Mariska Hargitay delivered a performance, unmatched by pretty much anyone but herself, in Law & Order: SVU‘s 500th episode. Any attempt to explain the impact of Hargitay’s skills tends to fall short, but the need to celebrate something that goes far beyond just “acting” remains. How do we mark this landmark accomplishment, of not only staying with a character like Olivia Benson for 23 seasons and counting, but also making her more real—more human and emotionally devastating with nearly every outing?
Maybe there are no answers. But with a once-in-a-lifetime talent such as Hargitay’s, one feels obligated to say, “I see you. I appreciate and wish to honor you. You are the reason I’ve followed along on this character’s journey, even when watching her crumble broke something vital in me.” It is certainly necessary to just keep trying to find the right way to acknowledge and praise what she has done with this episode specifically, as well as what we have witnessed for over 20 years.
There’s much that can and should be said about Hargitay’s performance in SVU 500. I’ve already struggled at making an attempt, both on Twitter and elsewhere. Critics and fans alike have sat by in awe, discussing everything from her ability to somehow make the years melt right off of her character—to send her back to that wide-eyed innocence and “first love” sparkle of a 16-year-old who wanted nothing more than to escape her mother—to the lights-out confrontation with Aidan Quinn’s Burton Lowe in his hotel room. There was so much for Mariska Hargitay to deliver as Olivia, from her heartwarming delight at reuniting with old friends and lovers, to insecurities boiling under the surface, to the ongoing trauma of a daughter who’d been hurt by a struggling mother, to possibly healing, and so much more.
And yet. Even having spent countless hours attempting to get the words right in reviewing Law & Order: SVU “The Five Hundredth Episode,” roughly two minutes of footage have continued to haunt me. They feature nothing and no one but Mariska Hargitay and her unfathomable ability to strike the rawest, most authentic, of emotions. Forgetting everything else about Olivia’s slow movement toward seeing her past with new eyes, all of which is noteworthy and deserving of every honor imaginable, we land on the scene—that singular collection of moments that only Hargitay could provide. It is, of course, Olivia’s moment of truth, when she simply allows herself to admit that, yes, she was Burton’s victim.
It’s in the way she steels herself before pulling down that box of memories, fortifying her strength with some liquid courage. It’s her panicked rush to dig through those old cassette tapes and find the one she knew was in that box, the one she knew would validate the story Amanda Rollins had shared with her back in her office. She knew it would wreck something in her, yet regardless of her desire to prove everyone wrong and continue to deny herself yet one more trauma, Olivia Benson went looking for answers. Because she is nothing if not a truth-seeker, just as Mariska Hargitay is nothing if not someone who will deliver, to an audience watching in shock, something that’s supposed to be fiction but can’t help but feel unbearably real.
There’s that bittersweet little smile upon finding what she seeks. And then, it is replaced by the horror, the agony…and just pure exhaustion from being ripped apart from the inside out, to the point where Olivia Benson finds herself needing support from the inanimate objects around her. Sitting up, unaided, is too difficult. If you have ever been there with the burden of painful memories before, you know that feeling. I do. And I’m eternally grateful that Hargitay did it justice.
And again, it can not be stressed nearly enough: For all the power of so many moments, big and small, throughout “The Five Hundredth Episode,” it’s these two minutes, completely on her own to shine and deliver, that Mariska Hargitay did the most damage—drove that knife deepest into viewers’ hearts and souls and twisted. The living legend in question was given no dialogue, no scene partner—save for whatever empathy the actress was able to feel for so the many Olivia Bensons of the world, forced to reckon with the painful reality of their own locked-away memories—to play off of. Here was the spotlight, on one person and one person alone, and it illuminated something special indeed.
Nobody expects anything other than her best, the most commitment, the multitude of micro-expressions and particular vocal and physical choices Hargitay has delivered time and again. She does not do anything in front of the camera that isn’t spectacular, regardless of which story she’s telling or when. But this milestone episode, with all the weight it entailed, defied every explanation ever given to who and what she represents and is capable of.
There is a beauty in watching Olivia Benson’s journey in Law & Order: SVU 500, not because there’s anything beautiful in suffering but because the person portraying the character does so with so much detail and care. Hargitay’s performance requires one to pay tribute, no matter how difficult seeing these darkest moments may be.
The television landscape will never be the same because of her, and we certainly hope we will get to bear witness to her sense of magic, of never accepting “good enough” and always, always giving that extra something. One may never find the correct words, the type of praise worthy of describing or explaining what was done here. It is, perhaps, impossible to describe not just the talent itself…but also the gratitude to be able to have the privilege of experiencing this level of performance.
But perhaps that’s kind of the point. There are no words, save for these two: Mariska Hargitay.