At the end of his first-ever appearance as Assistant District Attorney Rafael Barba on the 14th season of Law & Order: SVU, actor Raúl Esparza takes off his leather belt, hands it to a defendant in the jury box, and asks him to choke him with it.
Barba is prosecuting Adam Cain, a talk show host who is alleged to have raped Jocelyn Paley, a vanilla-looking woman who has written the show’s fictionalized version of Fifty Shades of Grey. The episode, like all late-series episodes of SVU, is unwieldy and a little too complicated, but the scene to remember is Barba allowing Cain to slide the belt around his neck and tug, harder and harder, until Barba’s eyes are bugging out and the jury is horrified at the unchecked sexually inclined violence on display at the stand. It was dramatic and at the time of its airing presented only another potential new character going through the show’s revolving door of characters, especially in the post–Elliot Stabler world.
Esparza lasted five and a half years as ADA Barba on SVU, with his time in the role coming to a close during Wednesday’s episode “The Undiscovered Country” (à la Hamlet), number 423 in the 19-season series. Barba went out as dramatically as he came in, this time, however, as the defendant himself. The episode led by exploring themes SVU has worn nearly to death: A baby goes missing, the father is the kidnapper, the child has a life-threatening illness, Olivia Benson throws herself into avoidable and ill-advised personal danger to negotiate a hostage situation herself. The twist, however, is that the baby in question has Mitochondrial DNA Depletion Syndrome, a rare, muscular disease, and the mother, Maggie Householder, wants the baby to have the right to die.
The show presents a pair of parents in the most unenviable position imaginable: divided on whether or not to keep their only child, who they’ve been told had no brain activity, alive or put him out of his pain. It becomes a whole emotional thing for Barba, who, like pretty much every character on SVU had a bad relationship with his father, who he tells guest-starring DA Jack McCoy lived six weeks on life support because Barba was too afraid to take on the burden of being the one to end his life.
It becomes a moral dilemma, though one that’s a little rushed in the storyline, if we’re honest, and next thing you know, Barba and the mother are staring at the baby on the respirator and after he convinces her not to turn off the machine herself, he takes it upon himself to end the child’s life.
It’s a definite “going off the rails” moment for a show that’s gone off the rails every three or so years in the back half of its run. It’s a dramatic set-up to allow Esparza to leave the show, and it probably should have been a two-part episode. Maybe it would have been if not for backing up against the Olympics. Unfortunately, the crammed nature of the episode denied fans like me one last fleshed-out element of the show’s most magnetic ADA: His signature grandstanding.
I would have spent a full hour watching Rafael Barba agonize over the moral and ethical implications of a suffering person’s right to die and over the decision he will and has made. I can picture Barba’s monologuing now, if the episode had given him the time. The character existed on tenets of arrogance, moral and ethical dilemmas, and, let’s be honest, as a new unfulfilled love interest for Benson. As the show rounds the bend toward a full two decades of being on the air, his presence will be sorely missed. The future is clear; Peter Stone, the son of the deceased former ADA Ben Stone from the original Law & Order, will take the reins in the prosecutor’s office. But it’s reasonable to ask if, after the original cast has been whittled down to Benson and Fin Tutuola, fans can make the jump to yet another ADA. I don’t know if I can, but I do know one this: I will always be loyal to Rafael Barba.
Esparza had big shoes to fill as the series’ third recurring ADA. Wars over land and religion have been less incendiary than the side-picking amongst longtime SVU fans over Barba’s predecessors, Alexandra Cabot and Casey Novak. I don’t actually take sides here; Cabot and Novak are as essential to the SVU canon as the law is to order. But, the functional dynamic of the SVU ecosystem that Cabot and Novak inhabited was very different from the one Barba inherited.
Once upon a time, the SVU cast was replete with strong and notable characters. You had your Benson and Stabler, sure. But Munch was the fitting complement to Finn; Captain Cragen was a fitting and reliable steward. Cabot and Novak were always a phone call away, both of them firm and consistent with the squad. Melissa Warner was a consistent medical examiner, and I think every SVU fan I know would take a bullet for B.D. Wong as forensic psychologist Dr. George Huang.
The role of the ADA was important—it’d be kind of weird to have a show predicated on law and order without strong casting for the law half of the equation. But throughout most of their stints on the show, Cabot and Novak had a significant supporting cast. Barba, on the other hand, progressed to become the strongest, most interesting personality left on the show with Olivia Benson. Without Munch, Fin’s sting has been somewhat neutered; Nick Amaro was basically the show’s hate-able hot guy; Amanda Rollins has all sorts of problems but has never quite evolved to become Benson’s complement; and while Sonny Carisi is a fantastic police character, the show’s move away from a true procedural has really limited his effectiveness.
For my money, SVU’s late-series core duo has been Barba and Benson. It’s a split that makes me genuinely concerned about the worth of the show going forward.
Unlike most of the show’s recurring and guest-starring actors, Esparza came from Broadway instead of through the traditional actor pipeline. Like everyone else to ever work as an actor in New York, he made requisite one-off appearances on the original Law & Order and on Criminal Intent. But traditionally, Esparza has been a Broadway guy, and he was brought onto the show by former showrunner Warren Leight. (Leight, like Esparza, started his career in theater, moving into television in the early aughts.) Esparza had the lead role in Leap of Faith, a musical that had a 2012 run on Broadway that was written for the stage by Leight. That year, Leight brought Esparza to SVU, kicking off his tenure with that infamous choking scene in the courtroom. Leight left the show in 2016, and an interview with Entertainment Weekly this week, Esparza said Leight’s departure was obviously a factor in his decision to leave the show.
In the past, Esparza has credited Leight for taking the show into the contemporary television realm by transitioning it out of its place in the cultural pantheon as another Dick Wolf procedural and into a true network drama.
Last month it was announced that Esparza would return to Broadway with a starring role in Chess, a musical set during the Cold War. Esparza says that was his main motivation for leaving SVU, but in his interview with EW, he also hinted at the trajectory of the show as another factor for his decision to part:
I’ve done six seasons, I felt like it was time to go. I had explored a lot of what I thought Barba was about. I just felt it was time to move on. I was also feeling like the role has changed over the years in a way that has been an interesting experience for me. Again, I’m a theater guy, so it’s like having a script in front of you that keeps changing every time you go to do it. The learning process of how roles grow over a period of time with a series has been kind of fascinating, and I just felt I had reached the end of what I wanted to explore where they were writing.
It’s a very hmm-worthy quote, but one that’s not worth dwelling on. What’s done is done, Barba is gone, and the show intends to introduce yet another ADA to the series. Doing so indicates the showrunners anticipate life long after Barba, despite the show’s single-season contract and uncertain renewal before this current season.
In the beginning of his character’s arc, Barba was a careerist prick. He wore a lot of nice suits and suspenders, though I strongly disagree with the notion that anyone should ever wear a chocolate-brown suit. He was abrasive and didn’t quite understand the nuances of working with sexual assault victims. Enter Benson, and her signature overly empathetic approach to the job.
In time, Barba and Benson moved each other closer toward a central meeting point. A reliable miniature plot point in Barba’s episodes would inevitably be him drawing a hard line on what the law allowed, and what his bosses would think about him pushing the envelope too hard beyond the cases that were eminently winnable (gotta hit those quotas). Benson would look at him, pleading with him to consider the future precedents of the various cases that landed on his desk, until he’d finally relent and agree to take on a bigger task, telling Benson she better have her squad do everything in their power to help him with the case. Sometimes he’d win the case, sometimes he’d lose, but the big takeaway was this: He’d always give it a shot, and he’d take those risks with grandiosity and a sharp wit in front of the judge and jury.
In return, Barba made Benson more rigorous in her handling of cases. One of the show’s weak points has always been making Benson too sympathetic with cases, to the point where the obvious implications of femininity do a disservice to the meticulousness and boundaries of her police work. But the show excelled at making Barba and Benson work together in a way that any great relationship should; there was a push and a pull and ultimately they were both better for it.
Over time, Benson pushed Barba so far to the empathetic side of the spectrum he basically became the world’s showiest male feminist. In Barba’s third-to-last episode, he tries to take on the strangest task of all: Making implicit sexism illegal. The episode takes on the story of an airline that refuses to promote women to the captain position, which the crew discovers after investigating the rape of a female co-pilot who, out of an expression of trauma, hijacks the plane and is prosecuted on terrorism charges. But because it can never be simple, the SVU team takes on the airline. During a one-on-one conversation, Benson tells Barba that sexism isn’t illegal, and he asks her but what if it were, and decides to take on a total loser of a case to try to move case law closer toward equality.
It’s all pretty silly, and, admittedly, if there were a person who tuned in diligently to the show’s first seasons and awoke from a coma to watch season 19, they’d hardly recognize the show and its turn from a procedural into a soap. But Barba has reliably been a bright spot. For my money, Barba is the show’s best recurring ADA, and it’s not his character’s fault he was brought onto the show so many years after its prime.
Barba’s last stand is the perfect coda. He killed that baby. Whether it was murder or mercy is what is up for dispute as he finds himself on the stand facing the prosecutor who will replace him.
Stone asks Barba why he felt it was his place to make the decision to end the baby’s life, to which he tearfully tells him that when he looked at the baby and saw that it would never experience life or joy or anything but pain, and he felt it was the right thing to do. Stone presses him on whether or not he feels guilty, which he tries to squirm out of answering, but finally relents: “I do.”
Barba, of course, beats the charge, while—per the closed captioning—“somber music” plays. SVU is and has always been nothing if not predictable, its most tried and true strength. In his final scene, Barba looks up at the steps of the New York County Courthouse when Benson walks up to him. He tells her that six years ago he saw all forms of justice in matters of black and white, and thanks to her, he can now see in proper color—“Before I knew it, there were blues and greens and yellows and reds.” When asked earlier by his boss, Jack McCoy, what he’s going to do next, Barba asks: “Would it be unbearably corny if I said, ‘I’m going to do what I must?’” It is, and it fits.