Elliot Stabler Is Exactly What We Need Right Now
Christopher Meloni is reprising his infamous role on a Law & Order: SVU spinoff, and the timing couldn't have been better.
The news that Christopher Meloni is reprising his role as the beloved Elliot Stabler in a Law & Order: SVU spinoff comes at a time when the nation — er, the world — needs Stabler more than ever. Right now, everything feels pretty much universally bad. America, in particular, is on a runaway train to inevitable supply shortages and economic ruin that nobody seems to be able to stop, and we are desperate for a leader, any leader, to make us feel like we’re being taken care of. And Stabler’s most defining characteristics are the very traits we’re craving the most.
President Trump, ostensibly the man in charge, does not appear to be taking care of us at all. We are so desperate for any display of empathy that some journalists have taken to praising him for simply appearing somber while delivering news that between 100,000 and 240,000 Americans will likely die as a result of the pandemic — the bar is that low.
This is why a character like Stabler is uniquely comforting. Over the 13 years that Meloni played Stabler on Law & Order: SVU (from 1999 to 2012), he came to epitomize a particular brand of tough-but-compassionate NYC cop with a side of Hot Dad that was hugely appealing to many. Stabler was the guy who not only never doubted your assault, but would become so enraged on your behalf that he would occasionally overstep his professionalism and punch your attacker in the face before sending him to prison for decades. (Not to mention, he looked incredible in his white undershirts.)
The special victims unit (SVU) is focused on sexually-based crimes which, as we all know, “are considered especially heinous,” and its victims are usually some of society’s most vulnerable: children and young women. He’s a defender of the innocent. The tendency toward aggression and authoritarianism is not actually Stabler’s best quality, but that doesn’t mean it’s not occasionally attractive. And it’s particularly attractive today.
Though flawed, at his heart Stabler is a hero character with hero characteristics — conviction, strength, empathy, competence, and decisiveness — beneath a blue-collar homegrown Queens exterior.
This is actually the precise vibe that has everyone thirsting so hard after New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Leaning into his own Queens accent and every ounce of masculine energy he can muster, Cuomo gives daily briefings that are a masterclass in crisis rhetoric. Sure, the information is useful and detailed, but it’s the indignant “You pick the 26,000 people that are gonna die!” or “My mother is not expendable! Your mother is not expendable!” that really makes you want to trust him. It’s a protectiveness thing, really, that Cuomo is giving off in these briefings, and protectiveness is one of Stabler’s most distinctive qualities. [Ed. note: this article predates the sexual harassment allegations against Gov. Cuomo which came to light in March 2021.]
By now, more than a few of us in quarantine have developed a deeper appreciation for the calming power of fiction, and Stabler hits just the right spot. Why read a think piece suggesting we should just let the disease run its course and kill potentially millions to protect the economy when you can watch Elliot Stabler furiously hunt down serial child-abusers? As some pundits, commentators, and government figures debate hanging the nation’s most vulnerable out to dry, it is profoundly heartening to watch a character devoted to defending them.
Stabler’s manly aggression may be his biggest fault, and much of his personal arc was devoted to trying to overcome a tendency to rage and his own authoritarian worldview. But there is also a compassionate core to all of Stabler’s alpha-male qualities — like how his love for his children inspires a particular hatred for child abusers. It is satisfying to watch a hypermasculine man plumb emotional depths in his attempts to protect the innocent. Watching him rescue his daughter then grapple with her bipolar diagnosis? I’m already in tears.
You just know that Stabler is going to do whatever it takes to make sure everyone is safe, especially the people he loves. If he has to pretend to be in the neighborhood to make sure his partner, Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay), got home alright, burn his daughter’s driver’s license to keep her from getting hurt, or even occasionally perjure himself to make sure an abuser gets thrown in prison, he is going to do it. Stabler won’t let you down. Stabler is going to make sure you’re OK. Stabler is going to beat up all of the rapists.
Basically, Stabler is precisely suited to soothe the emotional needs of the world at the moment.
Sitting at home feeling trapped and helpless, watching the economy nosedive and hospitals fill up with COVID-19 patients, with no idea when it’s all going to end, we want a hero. It would be nice to feel like the federal government is going to do whatever it takes to make sure we are all safe or that the president could be moved to righteous fury at anything that threatens our wellbeing.
But as long as that’s not happening, at least we can look forward to Stabler’s return.
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