In the criminal justice system, sexually based offenses are considered especially heinous. In New York City, the dedicated detectives who investigate these vicious felonies are members of an elite squad none as the Special Victims Unit. NBC’s long-running Law and Order: SVU tells their stories. Dun dun.
Starring an ensemble of detectives, doctors, and lawyers, SVU most famously stars Mariska Hargitay and Christopher Meloni as detectives Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler. Together, the pair investigates the most twisted sex crimes in New York. The core themes of Law and Order: SVU are as follows. Rich, privileged people will always do harm. Whichever MTA worker, bodega owner, or sanitation engineer opens the episode will never do harm; these are the gems of the fictional SVUniverse. Victims often turn into abusers, abusers sometimes turn into victims, and drama always unfolds in the courtroom. That’s pretty much all you need to know.
In 24 seasons and 24 years, Law and Order: SVU has put out 538 episodes in total. If you’ve seen them all, congratulations. You probably double padlock your door every night, carry a taser without confirming it’s legal, drop pins to your friends in every Uber, and have never known a moment of peace. If you haven’t seen them all, here are the 25 best hours of twisted crime television available to you. Emphasis on twisted. This show is dark as hell. Watch all of these episodes, plus many, many, many more on Peacock.
[Editor’s note/trigger warning: Due to the nature of Law and Order: SVU, the episode descriptions below contain mentions of rape, incest, and other sexual crimes.]
“Nocturne” – Season 1, Episode 21
This early gem provides an entree into the sexual abuse cycle, following the story of a victim-turned-abuser. The episode opens with an abusive piano teacher offering free lessons to city kids, during which he abuses them. In search of previous victims willing to take the stand at trial, the SVU detectives unravel a dark web of abuse.
“Pique” – Season 2, Episode 20
This episode opens with the discovery of a body, as many do. A software company’s head of personnel is found strangled, raped, and stabbed in New York. While working the case, the detectives connect with an FBI psychiatrist, excuse us, the FBI psychiatrist. “Pique” marks the first appearance of the icon Dr. George Huang, played by B.D. Wong.
“Ridicule” – Season 3, Episode 10
Kink turned homicide, a recurring theme throughout Law and Order: SVU’s many seasons, rears its head in this season 3 episode (which, to clarify, there are many safe ways to practice kinks, but this show does seem to perpetuate a very false narrative that they lead to murder). “Ridicule” opens with the death of a young woman who, apparently, died of asphyxiation during a moment of erotic play.
“Resilience” – Season 4, Episode 10
“Resilience” opens on the attempted suicide of a teenage girl, reeling from her experience being raped. As the detectives dig deeper, they find a sordid connection between her alleged rapists and her mother. This episode is a great example of what we imagine happens in the SVU writers room, “What is the most f*cked up thing we can think of?”
“Fallacy” – Season 4, Episode 21
A great watch but a tough watch, that’s “Fallacy.” In the 20 years that have passed since its release, our language around and handling of gender identity issues has evolved greatly. This episode follows a girl at a party who, after being raped, kills her assailant. Throughout the investigation, the detectives learn that the victim is transgender, a conclusion they come to by finding only biologically male DNA samples at the crime scene. This scene has an incredibly heartbreaking ending, but we’ll let you see for yourself.
“Control” – Season 5, Episode 9
“Control” is the 100th episode of SVU, and it’s a great one. The episode opens with our beloved detectives hunting down an assailant who cut off a man’s genitals at a train station. We won’t spoil the plot, but this is a classic example of a villain hiding in victimhood, the bread and butter of the Law and Order universe.
“Ritual” – Season 5, Episode 14
This spooky episode opens on the murder of a 7-year-old boy, who appears to have been killed in a religious Santeria-like ritual. This episode unravels to include a slave trade of children and smuggling ring. You know, normal stuff.
“Mean” – Season 5, Episode 17
The villainizing of teenage girls, society’s favorite pastime, comes to head in this season 5 episode. The episode opens on the body of a teenage girl found in the trunk of a car, leading detectives to question her friends and classmates, culminating in a squad of murderous bullies.
“Sick” – Season 5, Episode 19
Evil rich people take the stage in “Sick,” which follows a 12-year-old boy who is arrested for posting online death and rape threats. When questioned by icon Dr. Huang, the boy reveals he was sexually abused by a powerful billionaire.
“Birthright” – Season 6, Episode 1
A kidnapping attempt turned rescue mission opens this season 6 episode, which explores the business of adoption and biological crimes. At the center of this is a six-year-old child whose origin story includes a switched at birth event, death, and much confusion. This episode is not only thought provoking, but it’s a welcome reprieve from all the violent rape and murder. Warning, it’s still twisted, but that’s a given.
“Obscene” – Season 6, Episode 3
This episode guest stars Phil of the Future’s Raviv Ullman in a role that feels eerily relevant in today’s age of “manosphere” podcasts. The episode opens on the rape of a Hollywood starlet in her trailer, the investigation of which leads detectives to a “men’s rights”-coded radio host whose anti-woman rhetoric infiltrates the minds of impressionable teenage boys.
“Scavenger” – Season 6, Episode 4
As the name suggests, this season 6 episode has the detectives following a Zodiac Killer-esque serial killer who leaves them clues and playful riddles as they work against the clock to save his next victim.
“Conscience” – Season 6, Episode 6
Featuring a guest performance from Kyle MacLachlan, this episode opens on the murder of a 5-year-old boy by his 13-year-old neighbor. Much of the episode focuses on the psychological analysis of this young killer, who appears to be a sociopath with no remorse. You’ll never believe the chaos that unfolds in the courtroom, so just watch it and see for yourself.
“Identity” – Season 6, Episode 12
Another take on gender identity theory, this season 6 episode begins with a murder which quickly becomes a subplot as the detectives encounter a unique pair of twins. Both of the twins present as female, but the detectives quickly learn that one of the twins had a much more traumatic entry into the world. Born biologically male and suffering from a botched circumcision, the twins’ parents are encouraged to raise both children as females by a sex therapist. These twins quickly become test subjects for a doctor looking to prove a nature versus nurture theory of gender identity.
“Hooked” – Season 6, Episode 15
One of two incredible episodes guest starring Hayden Panettiere, “Hooked” opens with the murder of a teenage prostitute who contracted HIV and began hooking up with men she met online.
“Parts” – Season 6, Episode 22
This episode opens on the dismembered body of a woman in a junkyard. Upon investigating the corpse, the detectives find that the killer attempted to harvest organs from her body. Organ harvesting really puts the “special” in Special Victims Unit. Warning for the Benson-hive, this episode does not feature Mariska Hargitay–guess she had the day off.
“Raw” – Season 7, Episode 6
An episode that hits close to home for pretty much everyone these days, “Raw” opens on a school shooting in which a 6-year-old boy is killed and two others are injured. In investigating the event, the detectives are led to the leader of a terroristic neo-Nazi white-supremacist group. Once again, the drama that unfolds in the courtroom will leave you stunned. This episode aired in 2005, and we wish it wasn’t so relevant today, but it is.
“Undercover” – Season 9, Episode 15
Benson! Benson! Benson! In case you didn’t know, Taylor Swift named her cat after Olivia Benson, and though we can’t be sure, we’d bet that had something to do with this episode. “Undercover” sees Detective Benson go undercover in a prison to investigate a serial-raping prison guard, putting herself in grave danger for the love of the badge.
“Authority” – Season 9, Episode 17
Guest starring Robin Williams as an (evil) genius-level engineer, this season 9 episode follows a string of hoax calls made by said engineer who finds joy in taking out cops at the knees. The engineer orchestrates hoax police calls, instructing business owners to strip search employees as part of a made up investigation. For this, he is charged with conspiracy to commit sexual assault, represents himself in trial, and chaos ensues.
“Selfish” – Season 10, Episode 19
This episode stars Hilary Duff as a young mother whose daughter goes missing, and is later found dead. Upon investigating, the detectives tie the blame back to another mother whose decision to not vaccinate her child led to the death of the other.
“Hardwired” – Season 11, Episode 5
In “Hardwired,” the detectives’ investigation of an abused teenage boy leads them first to his wrestling coach, and then to his own stepfather. This is pretty standard for the SVUniverse, but this episode features some extra interesting twists with the introduction of a child porn ring and a twisted pedophile-rights group called Our Special Love.
“Savior” – Season 11, Episode 14
Religion rarely bodes well in the Special Victims Unit, and this season 11 episode is no different. The episode opens with the double murder of two prostitutes, both found with a prayer card in hand.
“Theatre Tricks” – Season 13, Episode 11
A very New York story, this episode begins with a masked, avant-garde live performance in which an actress is raped in front of an audience of onlookers, who believe the scene to be part of the show. It’s an interesting look at the underworld of experimental theater, plus, the episode guest stars Adam Driver.
“Born Psychopath” – Season 14, Episode 19
This episode opens on a school nurse who discovers injuries on a young girl. Upon investigation, the detectives learn that her household is a violent one, with her parents unable to control their violent 10-year-old son.
“Surrender Benson” – Season 15, Episode 1
The season 15 premiere picks up where the season 14 finale left off, with Benson held hostage by a serial rapist and killer. At the top of the episode, she is bloodied, bruised, tied to a chair, and held at gunpoint. Back at NYPD HQ, the SVU team takes drastic measures to save one of their own. If Benson undercover with a rapist prison guard made you nervous, this one will leave you especially shaken.
Courtney Young is a freelance writer covering all things entertainment and pop culture, having previously written for Betches, Mic, and The Cut. Her Real Housewives locale of choice is New Jersey, her emotional support show is Girls, and her toxic trait is romanticizing mafia culture. You can follow her on Instagram @courtneyyoungg.