'Law & Order: SVU' Boss Warren Leight Teases Barba's Return

Thursday night's Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episode not only marks the show's first episode of 2021, but it also features an important return. Raul Esparza is back as Rafael Barba, two years after leaving the show. In "Sightless in a Savage Land," Barba decides to take on a controversial case while defending the suspect, putting him head-to-head with Carisi (Peter Scanavino) in the courtroom.

In a sneak preview from the episode published at Us Weekly, Carisi and Barba trade verbal barbs in Carisi's office. Barba starts asking questions about the case, which involves a suspect who has a Purple Heart, a titanium leg, and PTSD. Barba suggests the charges the suspect faces are up for negotiation, which prompts Carisi to ask if Barba plans on representing the defendant. "I guess I am now," Barba quickly responded.

“We’d written earlier that Barba had been involved in political work last year, now that the election is (we hope) over, it was time for him to find a new purpose," showrunner Warren Leight told Us Weekly, referring to Barba's brief appearance in last year's "Redemption in Her Corner." In his scene with Benson (Mariska Hargitay), Barba said he was working on counting votes after the Iowa Caucus. Now, he is in a very different line of work.

"Many lawyers sell out and join a major firm, others go straight-up pro bono (say, working for the Innocence Project), but Barba I think both misses the action and likes the attention that this particular case brings," Leight said. The executive producer noted that Barba might be seeking "closure" after his shocking exit from the series in Season 19. The idea to bring back Barba came after Leight and executive producer Julie Martin ran into Esparza on Wast 23rd Street. "We asked him if he’d consider coming back. He said yes," Leight recalled.

Leight said getting Barba back was surprisingly one of the easier feats they have pulled off this season while filming during the coronavirus pandemic. The rest of the production has been difficult. "We’ve all had to completely change every aspect of the way we work, often in mid-episode," Leight told Us Weekly. "We’re very fortunate to have an experienced team that’s been working on the show for as long as we all have. Every time a brick comes through the window (which on some days happens every ten minutes), the nearest person grabs a broom, sweeps up the glass, someone else replaces the pane, and we just keep going."

Barba served as an Assistant District Attorney for the SVU team from Seasons 14 to 19. He left after D.A. Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) tried him for murder. Although Barba was found not guilty, he decided he could no longer be an A.D.A. Fans will see what Barba is up to now when SVU returns Thursday at 10 p.m. ET on NBC.