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23 Heart-Pounding Law & Order: SVU Episodes Fans Will Never Forget
With over 500 episodes under its holster, these SVU episodes are some of the best of the best.
Law & Order: Special Victims Unit isn't just a television show. At this point, it's a cultural phenomenon. NBC's hit drama series — following the group of detectives responsible for tackling NYC's sexual criminals — is never at a loss for action, with twists and turns in virtually every episode. From the complex characters to the suspense-driven plot lines, SVU has become an NBC classic, with 24 seasons (and more to come).
With such a long-running tenure, which Law & Order: SVU episodes are the best of the best? That's nearly impossible to answer, but these 23 episodes, below, still get fans' hearts going.
The best Law & Order SVU episodes
"Nocturne" (Season 1, Episode 21)
A great episode from the SVU's debut season is "Nocturne," when Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and Stabler (Christopher Meloni) take down a disgusting piano teacher who had been molesting his students for years. Not only that, but he has managed to coerce many of his victims into abusing children, as well. The episode is a cerebral rollercoaster and quintessential SVU.
"Risk" (Season 4, Episode 12)
Season 4's "Risk" brought the action after an infant overdosed on cocaine-laced baby food, leading the detectives to learn a major drug smuggling operation is being run by a corrupt cop. So what do Benson and Stabler decide to do? Go undercover, of course!
"Mother" (Season 5, Episode 3)
The SVU went toe to toe with doctor-patient confidentiality in Season 5's "Mother" when a psychiatrist named Greta is found brutally beaten. One of the psychiatrist's patients is likely responsible for the attack, but she refuses to disclose details about which of her clients is responsible.
"Loss" (Season 5, Episode 4)
In "Loss," an undercover agent for the DEA is raped and murdered, causing the SVU to get tied up in said agent's investigation. Loss" marks ADA Alex Cabot's (Stephanie March) last episode in the main SVU cast, and it was a tense curtain call, to say the least.
"Brotherhood" (Season 5, Episode 12)
The shady underbelly of fraternity hazing was highlighted in Season 5's "Brotherhood" when the squad investigates the murder of a fraternity pledge master. Once they realize the murder victim has a horrific history of assaulting pledges, the squad blows the cap off the fraternity's systemic abuse. This SVU episode is goosebumps guaranteed!
"Scavenger" (Season 6, Episode 4)
Time is not on the squad's side in Season 6's "Scavenger," in which a serial killer begins baiting the NYPD with details of his next attack. Benson and Stabler learn the suspect is a copycat of the "RDK" serial killer, which stands for "rape, dismember, kill." It takes Stabler locking the suspect in the closet for him to finally confess to his crimes, but by the end of the workday, it was another success for the SVU.
"Identity" (Season 6, Episode 12)
Season 6's "Identity" starts with the SVU being called to confront a gang member after he pushes a man off a roof. However, the investigation takes a turn once Benson and Stabler are led to a pair of fraternal twins who we find out are being abused by a manipulative sex therapist.
"911" (Season 7, Episode 3)
Benson receives a call from a frightened girl and learns she has been trapped alone in a room, a potential target for child pornography. SVU is then led on a wild chase for her location while Benson tries to keep the girl on the line to pinpoint her location. Benson soon discovers the girl is a victim of sex trafficking, but she's rescued by the SVU by the episode's end. (Fun fact: This episode earned Hargitay a Primetime Emmy Award for Best Leading Actress in a Drama.)
"Rockabye" (Season 7, Episode 9)
"Rockabye" begins with a teenager losing her unborn child due to severe abdominal bleeding. The girl's father insists that it was due to being assaulted, which sparks the SVU's investigation into the baby's father. But once it's revealed the girl had a hand in her own beating because an abortion clinic refused to accommodate an appointment, everything changes.
"Fault" (Season 7, Episode 19)
After a sex offender is released from prison and abducts two children, Stabler and Benson get into a standoff with the culprit, who cowardly uses the kid as a shield. Instead of chasing the perpetrator, Stabler runs to Benson's need after she is injured by the offender, leading to one of the kids' deaths. Later, Stabler is held at gunpoint and Benson refuses to shoot the perpetrator out of fear of Stabler getting hurt. By the end, the killer is caught by other members of the SVU, leaving both detectives to question if they can perform their jobs properly with the other as their partner.
"Choreographed" (Season 8, Episode 9)
Season 8's "Choreographed" was a rollercoaster from start to finish after a model dies in the middle of Central Park. Once it's discovered that the model's husband was cheating on her with her best friend, it looks like a classic passion kill. But SVU is never that simple, and the watchful husband of the suspect's best friend, played by the late Bob Saget, turns out to be the criminal mastermind behind it all. Everyone is the villain in this intense SVU episode!
"Alternate" (Season 9, Episode 1)
The best SVU episodes are packed with nail-biting twists and turns. Case in point: Season 9's "Alternate" which guest stars Sex and the City's Cynthia Nixon. Nixon plays a woman with Dissociative Identity Disorder with four alternate personalities who may have harmed her daughter. But the question on Benson and Stabler's minds is whether or not the woman's condition is a ruse.
"Avatar" (Season 9, Episode 2)
Season 9's "Avatar" follows the detectives as they go after a woman who's run away after being assaulted. Their investigation leads them to discover another woman believed to be abducted 25 years ago. But surprise: She's still alive — and excited to get revenge against her attacker and killer at large.
"Paternity" (Season 9, Episode 9)
The SVU deals with the arrival of a young boy whose nanny is beaten, raped, and murdered. Meanwhile, Stabler questions if Kathy is pregnant with his child due to their brief separation. Add all of that to Benson and Kathy getting in a life-threatening car accident that causes Kathy to go into labor prematurely, and you have one of the most memorable SVU episodes to date.
"Wildlife" (Season 10, Episode 7)
SVU took a walk on the wild side with Season 9's "Wildlife," which focuses on special victims of a different species. Stabler goes undercover to go after a Russian animal smuggling ring to prevent the import of a rare gibbon. If that wasn't wild enough: Benson pretends to be a sex worker to sell their undercover personas, Stabler eats a tiger, and one of the bad guys (Outkast's Big Boi!) is eaten by a hyena.
"Ballerina" (Season 10, Episode 16)
Matthew Lillard and Carol Burnett guest star in Season 10's "Ballerina," and many SVU fans agree it's one of the best. What begins as a sole murder quickly escalates into three dead victims and an unhelpful family of witnesses. But once a nephew and his aunt are discovered to have a twisted relationship, their entire investigation becomes murky.
"Born Psychopath" (Season 14, Episode 19)
Sometimes the SVU comes across a plain 'ol bad seed, as is the case with "Born Psychopath." The detectives are called after a young girl visits the school nurse who discovers evidence of abuse at the girl's home. The girl's testimony is spotty, with her claiming she was pushed down the stairs by a "monster." Her older brother blames the nanny, but the detectives learn that the brother is actually to blame.
“Surrender Benson” (Season 15, Episode 1)
Drumroll please, because we have the most intense SVU episode yet with Season 15's "Surrender Benson." William Lewis takes home the crown for worst SVU villain, which is seen in full force here after he kidnaps Benson and holds her captive in a remote cabin. This wasn't Benson's first rodeo with Lewis, so she's able to get away relatively safely. However, she's then forced to relive the entire ordeal during a grueling trial.
“Daydream Believer” (Season 16, Episode 20)
Everyone loves a One Chicago and Law & Order crossover event. In this episode, sadistic SVU villain Greg Yates kidnaps Chicago P.D.’s Nadia (Stella Maeve) and sickishly tortures her while driving her to New York. Sgt. Voight (Jason Beghe) catches on, and the Chicago P.D. head to the Big Apple to help the SVU pursue Yates. Benson recognizes Yates' actions from their previous brush with the man, but their efforts are too late, with Yates murdering Nadia and detailing his torture in court. This one was heavy.
"Return of the Prodigal Son" (Season 22, Episode 9)
A decade after Benson and Stabler split ways as partners, they're reunited with a crossover event of Law & Order: SVU and Law & Order: Organized Crime, starring Meloni. Stabler's wife, Kathy, is tragically murdered in a car bombing that was planted to kill Stabler, and Benson rushes to her old friend's side.
"And a Trauma in a Pear Tree" (Season 24, Episode 9)
One of the hardest goodbyes for SVU fans was when Amanda Rollins (Kelli Giddish) left the SVU. Rollins left to pursue a teaching position, informing Benson of the bittersweet decision after marrying Sonny Carisi (Peter Scanavino) in front of their SVU loved ones.
"Blood Out" (Season 24, Episode 12)
What would SVU be without Benson and Stabler's decades-long chemistry? By Season 24, both detectives are firmly single and questionably emotionally available, and it all came to a head when Stabler told Benson that he cared for her, leading to a steamy embrace. Once Stabler went in for the kiss, Benson shocked the world when she told him she wasn't ready.
"All Pain Is One Malady" (Season 24, Episode 22)
The will-they-won't-they game between Benson and Stabler continued in the Season 24 finale when the OCCB and SVU squads teamed up to take down an insidious revenge-for-hire ring. While conducting a virtual stakeout, Benson and Stabler briefly relaxed with Chinese food and thoughtful conversation. It was a thoughtful homage to early-era SVU and a great moment between the cherished characters.