After five seasons at the helm of Law & Order: SVU, showrunner Warren Leight's final two episodes will be the two-part Season 17 finale, airing May 18 and 25. And fittingly, the season-ender puts ADA Barba (Raul Esparza) in grave danger.
Possibly more than any other character on SVU, Barba is the true brain-child of Leight. Ahead of SVU's 14th season, Leight approached Esparza about playing the show's next ADA. Although the pair had enjoyed working together on the short-lived 2012 Broadway production Leap of Faith, Esparza was initially hesitant about taking the role. However, he was eventually convinced, prompting a collaboration that birthed one of the show's most beloved ADAs - a passionate Cuban lawyer with a sharp tongue and even sharper suits.
"We created him together," Esparza recalls. "Juliet Polsca, our costume designer, figured out what Barba wears and I figured out what his attitude is. And Warren gave me his voice and his way with words. It's not just my creation, so I'm going to lose his heart and soul a bit."
"It's very hard for me to imagine what the show will be like without [Leight] because he's my voice," Esparza adds.
When SVUpremiered in 1999, the original Law & Order was nearing the height of its power and the world was still living in fear of Y2K. Now, 17 years and three additional L&O spin-offs later, SVU is the last remaining installment of the 26-year franchise, thanks in great part to Leight's ability to adapt the show to the times.
"Law & Order and all the [spin-off] shows have always been procedurals that function with a specific kind of formula," Esparza tells TVGuide.com. "But the genius of what has happened over the last couple seasons, particularly with Warren at the helm, is that it's become a really rich ensemble show that functions still as a procedural, but also with the depth and complexity, lately, as many of the other really good shows on TV."
Leight joined the long-running drama in its 13th season, just after star Christopher Meloni's departure. But rather than ignore the loss of Meloni's Det. Stabler, Leight leaned into it, helping give the show a more serialized, emotionally grounded feel than it previously had. Now he's leaving to focus on a three-year development deal with Sony, and his departure has SVU fans and stars alike wondering about the show's future.
"I'm hopeful, but of course cautious about what the future brings, because that's how it works," Esparza says. "This is the man who created Barba walking away."
Based on Leight and Esparza's close relationship, it makes sense that the showrunner's final episodes are Barba-centric. As the SVU squad investigates corrupt corrections officer Gary Munsun (Brad Garrett), Barba begins receiving death threats. The two investigations weave in and out of each other throughout the two-part finale, leading to moments of both great joy and great tragedy. The case also puts Barba in a dangerously foreign situation, where his typical tactics only make things worse for himself.
"He's a smartass," Esparza explains. "Barba's history is that he grew up in the streets and he yanked himself out of a neighborhood where he ran with a lot of tough people. He's used to dealing with things that are frightening to him by not backing down and I think he mouths off a lot. It's just the way he gets through life, and that's going to get you in trouble eventually. And I'm excited by that. I really like it when Barba gets caught in a bit of a mess. I think it's great to see someone who's that smart, fantastic and fast on their feet be at a loss or be wrong."
Fortunately for Barba, he has the unwavering support of the SVU squad during this trying time. "I don't think Barba's a man who easily makes friends, but he does have a friend in Benson (Mariska Hargitay)," Esparza says. However, when Barba reaches out for help in the finale, he doesn't go to the lieutenant, "partly because he doesn't want Benson to call him on his crap in this particular case." Instead, Rollins (Kelli Giddish) and Carisi (Peter Scanavino) become the people on whom Barba leans most heavily — but that doesn't mean his ego will go un-checked.
"You know how it is with people who think they always know what's right? Someone like Barba doesn't like to hear it when others tell him that he's got to play things different," Esparza says. "That's something Rollins does, for instance. She calls him out on his things."
Viewers know little about Barba's life outside his work, something Esparza says he's in no rush to explore. But by putting him center-stage in the finale, fans will get the opportunity to better know the man whom Leight established alongside Alex Cabbott (Stephanie March) as one of the franchise's best ADAs.
"I think people who watch the show feel as though they have an advocate in him who is not going to bend over too often," Esparza says of Barba's legacy. "The ADAs in these stories are relegated to coming on and saying things like, 'it can't be done.' Barba comes on and says, 'we're going to fight this out,' or, 'if it can't be done, I'm going to figure out a way to do it my way.' And I've read a lot from fans online saying they feel that they've got someone fighting now, an ADA who doesn't bend over but who picks up the knife and runs into the fray.
"And the fact that it's a Cuban character that I'm playing just makes that extra delicious for me," he adds. "Because I've done many things in my life, but the one thing I've never been asked to play is Cuban, which is what I am."
SVU's two-part finale begins Wednesday at 9/8c on NBC.