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Law & Order: Special Victims Unit: Raúl Esparza discusses Barba’s big revelation

Law & Order: Special Victims Unit
Raúl Esparza as Rafael Barba on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Pic credit: NBC

Warning: This article contains SPOILERS for the Law & Order: Special Victims Unit Season 23 finale. 

Rafael Barba’s return to Law & Order: Special Victims Unit ended in an unexpected way. 

After clashing with Carisi to help an abuse victim on trial, Barba ended the episode with a startling admission to Benson (Mariska Hargitay) on feelings about her and Stabler. 

Raúl Esparza is now speaking about what this truly means and how it might affect both characters in Season 24. 

Barba’s amazing return

In the Season 23 finale, the team had to help Delia (Jordana Spiro), a woman suffering long-time abuse by her husband Ty. A confrontation turned violent and Delia stabbed Ty in the back.

Feeling her public defender couldn’t help, Rollins (Kelli Giddish) reached out to former ADA Rafael Barba for help. This upset Benson as she and Barba had never mended fences after Barba defended Richard Wheatley (Dylan McDermott) for the murder of Stabler’s (Christopher Meloni) wife. 

Speaking to TV Insider, Esparza discussed how it felt returning to Barba and enjoyed once more being head-to-head with Benson. 

“What’s been most interesting about Barba as a character, and it was definitely what Warren created when he first wrote it, is that he’s a bit of an antagonist. He was always written as someone who would go head-to-head with Benson’s perspective, which was necessary. After Stabler left, there was no real balance in the points of view that the show had to maintain. I think the great, great secret to SVU’s success is that it never really lets you off the hook.”

To Esparza, Barba being a major contrast to Stabler helped the series out.

“Benson is a character that forces you to empathize and care, as opposed to other iterations of Law & Order, where it’s really just about the intellectual interest in the case and what happens. Here, it’s like there are no easy answers, they’re always living in a gray area, and she’s the hook. But Stabler was the fury and the opposite position. And without him there, I think the show obviously needed some sort of grounding in the ensemble that was created. And I feel like Barba — not trying to replace Stabler in any way because it’s not the same point of view — but Barba worked really well, and he was in opposition to her. And so, sometimes I think it’s not so interesting when they’re the best of friends, because that’s not great television.”

Barba managed to argue that Delia suffered trauma from her abuse and acted in self-defense. That ended up working out a deal for Delia to avoid going to jail and move on with her life. 

However, the more dramatic turn came in the final talk between Benson and Barba.

Barba on his confession and a possible triangle

Rafael Barba
Rafael Barba (Raul Esparza) questions Benson (Mariska Hargitay) on Law & Order Special Victims Unit Season 23 finale. Pic credit: NBC

In a heated argument, Barba brought up how Benson was never as angry with Stabler as she was with him and Benson bringing up their long history together. Barba said Benson would always defend Stabler as “that’s what you do with people you love.”

When Benson tried to brush that off, Barba said he knew what he was talking about as “I also know what it’s like to love someone unconditionally” and gave Benson a meaningful look.

This apparent revelation that Barba is in love with Benson appeared to take even the actors by surprise. 

“I think that it can be taken in a number of ways. So, it surprised me to have it brought out so explicitly, however, but not too much. There are fans that have always wanted to kind of spin off that story. And Mariska [Hargitay] and I kind of laughed about it, too. Like, “Well, are we suddenly in a triangle here? What’s going on?” [Laughs] Which is hysterical, because it really isn’t how we play it. I think she and I always play it as best friends and almost brother and sister sometimes. However… I don’t know, I know what I was thinking when I said the words that I said onscreen… I like that it can be read in number of ways.”

Esparza believes that Barba was changed by his years on SVU and the way he left which explains some of his attitude now. 

“He would not have felt this way, or been as emotionally available, had those experiences not happened. She definitely changed him over the years. The guy who came in was ballsy and quite arrogant, which he still is; that’s one of the best things about him, that chip on his shoulder. He’s got a lot of stuff to prove, he dresses to intimidate, he can be a d**k — like, that’s all great, you know?…[Barba is] just one of those people who’s got no social graces. But over time, he became much more empathetic and much more attuned to things that I don’t think he was comfortable with originally in his life, and that’s because of the relationship with her. And so, yeah, as things evolved toward the end of the last season that he was there like, I absolutely believe that it changed him.”

For fans who wonder if this means Barba will return in Season 24, Esparza admits he hasn’t heard anything yet. He noted that this was the final episode overseen by Law & Order: Special Victims Unit showrunner Warren Leight and thus some things may change but is hopeful for a return. 

“We haven’t discussed it, actually. You know a lot of times I feel like Barba is very much a figment of Warren Leight’s imagination. I know that Warren has thought this through, so who knows? But he’s also part of the universe of Law & Order in both worlds and a very much-loved character… so we’ll see.”

Whether or not Barba returns, his feelings for Benson complicate her already difficult life and will lead to more questions when Law & Order: Special Victims Unit returns in Season 24. 

Law & Order: Special Victims Unit Season 24 airs Thursdays this fall on NBC.

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