'Law & Order: SVU' Fans Shocked by Surprise Cameo From Rafael Barba

Law & Order: Special Victims Unit kicked off with a major surprise this week. Former Assistant District Attorney Rafael Barba, played by Raul Esparza, made a very brief cameo before the main title. This was Esparza's first appearance on the show since he left in 2018. Fans were overjoyed by his cameo.

At the beginning of "Redemption in He Corner," Captain Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) sat in her office to video chat with Barba, and she started off by making fun of his new beard. Barba was talking to Benson from Iowa, where he is keeping track of election results.

Picking up from the events of "The Longest Night of Rain," Barba said he was sorry to hear about Ed Tucker's (John Burke) suicide.

"You know, it's been rough... a lot of loss lately," Benson replied. "Time is just flying by."

Barba said he would be back in New York following the primary, and invited Benson to dinner. Benson accepted the offer.

Before she could hang up though, he wished her a happy birthday.

"You're early," Benson said with a laugh.

"I wanted to be the first," he said. "Regards to the squad... and Noah."

Benson then shut her laptop and walked into the squadroom, where she told everyone Barba sends his regards. And then, the main plot of the episode kicked into high gear.

Barba's return is not a complete surprise for fans who pay close attention to what showrunner Warren Leight says. Back in January, Leight told E! News he was looking to work in Barba.

"I hope I can make that work. Raúl and I are partners in crime…I'm hoping we can make that work sooner rather than later," Leight said. "I think we'll see Barba before the third act begins."

Leight said he sees Season 21 as a three-act story, and episode 12 marked the halfway point of the season.

Barba left halfway through Season 19 in "The Undiscovered Country," which aired back in February 2018. The character quit after he was put on trial for murder after he disconnected the life support system for a comatose patient whose parents are fighting over the child's future. Barba was acquitted, but he still walked away from the job.

Esparza played the character for six seasons, and was replaced by Philip Winchester's Peter Stone. Stone left at the end of Season 20, leaving Detective Dominick Carisi (Peter Scanavino) to take over as the new A.D.A.

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New SVU episodes air Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET on NBC.

Photo credit: NBC