There aren't many television shows where an unconsummated "ship" has remained in the audience's collective mind for years. Television history is built on romances between "Will they, won't they?" characters, and it's worth looking at one that doesn't get nearly the attention it should. In 1999, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit introduced audiences to detectives Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and Elliott Stabler (Christopher Meloni). Benson and Stabler were two cops trying to navigate the often murky waters of victims and their abusers.
The fact that Benson and Stabler don't end up together, or even dabble, in attempting a relationship is a surprise. Too often in television, two characters of the opposite sex are required to at least hook up and see what happens, but that's not the case with Benson and Stabler. From the outset, they're both at different points in their lives: Benson's a conflicted woman, a child of rape and alcoholism who didn't want to be tied down right away. Whereas, Stabler is a devout Catholic and married family man.
These disparate backgrounds allow for a fair amount of discussion regarding feminism and masculinity. The two are often at odds on the subject. More than once, Stabler reminds Benson she can't comprehend a parent's mentality because she, herself, wasn't a parent. And yet, Benson always reminds Stabler his opinion is crap anyway. Stabler, whether we'd like to admit it or not, has a current of misogyny running through his core. He's the old-guard cop working in a station house that, in the first season at least, has a fair amount of diversity. Benson often points out how Stabler's thinking is outdated, especially on issues that go beyond his privilege as a straight, white male. Ultimately, they challenge each other in a way that's almost akin to foreplay in a world where sex is regularly presented as dangerous, sad, and exploitative.
That's not to say the relationship, while not being overtly perpetuated as romantic, isn't toxic. Several episodes of the series are devoted to Benson and Stabler's closeness. She is chronically referred to as Stabler's "work wife" by his actual wife, no less. In the Season 7 episode "Fault" and Season 9's "Authority," Stabler questions his bond with Benson when she's kidnapped and used as bait. In the former episode, Stabler's hesitation at shooting the perp, and instead saving Benson, ends with a boy's death. Stabler spends the entire episode fearing his love for Benson, whether platonic or romantic, is putting him off his game.
Yet, maybe what stings about Benson and Stabler remaining partners is the fact their relationship is so intimate. It's not necessarily romantic or sexual, but it is obvious these two people genuinely love and care for each other. Not every woman would pretend to be a prostitute to avoid blowing cover, as Benson did for Stabler in the Season 10 episode, "Wildlife." By the same token, it's more apparent Benson proves her love for Stabler more than he does for her. Not only is Benson commonly used as bait ⏤ Stabler's own damsel in distress ⏤ but she's also presented as the more sexual figure, whether as a fake prostitute or the target of a rapist while undercover. Elliott, to his credit, puts his life on the line, but it's generally utilized to make him think about his wife and children.
Like all great TV partners, it's the flaws in their relationship, and their ability to transcend them, that remains relatable. So when Meloni decided to move on from the show in 2011, the send-off was lackluster and practically beat the nail into the coffin. The finale of Season 12, "Smoked," shows Stabler shooting a young girl who had entered the station house and killed two people. Although Stabler always skirts the line when it comes to legalities, this situation felt different. When Season 13 began, it was revealed Stabler was going to be investigated, and probably fired — so he resigned. This partially explained Meloni's abrupt departure, but it also felt like an integral character was ghosting both Benson and the viewers. How could Stabler leave Benson without saying goodbye? And how, in turn, could the show do that to an audience who spent 12 years with the pair?
Since Meloni's departure, it's as if Stabler has been expunged from the series. Considering Stabler and Benson's closeness, it's almost shocking how the series hasn't mentioned him. He's become the ex cut out of every photo, yet his outline remains for the audience to see. In Season 15, Benson is, once again, abducted and held hostage. At one point, she's given the opportunity to call someone she cares about, leaving viewers to think maybe, just maybe, we'd get some confirmation of the undying love between Benson and Stabler. Instead, she calls her adoptive son, remaining bound to her new domestic life while revealing Stabler is no longer a facet of her life worth discussing.
I'll always be sad Benson and Stabler never happened, but maybe it's for the best. Television shows where "Will they, won't they?" couples end up together are notorious for going downhill after the romance materializes. Benson and Stabler are the perfect couple because we can idealize how wonderful their relationship would be, even if the possibility only exists in our imagination.