This Year’s Best Holiday Movie Was a Law & Order: Organized Crime Episode From May

Because it’s Christmas, and at Christmas you tell the truth, I feel compelled to let you know that the year’s best holiday special aired this past May.

The work in question had a big-city girl reflecting on her path. It had flirting. It had an exchange of gifts. It was… the Organized Crime section of Law & Order’s three-way, season-ending crossover event, and it was 2023’s stealth yuletide treat.

No shade to the current crop of festive movies — many of which TVLine has chronicled over the past few months — but they were all so obvious with their quaint, snow-covered towns, match-making Santas and perfectly hung mistletoe. Anyone can find holiday cheer in a small town while sipping hot cocoa and listening to a choir of rosy-cheeked kids sing carols. It takes the really dedicated among us to encounter it in a squad room full of overworked, underpaid, emotionally constipated public servants who’ve seen things.

But encounter it we did — specifically in the scene where Det. Elliot Stabler stopped by Capt. Olivia Benson’s office to let her know he was heading out on a new case and wouldn’t see her for a while. Before he left, though, he wanted to give her something. The death of a team member had him thinking about “how precious life is,” he said, quietly slipping a brown paper bag onto her desk. Inside? A velvet jewelry box tied up with ribbon. “I like small boxes,” she remarked. “I know,” he replied. “Because you’ve been doing this weird dance around each other for a very long time,” I muttered.

Before she could open it, though, he stopped her and playfully demanded to know what was in a different wrapped gift, one that had been sitting in her office since the previous Christmas season. Earlier in the crossover, we’d learned that it was a package from her son’s half-brother’s family. (Long story, doesn’t matter; if you really want to get into it, here’s a recap.). All you need to know is that Benson used the request to set up the exact kind of nonsense, no-stakes bargain that Christmas movies love: “You open it,” she said, handing him the box, “you keep it.”

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Hear Us Out: Law & Order: SVU and Organized Crime Should Be One Show

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So he did. It was a wooden ornament proclaiming, “Live Love Laugh,” and Olivia chuckled as she assumed he regretted his choice. But she didn’t realize El was about to Bring Meaning to the moment. “Nah,” he said, fiddling with the trinket and breaking the “e” off “Live,” then holding it so she could see that it now read “Liv Laugh Love.” Just in case you missed that: LIV LOVE LAUGH.  “You can always fix things,” he said fondly, which is quite the blanket statement given their inherently troubled long-term, hard-to-define relationship, but who doesn’t love a fluffy blanket at this time of year?

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Then it was Benson’s turn. Her gift: a golden compass necklace that both surprised and touched her. “Is this supposed to lead me somewhere or to something?” she asked.

Now, here’s where we divert from the Christmas-movie formula, which would have this scene happening just before the ending, therefore pushing Stabler into some kind of romantic declaration. But everyone involved here knows that the Law & Order Cinematic Universe has been trucking right along for more than two decades and likely will outlive human civilization as we know it, so what’s the rush?  “Lead you to happiness, Liv,” he said as she looked more closely at the jewelry, and — wait, how am I just now realizing that the compass doesn’t have a dial? Carisi on a cracker, if that isn’t a fitting metaphor for these two, I don’t know what is.

Anyway, Olivia said she’ll try to find happiness. Stabler said he will, too, calling her “partner” one last time as he headed out the door. The loving looks they shot each other! The way her voice was tinged with happy tears! Add a little fake snow and a B-list ‘80s TV star, and Hallmark Channel would snap it up in a second. (See for yourself, starting around the 39-minute mark.)

Now, teacher says every time a bell rings, a Law & Order viewer feels the need to tell me that the former SVU partners are “better as friends.” So hit the comments and go for it, ye merry gentlemen!

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