'Law & Order: SVU' Season 23 Finale Features Friend-Turned-Enemy in Surprising Return

Law & Order: Special Victims Unit finales often include surprising returns and twists, and the Season 23 finale promises to be no different. In "A Final Call at Forlini's Bar," everyone's favorite former Assistant District Attorney, Rafael Barba, makes his return in a surprising fashion. When we last saw Barba, he was representing Richard Wheatley. In the Season 23 finale, airing on NBC Thursday at 9 p.m. ET, Barba returns to disrupt the status quo at SVU.

The SVU team tries to help and protect a longtime domestic violence victim, but she finds herself sitting at the defendant's table in court. Det. Amanda Rollins (Kelli Giddish) surprises everyone, including her boyfriend, A.D.A. Dominic Carisi (Peter Scanavino) by asking Barba (Raul Esparza) to defend the victim. Rollins reached out to Barba instead of Capt. Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) because Benson is still angry with her old friend for defending Wheatley (Dylan McDermott) in the trial for the murder of Det. Elliot Stabler's (Christopher Meloni) wife.

Rollins thought Barba was the perfect defense attorney for the victim because the case seems unwinnable, Esparza told TV Insider. The woman murdered her husband, and there is little evidence that would help her get away with it. However, Barba jumps at the challenge to help her. Barba has another motive too. He wants to get back in Benson's good graces.

"The more complicated, the better, I think that just makes for good TV," Esparza said. "And I think it's when we're at our best, particularly Mariska and I when we get to play opposite sides of the field and figure out how to crack that kind of storytelling."

Esparza said Benson and Barba are "stumbling towards" reconciling, but he's not sure if they are already on that road. He believes the finale puts them on a "possible path" though. "It ends with a beginning and it's a season finale that's all about, what is suspended between them, whatever the next year brings, but there is some possibility in there," Esparza told TV Insider. "I don't know that it gets easily resolved. They're too deeply tied into each other in too many ways. And Benson is too much of a workaholic without anything real and good and supportive in her life."

The finale also serves as a goodbye for showrunner Warren Leight. He started his second stint on the show in 2019 but announced earlier this month that Season 23 would be his last. "The final day of shooting is always bittersweet. Today was a little more than that. As some of you have already figured out, I am stepping down at the end of #SVU23," Leight tweeted on May 3. "The last two years of show running during a pandemic have been arduous, and I've decided to take a break."

SVU was already renewed for three more seasons back in February 2020, so there are more opportunities for Barba and Benson to fix their relationship. The main Law & Order and Law & Order: Organized Crime will be back for the 2022-2023 TV season as well. All three shows will air on Thursdays. The current seasons are available to stream on Hulu and Peacock.