Mariska Hargitay’s Best Law & Order: SVU Episodes: The Top 10

Mariska Hargitay
Mariska Hargitay stars as Olivia Benson on season 16 of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, premiering Sept. 24 on NBC. Michael Parmelee/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

Badass Benson is back! It’s been a long four months since Olivia Benson put William Lewis in the morgue and welcomed baby Noah into her life on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, so Sept. 24’s season 16 premiere can’t come soon enough for SVU diehards — or for Us Weekly!

As Mariska Hargitay, 50, explains, becoming a mother will soften her character Benson in upcoming episodes. “She’s been single-focused for many years and had one priority: to seek justice. That has been No. 1, 2 and 3. Having a child will redefine her,” the actress — mom of August, Andrew and Amaya with husband Peter Hermann — told Us Weekly during an interview Sept. 10.

In preparation for SVU‘s kickoff, Us Weekly ranked Hargitay’s 10 best episodes in series history. Did we miss your favorite? Sound off in the comments!

10. “Wrath”
Det. Benson confronted the idea of nature vs. nurture when she found herself relating to a perp who, like her, was the product of a rape. Wondering if she had inherited the same “bad” genes as the serial killer (Justin Kirk) she was chasing, Benson found herself up against a wall when the murderer boxed her into a corner and forced her to shoot him. (Season 3, 2001)

Mariska Harigtay - "Behave" SVU episode
Will Hart/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

9. “Behave”
A repeat rape victim (Jennifer Love Hewitt) turned to Benson for help after she was tormented by the same man for 15 years, but when the victim refused to submit to a rape kit, Benson used her street smarts to get the woman to consent. Later in the episode, Benson went cross-country on a quest to test neglected rape kits from unsolved cases. (Season 12, 2010)

8. “Payback”
In the procedural’s premiere episode, Benson and Det. Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni) investigated the murder of a cabdriver who was indicted for the rape of 67 women. While searching out the five rape victims in the NYC area, Benson shared a glimpse into her backstory once she began to sympathize with the killers. Neglecting to arrest one of the female killers because the woman was a rape victim, Benson got a rude awakening when her commanding officer, Capt. Cragen, chewed her out for sloppy case work. (Season 1, 1999)

Mariska Harigtay - "Zebras" SVU episode
Will Hart/NBCU Photo Bank

7. “Zebras”
Dale Stuckey be damned! During the investigation of a murder in Central Park, the gang discovered that forensics tech Stuckey tampered with evidence — diverting attention off himself, the true murderer — in a tense episode that left Stabler fighting for his life in the show’s final minutes. Once Stabler discovered Stuckey’s handiwork he confronted the bumbling tech, and the men got into a gunfight that left Stabler duct-taped to a chair and pleading for his life. Enter Stabler’s trusty partner for life Benson — who won over the perp by verbally abusing, and, yes, even slapping (!!) Stabler across the face. A total about-face scene for Hargitay, the “Zebras” conclusion left viewers never wanting to get on the Detective’s bad side. (Season 10, 2009)

6. “Scorched Earth”
Viewers’ hearts weren’t the only ones broken after Meloni announced his departure: Det. Stabler’s exit proved just as hard for Benson to handle. During the ripped-from-the-headlines episode inspired by the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case, America’s favorite detective struggled to work the case with a new partner (Kelli Giddish) as she mourned the loss of her work husband. SVU fans collectively shed a tear along with Benson when Hargitay — keeping her feelings in check for the majority of the episode — retreated to the interrogation room in the show’s final minutes for a stunningly-acted emotional meltdown over Stabler’s exit. (Season 13, 2011)

5. “Bombshell”
Liv and El shippers rejoiced when Benson and Stabler went undercover as a married couple checking out a swingers club frequented by their latest victim. Though the crime stood out as one of SVU’s more bizarre — the perps, including Rose McGowan, were siblings who pretended to date — it was Benson and Stabler’s adorable PDA and undeniable chemistry that really made “Bombshell” a Benson favorite. (Season 12, 2011)

4. “Infiltrated”
Long before Benson fought for her life in “Beast’s Obsession,” she fought for a cause in “Infiltrated.” Embedded as Persephone James in an Oregon-based ecoterrorist group, Benson conducted her own internal investigation into the murder of a pharmaceutical company’s CEO at the hands of the eco group. While undercover, Benson’s loyalties were tested when she was arrested during a protest, then sent back to Manhattan to testify in a rape case. (Season 8, 2006)

Mariska Hargitay - "Undercover" SVU episode
Virginia Sherwood/NBC

3. “Undercover”
Before there were the women of Litchfield on Orange Is the New Black, Benson tried an orange jumpsuit on for size in “Undercover.” Investigating the rape of a young girl, Benson and Stabler learned the girl’s mother was incarcerated in a facility where the guards were brutalizing inmates. In the adrenaline-filled hour, Benson went undercover (with Fin as backup!) and nearly got raped herself. (Season 9, 2008)

2. “Beast’s Obsession”
William Lewis was one of the Special Victims Unit’s most notorious perps but he was no match for Benson. Armed with nothing but her fists and her wits when Lewis (Pablo Schreiber) kidnapped and threatened to kill her after he escaped from prison, she won over fans once again when she beat him at his own game of Russian Roulette. (Season 15, 2014)

Mariska Hargitay - "911" SVU episode
Will Hart/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

1. “911”
Hargitay earned every gold ounce of the Emmy she was awarded for this heart-pounding episode that centered around a 9-year-old girl who claimed to be locked in a room and phoned 911 for help. Endearing Hargitay to Us, “911” was unique to the SVU franchise in that it took place largely in the squad room, with Benson keeping the little girl calm as her SVU counterparts tried to locate her. Benson’s emotions were raw and real as the minutes ticked away, making the hour stand out as one of Benson’s best interactions with a victim in the procedural’s 15-year history. If you ask Us, Benson’s extreme care for young Maria Recinos — including singing songs with her and asking her about her family with kid-gloves as only she can do — was simply foreshadowing for her life as a foster mom for baby Noah. (Season 7, 2005)

The 16th season of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit premieres Wednesday, Sept. 24 at 9 p.m. (EST) on NBC.

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