Olivia Benson

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Olivia Benson
Law & Order character
First appearance "Payback"
Portrayed by Mariska Hargitay
Time on show 1999–present
Seasons 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17
Credited appearances 380 episodes (SVU)
3 episodes (L&O)
1 episode (TBJ)
3 episodes (CPD)
1 episode (CF)
388 episodes (total)
Preceded by Sgt. John Munch (as sergeant of SVU)
Capt. Donald Cragen (as Commanding Officer of SVU)
Succeeded by

Lt. Declan Murphy (temporary as Commanding Officer of SVU)

Sgt. Mike Dodds (as Sergeant of SVU)
Title NYPD Junior Detective
(seasons 1–12)
NYPD Senior Detective
(seasons 13–15)
NYPD Sergeant
(season 15–17)
NYPD Lieutenant (season 17–)
Family Joseph Hollister
(father) (deceased)
Serena Benson
(mother) (deceased)
Simon Marsden
(paternal half-brother)
Tracy Harrison[citation needed]
Ty Harrison
Olivia Marsden
(paternal half-niece)
Noah Porter Benson
Partner Elliot Stabler
Nick Amaro
Signature Olivia Benson signature.svg

Olivia Benson is a fictional character on the NBC police procedural drama Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, portrayed by Mariska Hargitay. Benson is the lieutenant and commanding officer of the Manhattan Special Victims Unit of the New York City Police Department, which operates out of the 16th precinct.

For the first twelve seasons, she is partnered with Detective Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni). Following Stabler's departure, she is partnered with Nick Amaro (Danny Pino), but soon becomes sergeant and acting commanding officer in the wake of both Sergeant John Munch (Richard Belzer) and Captain Donald Cragen's (Dann Florek) retirement. During the 17th season, she is promoted to lieutenant and becomes the squad's official commanding officer.

The character first appeared in the Law & Order: Special Victims Unit pilot episode, "Payback", which aired September 20, 1999. Hargitay remains the only original cast member still present on the series. Benson has been credited in 380 episodes of SVU (388 in the franchise/universe) and is currently the fourth-longest serving character in the Law & Order universe, behind SVU's John Munch (Belzer), Donald Cragen (Florek) and Law & Order's Anita Van Buren (S. Epatha Merkerson).

Hargitay's portrayal of Olivia Benson has received critical acclaim, and she has been the recipient of numerous awards and nominations, including an Emmy and Golden Globe.

Character overview[edit]

Series creator Dick Wolf named his two lead detectives after his son, Elliot, and his daughter, Olivia.[1] Wolf conceived Benson as a detective in the Manhattan Special Victims Unit, which investigates sex crimes. For the first twelve seasons of the show, she is partnered with Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni); after he resigns (offscreen) at the beginning of Season 13, she is partnered with Nick Amaro (Danny Pino). She is tough, empathetic,[2] and gets emotionally involved in cases.[3] Executive producer and head writer Neal Baer has explained that she is "the empathetic, passionate voice for these victims",[4] in contrast to Stabler, who embodies "the rage we feel, the 'How can this happen?' feeling".[4] Of their partnership, Baer assessed that: "They both represent the feelings that we feel simultaneously when we hear about these cases. That's why they work so well together."[4]

In the episode "Paranoia", Benson described how, despite the difficulty she faced in dealing with a 2-year-old female rape victim on her second case, Karen Smythe, who trained her, praised her for displaying a talent in dealing with victims.[5] Benson herself is a child of her mother's rape. The man who raped her later committed suicide.[6] Benson's mother Serena (Elizabeth Ashley), an English professor, was an alcoholic who emotionally and physically abused Olivia. In the Season 2 episode "Taken", Serena Benson dies falling down a flight of subway stairs outside the entrance to a bar. In a later episode, "Intoxicated", she mentions being engaged briefly when she was 16 to one of her mother's students; when her mother found out, she broke the bottle of vodka she was drinking and went after Olivia with the jagged edge of the bottle. Olivia fought back, kicked her mother twice, and ran out of the house. Benson is a graduate of Siena College.[7] While there, she held a membership in a sorority.[8] In addition to English, Benson speaks Italian,[9] some Spanish and French and is able to read the Miranda warnings in at least two other languages.[10] She owns a black 1965 Ford Mustang convertible but rarely drives it.[11]

Benson was born on December 13, 1967.[12] She has a younger half-brother named Simon Marsden (Michael Weston). Simon, whom she found by illegally running her DNA through the system, was thought to be a rapist. However, his name was cleared after it is revealed that he was framed by Captain Julia Millfield (Kim Delaney).[13]

Benson's life is further complicated when she is named the legal guardian of a young boy named Calvin Arliss (Charlie Tahan). Calvin's mother, Vivian (Maria Bello) abandons Calvin and flees when Benson's investigation uncovers that Vivian (also a child of rape) may have killed her mother's rapist. Vivian names Benson as Calvin's legal guardian.[14] Calvin lives with her for a while, until she finds Vivian and her lover Sara have relapsed into drug use. Sara confesses to murdering Vivian's father and is then shot dead. Vivian revokes Benson's parental rights and sends Calvin to live with his grandparents. Both Calvin and Benson are devastated by the separation.[15] In Season 13, she is seen with Calvin and his grandparents during or right before Halloween.[16]

In the Season 13 episode "Child's Welfare", Simon reveals to Benson that she has a niece and a step-nephew named Olivia and Ty, and that he is planning to marry a woman named Tracy. When the children are taken by the City because of Simon's criminal background, Benson calls Defense Attorney Beyard Ellis (Andre Braugher), with whom she has become good friends, to help Simon and Tracy get the children back. When a judge denies the Marsdens their children back, Simon kidnaps them. Ellis makes a deal to have Simon serve a 60-day sentence, knocking his charge down from kidnapping to a misdemeanor, custodial interference. One of the conditions of the reduced charges is that he must give up his custody petition and agree to visit his daughter only in a supervised setting for the next three years. Simon is reluctant, but Benson tells him it's better than his daughter visiting him in jail.[17]

At the conclusion of the Season 15 finale, Benson becomes the court-appointed custodial guardian of Noah Porter, an orphaned baby. The appointment is for a trial period of one year, with the option to apply for legal adoption at the end of that period.[18] Although the year is rocky due to Noah's health issues and the demands of her job, Benson formally adopts Noah a year later.[19]


Hargitay has characterized Benson and Stabler's relationship as "very complicated".[4] Her assessment is that:

Baer agrees that a romantic relationship between the two is unlikely, though commented: "You never can say never".[4]

Hargitay has stated that her favorite SVU scene occurs in the Season 7 episode "Fault", when Benson is faced with the possibility of losing Stabler: "Lou Diamond Phillips [who played a child killer] has a gun to Elliot's head. I'm negotiating [with him to drop the gun]. It was a painful, high-stakes scene. Elliot and I have to admit what we mean to each other... He is everything that [my character] Olivia has. So this was where we really got that to pay off."[20] In an episode where Stabler goes undercover, Benson tries to talk him into coming back; but they are interrupted by Stabler's targets, and she undresses and pretends to be a prostitute.[21]

Benson takes it hard when Stabler resigns from the NYPD in the 13th season opener, "Scorched Earth", and takes a while to warm up to her new partner, Nick Amaro. While Stabler has yet to appear again in the series, Benson frequently mentions him in both a professional and personal context; she tells the squad's newer detectives what Stabler would do in a given situation, and says more than once that she is "getting over someone".[22]

In Season 1, Benson has a sexual relationship with one of her SVU colleagues, Detective Brian Cassidy (Dean Winters). In the episode "Closure", Benson refers to it as a drunken one-night stand. It is implied that the relationship continued based on comments in the episode "Disrobed". Cassidy leaves the precinct at the end of that episode. In the Season 5 episode "Lowdown", it is revealed Benson had a relationship with a murder victim who turned out to be homosexual and HIV positive. Medical Examiner Melinda Warner (Tamara Tunie) immediately tests Benson and the results come back negative. In the Season 9 episode "Closet", the SVU squad are surprised to find out that Benson has been in a relationship with journalist Kurt Moss (Bill Pullman) for several months. It comes out only because Internal Affairs is investigating Benson and Stabler in a case in which the department accidentally outed a professional football player. By the end of the episode, she breaks up with Moss.

While Benson has only been portrayed in relationships with men, she has, according to lesbian entertainment website AfterEllen.com, "attracted a large lesbian following".[23] Fan speculation exists over alleged sexual tension between Benson and Assistant District Attorney Alexandra Cabot (Stephanie March), which Baer admits to indulging: "We read the fan sites. We know that people are into the Alex-Olivia thing. All the codes are in there."[24] On her personal Twitter page, actress Diane Neal acknowledged the sexual tension between her character, ADA Casey Novak, and Benson, after speaking about her real friendship with Hargitay.[citation needed]

In the middle of Season 13, Benson enters into a relationship with a new prosecutor to the District Attorney's Office, Executive ADA David Haden (Harry Connick, Jr.) Hargitay has said that Connick, who is a friend of hers, improved the show. "This is a home run on so many levels," she said. "The show is very fortunate to have Harry's extraordinary talent, and I'm lucky because I get to work with my friend. I think Olivia couldn't have asked for a better companion to take her through a new stage in her life and career." Haden and Benson begin their relationship at the end of the episode, "Official Story". In the episode "Hunting Ground", she decides to take it slow with Haden, claiming she needs time to see if their relationship will last. That night, they end up sleeping together in her apartment. This makes her late for a case, which is frowned upon in the NYPD.[25][26][27] In the episode "Justice Denied", Benson and Haden end their relationship due to a conflict of interest.

In the Season 14 premiere, Benson shares a kiss with Cassidy after she tells him she is not the same person from 13 years before, when they had a brief sexual relationship. Later that season, in the episode "Undercover Blue", it is revealed that Cassidy and Benson had been seeing each other for quite some time. Their relationship hits a rough patch in the episode when Cassidy is accused of rape, which results in their relationship becoming public. The charges against Cassidy are later dropped when the SVU detectives discover that he was being set up. In Season 15, Benson stays with Cassidy as she recovers from her imprisonment by a serial rapist. A few months after she returns to work, they get a new apartment together. They break up in "Downloaded Child".

In "Chicago Crossover" and "They'll Have to Go Through Me", Benson strikes up a friendship with Sergeant Hank Voight (Jason Beghe) of the Chicago Police Department, despite their differing methodologies when it comes to solving crime. Upon the conclusion of their joint operation, the two share drinks before Benson returns to New York.

Sexual assault storylines[edit]

In the season 9 episode "Undercover", Benson poses as an inmate in a women's prison to investigate an alleged rape by a corrections officer. While there, the corrections officer in question, Captain Lowell Harris (Johnny Messner), attacks her and attempts to force her to perform oral sex on him. She is rescued by SVU colleague Fin Tutuola (Ice-T), who gets there just in time to stop the rape. Later, Benson helps convict the rapist by questioning his earlier victim about distinguishing features on his penis, prompting the victim to recall a mole on it, which Benson later explains to Warner that she had also seen. When Warner asks Benson if she had been raped, she replies, "It was the closest I've ever come."

In season 10, Benson is seen struggling with now being a victim of sexual assault herself. She is attending group therapy, something she has not shared with anyone but Tutuola. In the episode "PTSD," while investigating the rape of a Marine, she is pushed against a wall while trying to break up a fight between a suspected rapist and another Marine. She subsequently breaks up the fight by holding her gun to the back of the suspect's head. Later, while in questioning, the other Marine tells Tutuola that, "She [Benson] has PTSD, I would recognize that glassy-eyed look anywhere." At the end of the episode, the original suspect is cleared, and Benson apologizes to him, admitting that she was a victim of sexual assault.

In the season 11 episode "Perverted," Benson becomes the prime suspect in the sexual mutilation and murder of a biker gang member. As more evidence is found linking her to the crime, an Internal Affairs detective insinuates that she may have committed it while suffering from a flashback to the assault. The other detectives eventually discover that Benson has been framed by a man she sent to prison years earlier.

"Surrender Benson" storyline[edit]

At the end of the season 14 finale "Her Negotiation", Benson is kidnapped by serial rapist/murderer William Lewis (Pablo Schreiber). During the season 15 premiere "Surrender Benson", Lewis makes her watch while he rapes and tortures the mother of his attorney and kills a police officer who attempted to pull him over. He then beats and tortures her, burning her with cigarettes and wire hangers, and holds her hostage for four days. Just as he is about to rape her, she breaks free, handcuffs him, and holds him at gunpoint. When he taunts her, she loses control and beats him within an inch of his life with an iron rod. She is rescued by her fellow detectives moments later, and Cragen puts her on mandatory leave so she can recover.[28] She returns to work in the following episode, "Imprisoned Lives", which takes place two months later, but is still haunted by the experience. She begins seeing a therapist (Bill Irwin) to cope with the trauma. It is later revealed that Lewis survived and is in prison awaiting trial.

In "Psycho/Therapist", Lewis fires his new attorney and chooses to represent himself. He calls Benson as a witness and accuses her of assaulting him because he rejected her sexual advances. She vehemently denies it, and lies under oath that he had broken free of his restraints and lunged at her. Lewis is found guilty of kidnapping and assaulting a police officer, but the jury voices doubts about Benson's story and acquits him of attempted rape. The episode closes with Benson weeping on the courthouse stairs and, four months later, Lewis being wheeled away on a stretcher.

In "Beast's Obsession", Lewis uses the distraction caused by his (self-induced) cardiac incident to escape from prison. He then rapes a teenaged girl, kidnaps her younger sister and threatens to kill her unless Benson tells the truth about her testimony. Benson holds a press conference and admits that she lied on the witness stand. When Lewis does not release the girl, Benson tracks him down and surrenders to him. With his hostage watching, Lewis at first attempts to rape Benson, but changes his mind when she refuses to show him fear; instead, he forces her to play Russian roulette with him. As a police squad closes in, Lewis taunts her one last time before committing suicide right in front of her. In "Post-Mortem Blues", she is brought before a grand jury to explain her admission and Lewis' death. Her career is threatened until Murphy tells the grand jury that he instructed Benson to lie in her press conference, thus clearing her of Lewis' death and possible perjury charges. Murphy then makes Benson his second-in-command.

Character development[edit]

Hargitay has deemed the storyline which saw Benson find her paternal family "probably the biggest thing that's ever happened to Olivia".[29] She feels her character is a role model for teenage girls, revealing:


Benson joined the NYPD in 1992, and was trained by Sergeant Karen Smythe (Khandi Alexander) at the 55th Precinct in the Bronx. After completing her probationary period, Smythe recommended that Benson be transferred to the Sex Crimes Unit (later renamed the Special Victims Unit). By 1998, she had received her detective's shield and was assigned to the 16th Precinct as a Detective 3rd Grade, where she was partnered with Detective Elliot Stabler. She is promoted to Detective 2nd Grade in 2001, and Detective 1st Grade in 2011. In 2006, she is temporarily reassigned to the Computer Crimes Unit; later that year, she does a stint undercover for the FBI's Domestic Terrorism Unit at the request of her friend, Special Agent Dana Lewis (Marcia Gay Harden).

Benson and Stabler work together for over 12 years, until Stabler resigns in 2011 after he kills an 18-year-old girl who shot up the SVU squad room.[31] Following Stabler's resignation, she is partnered with Det. Nick Amaro (Danny Pino).[9]

Cragen asks Benson to take the Sergeant's exam following the retirement of Sgt. John Munch (Richard Belzer),[32] and she gets the promotion soon afterward; Cragen congratulates her for placing 48th out of 8,000 applicants.[33] Cragen announces at another dinner party that Benson has been approved to remain at SVU (it was feared she would be reassigned); at the end of the episode, Cragen reveals his impending retirement from the NYPD, making Benson SVU's acting commanding officer.[34] Benson remains in command until Lieutenant Declan Murphy (Donal Logue) takes over the squad; he makes her his second-in-command.[35] When Murphy returns to undercover work, he appoints her acting commander.[18]

Lt. Ed Tucker (Robert John Burke), representing 1 Police Plaza, asks Benson to take the Lieutenant's exam in order to officially take command of SVU before the NYPD appoints another officer to the position.[36] She passes the Lieutenant's exam with flying colors, and is officially promoted to Lieutenant after some politicking by her boss, Deputy Chief William Dodds (Peter Gallagher). Benson had wanted Fin Tutuola as her second-in-command, however Chief Dodds arranges for the politically unsavvy Benson to be assigned a Sergeant who does know how to play the game - his own son.[37]

List of assignments[edit]

  • Probationary Patrol Officer, NYPD 55th Precinct (1992-1993)[5]
  • Patrol Officer, NYPD 16th Precinct (1993-1998)
  • Junior Detective, NYPD 16th Precinct (Special Victims Unit) (1998 – May 18, 2011)
  • Senior Detective, NYPD 16th Precinct (Special Victims Unit) (September 21, 2011 – November 20, 2013)
  • Acting Commanding Officer (Sergeant), NYPD 16th Precinct (Special Victims Unit) (January 29, 2014 – April 9, 2014)
  • Sergeant—Supervisor Detective Squad, NYPD 16th Precinct (Special Victims Unit) (April 9, 2014 – May 21, 2014)
  • Acting Commanding Officer (Sergeant), NYPD 16th Precinct (Special Victims Unit) (May 21, 2014 – October 7, 2015)
  • Lieutenant—Commander Detective Squad, NYPD 16th Precinct (Special Victims Unit) (October 7, 2015 – present)

Temporary assignments[edit]

  • Detective, NYPD Computer Crimes Unit (May 2, 2006 – May 9, 2006)[38][39]
  • Undercover operative, FBI Domestic Terrorism Unit (September 19, 2006 – October 31, 2006)[40][41]
  • Special Deputy United States Marshal for the Eastern District of New York (October 6, 2010)[42]


  • Officer
  • Detective 3rd Grade[43]
  • Detective 2nd Grade[44]
  • Detective 1st Grade[9]
  • NYPD Sergeant Stripes.svg Sergeant[45]
  • US-O1 insignia.svg Lieutenant[37]


Awards and decorations[edit]

The following are the medals and service awards worn by then-Sergeant Benson, as seen in "Betrayal's Climax" and "Beast's Obsession".

American Flag Breast Bar.jpg American Flag Breast Bar
WTC Breast Bar.jpg World Trade Center Breast Bar
Mpd bronze.jpg NYPD Commendation or Commendation—Integrity


Hargitay has won a number of awards for her role as Benson: 'Individual Achievement for Best Female Lead' and 'Outstanding Female Lead' Gracie Awards in 2004 and 2009 respectively, an Emmy for 'Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series' in 2006, a Prism Award for 'Performance in a Drama Series Episode' in 2006, and a Golden Globe for 'Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series' in 2005. Of her Emmy win, Hargitay commented: "It makes me only want to be better. Now I'm an Emmy winner. I have to step it up."[29]

The San Francisco Chronicle's John Carman called Hargitay "the show's weakest performer" when the series originally premiered in 1999.[3] In 2006, however, fellow San Francisco Chronicle writer Jean Gonick, deemed Benson a suitable role model for teenage girls, calling her "courageous and strong, and unspeakably gorgeous",[46] and writing that "Olivia Benson is our own special hero. She battles evil, avenges her mother, faces her demons but refuses to date them."[46] In 2001, Entertainment Weekly's Ken Tucker criticized Benson and Stabler as "the most naive, bleeding heart molester busters in America."[47]

A poll on the Hallmark Channel voted her second-greatest detective in the Law & Order franchise, only being beaten by Law & Order: Criminal Intent's Robert Goren (Vincent D'Onofrio). Benson appeared in Comcast's list of TV's Most Intriguing Characters and also in the website's list of TV's Top Cops.[48][49] She was included in TV Guide's list of "TV's Sexiest Crime Fighters".[50] UGO Networks placed "the hard-charging detective" among the "fifty greatest fictional detectives of all time".[51] AOL TV named her one of TV's Smartest Detectives with partner Stabler.[52] The same website ranked her the 50th Most Memorable Female TV Character.[53] She was ranked No. 16 in AfterEllen.com's Top 50 Favorite Female TV Characters.[54] A 2015 poll released by Trailer Park, Inc. in conjunction with QC Strategy ranked Benson as the No. 1 "favourite female television character".[55][56]

Appearances on other shows[edit]

Benson appears on three episodes of Law & Order, one episode of Law & Order: Trial by Jury, three episodes of Chicago P.D. and one episode of Chicago Fire.

  • Law & Order: "Entitled: Part 2" (February 18, 2000)
  • Law & Order: "Fools for Love" (February 23, 2000)
  • Law & Order: Trial by Jury: "Day" (May 3, 2005)
  • Law & Order: "Flaw" (September 28, 2005)
  • Chicago P.D.: "They'll Have to Go Through Me" (November 12, 2014)
  • Chicago Fire: "We Called Her Jellybean" (April 28, 2015)
  • Chicago P.D.: "The Number of Rats" (April 29, 2015)
  • Chicago P.D.: "The Song of Gregory William Yates" (February 10, 2016)


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  33. ^ "Amaro's One-Eighty". Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Season 15. Episode 11. January 15, 2014. NBC. 
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External links[edit]