SVU Olivia Benson toasts Fin in a bar

The following contains spoilers for Law & Order: SVU Season 24, Episode 15, “King of the Moon,” which debuted Thursday, Feb. 23 on NBC.

For all its heinous crimes, Law & Order: SVU is a sentimental show. It has lasted well into a quarter-century by being more character-driven than the original Law & Order and producing stories geared more towards the victims and their emotions rather than the crimes against them. Though there are certainly action-packed episodes of SVU, the show works best when it plays up that sentimentality.

Season 24, Episode 15, “King of the Moon” exemplified SVU‘s emotionally driven approach. A touching tale of love and loss directed by series star and executive producer Mariska Hargitay, it had a sympathetic main character and sprinkled in a reference to Hargitay’s mother Jayne Mansfield. It was a compelling and moving episode — and one of the show’s best in years — because it was less about the crime and more about the victim.

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How Law & Order: SVU is Geared Toward Playing on Viewers’ Emotions

svu s24 e9 rollins and carisi getting married in front of colleagues

Law & Order: SVU was built to be more sentimental than its predecessor. Its iconic lead character Olivia Benson began her career as a detective with a incredible empathy and a traumatic backstory as the child of rape. Benson played a huge part in shaping the emotional arc of the show as she became its center. Viewers have watched her grow, become a mother and deal with many new traumas — yet never lose her compassion or vulnerability. Benson’s emotional journeys like her gang attack have been a cornerstone for viewers to follow even as other SVU characters and stories have come and gone.

But it’s not just Benson carrying the show’s sentimentality. SVU‘s ideology is that the good guys are very good and the victims are always sympathetic. Even when the show posits a “difficult” victim, there is a backstory and a tenderness to the plot, such as in Season 24, Episode 3, “Mirror Effect” in which the idea of “no perfect victims” was presented. Even with the most abrasive or difficult victim, the series presents them in a way that viewers can empathize with them.

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Why Law & Order SVU’s Sentimental Episodes Are Its Best

Because of poignant stories and well fleshed-out characters, Law & Order: SVU has maintained a dedicated audience despite its heavy subject matter. Moments that lean into sentimentality — like Amanda Rollins and Sonny Carisi’s long-awaited wedding — reward viewers with a happy ending after years of investment. Complicated villains who operate out of raw sadness or desperation, such as Robin Williams’ incredibly compelling Merritt Rook in Season 19, Episode 7, “Authority,” stick with viewers long after their episodes have aired. And even the departure of characters such as Richard Belzer’s fan-favorite Detective Munch are sentimental in the best way; Munch’s final episode, Season 15, Episode 15, “Wonderland Story” included a loving flashback to his previous series Homicide: Life on the Street.

When SVU tugs on the heartstrings of viewers in ways that are genuine but not overly saccharine, it shines. It’s this ability to utilize the emotions of both its characters and viewers that keep the show going. With Season 24 upsetting the SVU fandom, “King of the Moon” was a welcome return to caring. It featured a suspect who was also a victim and Benson as both its moral and emotional center. By the end of the episode, fans were just as emotional as Pence Humphreys, because they had gone on a journey with him and shared Benson’s ability to care for a complete stranger.

Law & Order: SVU airs Thursdays at 9:00 p.m. on NBC and streams on Peacock.

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