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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 23 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 11 episodes, below, still get fans' hearts going.
"Loss" (Season 5, Episode 4)
Taking on a Colombian drug cartel is never easy, but no task is too much for the SVU. In "Loss," an undercover agent for the DEA is raped and murdered, causing the SVU to get tied up in the agent's investigation. The undercover agents and SVU need to bring down the entire drug ring before the cartel can get to them, which leads to a nail-biting sequence of events. "Loss" marks ADA Cabot's (Stephanie March) last episode in the main SVU cast, and it was a tense curtain call, to say the least.
"Identity" (Season 6, Episode 12)
Some of the most thrilling episodes of SVU are based on true stories. This is the case for Season 6's "Identity," packed with twists and turns at every moment. While the SVU is initially called to confront a gang member after he pushes a man off a roof, the investigation takes a shocking twist once Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and Stabler (Christopher Meloni) are led to a pair of fraternal twins. The siblings end up being more than they seem, with one of the children receiving a botched circumcision at birth, leading the two children to be abused by a manipulative sex therapist. This episode ends far from where it begins, which is always a thrill for SVU fans.
"911" (Season 7, Episode 3)
Time is the SVU's biggest enemy in Season 7's "911," the episode that earned Hargitay a Primetime Emmy Award for Best Leading Actress in a Drama. Benson receives a call from a frightened girl and learns she has been trapped alone in a room, a potential victim of 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 discovers the girl is a victim of sex trafficking, who is luckily rescued by the SVU by the episode's end.
"Fault" (Season 7, Episode 19)
Fans of Benson and Stabler's strong friendship think "Fault" is one of the best Law & Order: SVU episodes because of its amazing ability to use their bond as the source of conflict. 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.
"Paternity" (Season 9, Episode 9)
From car accidents to questionable parental origins, "Paternity" has many nerve-wracking scenes that keep SVU fans going. 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. Benson is a true rockstar in this episode, with many SVU fans wondering what Stabler would do without her.
“Undercover” (Season 9, Episode 15)
After a teenage rape survivor's rape kit disappears, the SVU begins to suspect someone in law enforcement is covering up the crime. Once a corrections officer becomes the main suspect, Benson goes undercover in a women's prison to try to expose the culprit. The assignment is risky, with Benson facing many of the horrid realities of the prison system, including but not limited to a brush with a potential sexual assault herself. No one likes it when Benson is in danger, and this episode is one of the most suspenseful instances.
"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.
"Born Psychopath" (Season 14, Episode 19)
Sometimes the SVU comes across a plain 'ol bad seed, with the perfect example being "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. The little demon even shoots Amaro (Danny Pino), who is luckily wearing a bulletproof vest, before he is finally detained.
“Surrender Benson” (Season 15, Episode 1)
Drumroll please, because we have the most intense, insane, and all-around jaw-dropping SVU episode yet with Season 15's "Surrender Benson." William Lewis takes home the crown for most vile and insanely evil SVU villain, which comes out in full force after the serial rapist and murderer kidnaps Benson and holds her captive in a remote cabin in the woods. This wasn't Benson's first rodeo with Lewis, so she is able to get away relatively safely, but she is then forced to relive the entire traumatic ordeal during the grueling trial. While SVU fans hate seeing Benson in trouble, Hargitay's performance makes this one of the best Law & Order: SVU episodes ever.
“Daydream Believer” (Season 16, Episode 20)
Everyone loves a One Chicago and Law & Order crossover event, and "Daydream Believer" delivers a delightfully intense episode of SVU. In terms of the evilest villains of SVU's past, the serial rapist and murderer, Greg Yates, is a strong contender (behind only William Lewis). 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)
After Benson and Stabler split up as partners, a decade later, the OG SVU stars were reunited with the NBC crossover of Law & Order: SVU and Law & Order: Organized Crime, starring Meloni. Kathy is tragically murdered in a car bombing that was planted to kill Stabler, and Benson rushes to her old friend's side. The pair confront their time apart, specifically how Stabler suddenly abandoned Benson without notice despite their packed history. Meloni provides a heartfelt apology that had SVU fans sobbing everywhere.
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