'Law & Order: SVU': 'I wanted a big shift' for Benson, EP says

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When Season 15 of "Law & Order: SVU" begins Wednesday (Sept. 25), prepare for an even darker episode than where the show left off. The fearless Det. Olivia Benson ( Mariska Hargitay) is held at gunpoint for most of the hour.

The episode takes us to depths even this show hasn't gone before. For much of the premiere, "Surrender Benson," the detective is handcuffed, beaten and taken on a hideous trip by serial rapist William Lewis ( Pablo Schreiber).

Executive producer Warren Leight tells Zap2it why this episode, picking up on last season's cliffhanger, was so important to him and what he wants to do this season that's different. 

Zap2it: Had Benson ever been in this sort of life-and-death danger before?
Warren Leight: There was an episode [in Season 9] in which she went undercover in prison and was assaulted, a guard attempted to assault her and she was rescued by Fin [ Ice-T]. That was the closest. This is much more harrowing.

Why is this one so much more disturbing on a show known for disturbing material?
The character Pablo Schreiber is playing is as dark and twisted as anyone we have ever done, and violent. 

This episode just feels different from the series. Why is that?
At times it is a little cinematic, at times it is a little theatrical. I didn't want it to feel like another episode or just another premiere. 

What did you want the big takeaway to be?
To me, after this experience you get the chance to redefine the show and the character. She spent her entire career counseling other people, and now she has become one of them. I wanted a big shift in her character, and that is hard to do.

How long has this been in the works?
Ironically, we didn't even know if we were getting a Season 15. We ended the season with a gun at her head -- a little bit of a metaphor. Is that the way you guys want to end this series? I wanted to give them as many reasons as possible to give us a Season 15. Now we can really take a different approach to the show. It has always been a series of one-off episodes ... but we are arcing Olivia's recovery all the way through this season, so that is very different. 

So the detectives' personal lives will be story lines?
In traditional "Law & Order" storytelling, whatever happened last week never happened. That makes it terrific in terms of reruns and gives them less of a reason to watch tonight. The stories will be self-contained. You can feel it a little online with the #SaveBenson hashtag going around. I want them to follow her path and her journey this season. People go through horrible things -- do they let it define them? Do they let it take them down or make something else out of it?

Fans are invested in Benson. What are you hoping their take on this episode is?
I wanted this episode to be very visceral. You are there with her. We know [Hargitay] signed for the season, but it is not a lock that she will make it through. Now that you have gone through that with her, you can walk with her through the season. This character is always great at taking care of others and neglecting herself.

Will we see William Lewis again?
A lot of that depends how "Ironside's" schedule turns out [Schreiber co-stars in the new NBC series]. Pablo is one of the best actors I ever worked with. He is a formidable antagonist, a formidable bad guy. If this is the only time we see him, we are all scarred for life for it. There will be glimpses in flashbacks. The effect he has on people just doesn't wash away.

Does this episode have an Emmy feel to you?
I can't say that. I think when you are in year 15 of a show, people take it for granted. Some of the work Mariska has done was taken for granted. I think it is impossible to take her work for granted after this episode comes out. Everyone is jaded and thinks the show is on autopilot. I work with her every day. There are scenes it does not look like her, does not sound like her. She kept saying she felt liberated with this episode.

"Law & Order: SVU" premieres at 9 p.m. ET Wednesday on NBC. "Surrender Benson" is followed by a second episode, "Imprisoned Lives."
Photo/Video credit: NBC
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