Law & Order: Organized Crime. In a March 2021 interview with TVLine, Meloni told a touching story of running into a fan on his first day back on set.

“She goes, ‘Oh, my God, oh, my God,’ and she starts hyperventilating. Tears start swelling and forming in her eyes,” Meloni recounted. “I’m like, ‘Hey, how you doing?’ She goes, ‘No, you don’t understand: You’re the reason I became a cop.’ That was my introduction back to the meaning and the power and the place that my character — and our characters — have held in the consciousness of many people. It was nice.”

In Season 23 of SVU, Benson and Stabler dealt with his trauma

Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler on Law And Order: SVU Episode 2320

Stabler's return to the franchise was laced with tragedy after the shocking murder of his wife. As Stabler tackled PTSD and survivor's guilt, Benson had his back the entire time. 

"These two people love each other, they have been family to each other but he just lost his wife, and no matter how she feels about him, the most important thing for him is to grieve his wife, heal from that," Hargitay told People in 2021. "And he's in a new job, and he's sort of unbalanced ... But what we do know is that Olivia loves him, will always love him, will always be there, and they have a bond like no other."

Benson and Stabler's Friendship in Law & Order: OC Season 2

Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler on Law And Order OC Episode 215

After Stabler settled into the OCCB, he began spending more and more time with his old partner. Earning her trust back, however, would be a difficult task because, despite some heartwarming moments, Benson had to processs his abandonment of her in Season 12. 

"Olivia Benson is hurt! I mean, he left me in a lurch for 10 years. She’s frightened,” Hargitay explained on The Drew Barrymore Show in 2022. “The energy’s there. Olivia’s been in love with him for many a year, and I think that we are slowly finding our way back to it, but I want to give him the amount of time he needs to grieve Kathy Stabler.”

"What I hope is that we find the space to move forward," Meloni told NBC Insider in 2023. "I don't know if we have, but I look forward to keep trying it. To keep challenging it. To keep trying to figure it out."

Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler's Romantic Chemistry in SVU Season 24

Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler on Law And Order: SVU Episode 2401

With Kathy out of the picture and Stabler slowing moving on from her death, Benson and Stabler's romantic chemistry became downright explosive in SVU Season 24.

RELATED: Where You Can Watch and Stream Law & Order: SVU

In  Episode 12 ("Blood Out"), Stabler attempted to kiss Benson for the first time, confirming that their relationship wasn't entirely platonic. Benson pulled away at the last moment — tugging at the heartstrings of Bensler fans everywhere as their sizzling will-they-won't-they continued. 

Benson and Stabler in Season 3 of Law & Order: OC

Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler on Law And Order OC Episode 322

Benson and Stabler's chemistry continued to heat up in Season 3 of OC after Stabler started to prove he wasn't going to abandon Benson again. And, Benson's SVU team up with Stabler's OCCB in the thrilling finale, packed with nostalgic moments between the former partners.

"[SVU] gave birth to Mariska and Meloni, and Benson and Stabler. We’re kind of inextricably linked and connected in that way. Beyond that, we’re very good friends. I think we value each other," Meloni told Entertainment Tonight in 2020 while chatting about working with Hargitay again. "We just pick it up right where we left off. ... We just kind of fall seamlessly into that place every time we see each other."

Watch Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Law & Order: Organized Crime on Thursdays on NBC and the next day on Peacock.