Law & Order: Special Victims Unit is bringing back a beloved character in the next new episode, but he is not exactly who fans were expecting to see so soon. Former Assistant District Attorney Rafael Barba, played by Raul Esparza, will appear in the first new episode of 2021. Later this season, Christopher Meloni is also expected to return to the series to help launch a new Law & Order series featuring Stabler.
In the teaser for the next episode, which will not air until Jan. 7, Barba is shown going toe-to-toe with his former colleagues as he has now switched to defense attorney. In one scene, he bluntly told Carisi (Peter Scanavino) he is looking for a "not guilty" verdict in the case they find themselves on opposite sides of. "Mr. Barba is going to play on your emotions," Carisi told the jury. "Anyone got a problem with that?" an overconfident Barba asked in response.
Esparza joined SVU in Season 14 but left in Season 19 when D.A. Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) tried him for murder because he disconnected the life support of a comatose infant. Barba was found not guilty, but the whole experience soured Barba on the job and he quit. Peter Stone (Philip Winchester) became the next ADA but only lasted until the end of Season 20. Carisi then took over as the current ADA after he left the detective squad.
This will not be Esparza's first appearance on the show since he left though. In last season's "Redemption in Her Corner," Esparza made a very brief appearance before the main title so Benson (Mariska Hargitay) could get an update on his life. Barba was in Iowa, where he was keeping tabs on the primary election results.
SVU Season 22 will eventually bring in Meloni as Stabler, although later than originally planned. He was supposed to come in during the premiere, but since his show, Law & Order: Organized Crime, was postponed, so was his on-screen reunion with Hargitay. The SVU episode featuring Stabler will now not air until Organized Crime finally premieres. The show ran through some trouble, as original showrunner Matt Olmstead left the series.
The project is still in the works though. On Thursday, Hargitay shared a photo from a virtual table read with Meloni joining the current SVU cast. "Well... that happened," Hargitay wrote in the caption. Kelli Giddish (Rollins), Demore Barnes (Deputy Chief Christian Garland), Scanavino, Jamie Gray Hyder (Kat), and Ice-T (Fin) all took part in the table read as well.