10 Best Olivia Benson Law & Order: SVU Episodes, Ranked

There is arguably no character in the Law & Order franchise as beloved as Mariska Hargitay’s Olivia Benson. Her character has been the heart and soul of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit for decades, keeping fans coming back to the popular drama despite the ups and downs of the series. Olivia’s character is an influential figure in pop culture and has even encouraged Hargitay to become an activist herself, who has also been a producer on the show for over a decade.

While Olivia Benson is a complex and realistic character, many viewers find little not to love about her. The dedication she has to helping others and getting justice is inspiring, as is her quick wit and perseverance through even the most dangerous situations. There are hundreds of great moments for the character throughout the twenty-five seasons of SVU, but some episodes stand out as Hargitay’s best performances on the show.

10“Payback” Introduced the Beloved SVU Detective

Season 1, Episode 1Law & Order SVU Cast

The original Law & Order began several years before Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, but Mariska Hargitay has been in the most episodes of the franchise, solidifying her character, Olivia Benson, as arguably the most substantial personality in the long-running crime universe. Olivia’s first appearance in SVU is still influential because it introduced the lovable character.

This first episode highlighted how the crimes SVU investigates are not always as they seem. Elliot and Olivia go in search of a murderer and uncover a complex case of Serbian ethnic cleansing and sexual assault survivors. The audience also learns about Olivia’s compassion and understanding when she sympathizes with a murderer due to their past trauma. From the beginning, she was a considerate detective who didn’t see crime as a simple right and wrong binary.

9“Zebras” Was an Incredible Performance

Season 10, Episode 21

svu benson and stabler moment

“Zebras” is rated 8.8/10 on IMDb.

“Zebras” is one of the most memorable SVU episodes from earlier seasons. After a technical error sets a murderer free, forensic technician Dale Stuckey is shamed in court. This causes him to spiral, murdering innocent people and his supervisor before attempting to kill a judge and holding Elliot Stabler hostage after he is discovered by the detective.

In the end, Olivia is the hero of this episode. When she discovers Stuckey holding Stabler in his lab, she claims to be at the troubled young man’s side, going as far as to slap Stabler and kiss Stuckey. She is able to disarm him and save her partner by using her wit and quick thinking. This was an impressive moment and highlighted how Detective Benson is the star of Law & Order: SVU.

8“Paternity” Showed How Truly Unselfish a Person Can Be

Season 9, Episode 9

Olivia Benson helps Kathy Stabler after a car accident in "Paternity" on Law & Order: SVU.

“Paternity” is rated 8.7/10 on IMDb.

This storyline mainly focuses on Elliot Stabler’s wife, Kathy. In the previous episode, Olivia was driving a pregnant Kathy to a doctor’s appointment when they were hit by another car. In “Paternity,” Olivia stays with Kathy, who is in labor, while the emergency response team works to get her out of the car and to the hospital.

Despite this episode not technically centering on Olivia, it is a fan-favorite moment. She was just in a car accident herself and injured, but she doesn’t hesitate to focus on Kathy and make sure she’s okay. Olivia even helps the paramedics secure Kathy’s neck and provide vitals. Though it could be argued that she had a personal obligation to help her partner’s wife, Olivia is iconic for putting others before herself and stepping in to help the helpless.

7“Scorched Earth” Captured an Emotional Moment

Season 13, Episode 1

Olivia Crying in SVU

“Scorched Earth” is rated 7.7/10 on IMDb.

For many years, SVU fans considered Elliot and Olivia to be the glue that kept this long-running procedural entertaining. However, that officially changed at the beginning of Season 13 when the audience learns that Christopher Meloni will not be returning to the series, ending Stabler’s journey in the franchise (until his return in Law & Order: Organized Crime).

This was a revolutionary point, bringing in new characters like Amanda Rollins and restructuring the NYPD elite squad. The first episode of this pivotal season was also a memorable emotional moment for Olivia Benson. It closes with her learning about Stabler’s retirement and finding a quiet place to break down and cry. This scene brought a tear to many fans’ eyes, and it was more because of the powerful feeling of loss and sorrow over the actual exit of Elliot Stabler.

6“Beast’s Obsession” Showed Olivia at Her Best and Worst

Season 15, Episode 20William Lewis in court in Law & Order SVU

Olivia Benson has been in many dire situations throughout the years, but none were quite as daunting as when William Lewis kidnapped her in Season 15. Later in the season, Lewis escapes prison and once again goes on a rampage of sexual assault and murder. In an attempt to finally get the upper hand against Olivia, he kidnaps a young girl and forces Olivia to play “Russian Roulette” before taking his own life to try to continue his torment of the NYPD Sergeant beyond the grave.

This was a shocking turn of events following Olivia’s traumatic experience with Lewis. After he tortured and attempted to assault her, she still met up with him to save the life of an innocent child. This episode emphasized the extent of her dedication to protecting victims and innocents. Some viewers even ridicule her character for this trait, believing she’s too self-sacrificing and over-invested in her career.

5“Undercover” Highlighted a Resilient Character

Season 9, Episode 15

Johnny Messner as Lowell Harris with Mariska Hargitay as Olivia Benson in SVU's Undercover

“Undercover” is rated 9/10 on IMDb.

Before William Lewis, the SVU audience was introduced to the monster Lowell Harris. During the investigation of the assault of a teenage girl, the detectives learn that the girl’s mother is a victim of abuse in a New York prison. Benson goes undercover in the prison and experiences the abuse first-hand. After being taken into the basement, she is beaten and nearly sexually assaulted by the corrections captain, Lowell Harris.

This is another example of the trauma Olivia Benson has experienced throughout her career, but it’s also an example of her dedication to helping victims. After her experience in the prison, she stops at nothing to ensure that Harris ends up incarcerated for his crimes. In comparison to some of the darkest episodes of Law & Order: SVU, this was one of Benson’s most intense and dangerous scenarios.

4“I’m Going to Make You a Star” Solidifies Benson as a Leader

Season 21, Episode 1

Mariska Hargitay as Olivia Benson sits on her desk and smiles on Law & Order: SVU

“I’m Going to Make You a Star” is rated 8/10 on IMDb.

“I’m Going to Make You a Star” is one of the most memorable cases in the later seasons of SVU, focusing on the sexual assault of a young actress by a powerful producer. This puts the squad in a dangerous situation, but they persevere and don’t let threats keep them from justice. This is also a bittersweet episode for Olivia because she learns that Deputy Chief Dodds is being reassigned but that her becoming SVU captain was a condition of his departure.

This was a triumphant turn of events for the long-running character. After all of her years dedicated to the job, even at the expense of her personal life, she gets put into the leadership role of her squad. Realism aside, it was exciting for dedicated fans to see Olivia take control of the investigation team she has poured her heart and soul into.

3“Surrender Benson” Was Nail-Biting Intensity

Season 15, Episode 1

Lewis Holding Olivia Hostage in SVU

“Surrender Benson” is rated 8.9/10 on IMDb.

William Lewis’ final moments on Law & Order: SVU was an intense experience, but his first attack on Olivia Benson was a shocking twist. Seeing the beloved character kidnapped and tortured was excruciating, especially while watching her squad rush to save her. After Olivia gets the upper hand against Lewis, she restrains him and then beats him severely in a fit of uncontrollable rage and sorrow.

This is among the most memorable moments in Olivia’s storyline because the audience is sure she did something illegal after detaining Lewis. However, her traumatic response was heartbreaking, leaving most fans sympathetic to her reaction. It was impossible to have any sympathy for a villain like William Lewis, and most viewers consider this a powerful moment for Olivia’s character. Though she’s idolized, her reaction appeared very normal and relatable, given the circumstances.

2“Surrendering Noah” Is About Love, Change & Acceptance

Season 16, Episode 23

Olivia Benson holds and kisses her son Noah Porter-Benson in SVU's Surrendering Noah

“Surrendering Noah” is rated 8.2/10 on IMDb.

Olivia’s son, Noah, is a controversial SVU topic in the fandom. Many viewers disliked his inclusion and didn’t appreciate Olivia’s arc as a mother. On the other hand, it was established early in the series that she desired to be a parent but was unable to do so because of her demanding job. As a captain with the freedom to work inside and outside the “office,” Olivia was finally able to fulfill this dream of being a mother when she adopted Noah in “Surrendering Noah.”

This episode was an intense courtroom sequence against sex trafficker Johnny D, who is Noah’s biological father. Olivia showed her caring heart when she encouraged Johnny D’s victims to take the stand in court despite the threats to their safety and Johnny D’s claim to her son. This terrible criminal meets his end in a deadly courtroom showdown shortly before Noah’s adoption that concludes the intense sequence of events.

1“911” Is All About Her Heart and Dedication

Season 7, Episode 3Olivia Benson lost in thought in SVU's 911

Olivia Benson has been in nearly every episode of Law & Order: SVU‘s 25 seasons, and most viewers have their own idea of which episode is her best overall. One of Mariska Hargitay’s most impressive performances as the detective was in Season 7, when Olivia stays on the phone for hours with a trafficked young girl. She remains dedicated to finding the girl even after her squad believes the child is fake and the caller is an impersonator.

Olivia’s soft spot for children and innocent victims is reiterated throughout the series, and this episode is the pinnacle of her dedication. Throughout the doubts and evidence against the girl, Olivia refuses to give up and risks losing the child. The happy ending with the arrest of a predator and savior of this child is inspiring, highlighting how Olivia’s commitment saves lives.

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