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Elliot Stabler from SVU's entire backstory explained

It generally holds true that the longer a character is on TV, the less of a backstory they have. That might seem counter-intuitive, but think about it. A miniseries like Sharp Objects or Watchmen dives deeply into character's psyches, because it has an endpoint and can plan accordingly. But audiences don't need to know why George Costanza is a lazy schemer for Seinfeld to work: We just need him to fill his role. Sure, these characters might struggle, but a true crisis demands a true resolution — something long-running TV can't supply. So these characters skate along, maintaining the status quo, creatures of the present until the show's end.

Things are different in the world of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. There, each character brings their personal trauma into work, every single episode. Fin Tutuola's life on the streets is constantly invoked. Munch's jokes about jadedness hint towards his long and dark career. Olivia Benson is empathetic to a fault, driven by her own demons. And Elliot Stabler is white-hot rage incarnate. The past is always present in SVU, and Stabler's past is complex indeed. We're here to lay it out in its entirety.

A rough upbringing

Across 12 seasons on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Christopher Meloni's Stabler brings passion, tenderness, and anger to the fore. He can be counted on to flip a table, scare a suspect, punch a wall, and seethe — but SVU  keeps him from becoming a caricature with careful deployments of backstory. He's not a maniac from nowhere, veins ready to pop in his forehead every time a sex crime is committed. All of Stabler's choices are rooted in his complicated past.

Elliot Stabler had a less-than-ideal childhood. His mother Bernadette suffered from undiagnosed mental illness, and his father Joseph, a police officer, was emotionally and physically abusive. One example that Stabler shares with a therapist involved a school project when Stabler was a young child. He and Joseph built a diorama the night before the project was due. When Stabler went back and moved an aspect of the diorama without his father's permission, his father lost his temper. Joseph beat Stabler with a belt and destroyed the project by stomping on it.

Joseph ultimately lost his position with the NYPD when he refused to testify against crooked cops.

Mommy dearest

His mother's frequent mood swings and irrationality made Stabler's early years in Bayside, Queens difficult. She had an episode while driving with Stabler in the car, in which she attempted to "chase the snowflakes" with her vehicle. She crashed the car into a lamppost, causing Stabler to break his arm. 

His mother was put on medication briefly, after a fight with her husband. She claims that they were arguing and she grabbed for Joseph's service weapon, noting that the "gun went off." Joseph had her committed after the argument, but Bernadette refused to admit that she was struggling with mental illness.

 Though Stabler is estranged from his mother and has attempted to erase his childhood from memory, he does reach out to her when his daughter Kathleen begins to exhibit abnormal and illegal behavior. Granted, he does this on the advice of Kathleen's lawyer, who believes she'll be less likely to be punished if they can demonstrate a family history of mental illness. Bernadette tells Kathleen that she paid a heavy price for refusing treatment, having lost her relationship with Stabler and any real connection to her grandchildren. 

Rules and order, from multiple places

Stabler's personality is much more like his father's than he'd care to admit. Possibly as a reaction to his mother's episodes (what she called her "flamboyance") and his father's corruption, Stabler became a stickler for order and rules. He maintained his relationship with the Catholic Church throughout his life, and is shown repeatedly to be extremely devout. His tattoos symbolize his fealty to two major sources of stability in his life:  One depicts Jesus Christ, the other depicts the instantly recognizable eagle, globe and anchor of the Marine Corps.

Though the show is unclear about the timeline of Stabler's service, we do know that he participated in Operation Desert Storm. It has also been disclosed that he was an expert in hand-to-hand combat — something that makes sense, given his brawler's personality. He's all about the order side of the ampersand, and his decision to become a police officer, despite his father's legacy, serves as proof. He signed up with the NYPD when he was not yet old enough to drink in 1986. He was promoted to detective and moved to the SVU in 1993.

History repeats itself

Stabler cannot actually escape his past, no matter how much he'd like to. Like his father before him, Stabler became a cop, a man who struggles with anger, and one half of a marriage grown perilously shaky.

Stabler and his wife Kathy have five children together. Though he loves his family dearly, his stoic nature puts them under tremendous strain. Throughout the series, he worries that his children will be exposed to the world's cruelties. Hoping to avoid his father's mistakes, he completely walls off his work life from home. Unfortunately, this leads to Stabler being a bit of a closed book to his entire family, including his wife. 

Unable to handle this distance, Kathy separates from Stabler and takes the children with her.  She files for divorce, but Stabler stubbornly refuses to sign the papers. It's only after he encounters a married couple who brutally attacked each other that he decides to sign the papers. He never wants their love to curdle into hatred, and knows that ultimately, he can be better than his own parents by accepting the divorce. But the divorce never actually goes through. After years of work on himself, Stabler is eventually allowed back into Kathy's life. His time on the series ends with the pair still married.

Blurring the lines of legality

Stabler tends to take his cases personally, fearing that the sexual assaults and other crimes he witnesses may one day happen to his daughters. Where his partner Olivia Benson takes this same tendency to personalize their work and uses it to empathize with victims, Stabler runs in the opposite direction: He lashes out at suspects. It's impossible to keep count of the times he's used excessive force, but here are a few notable examples.

In season eight's "Annihilated," he nearly chokes a man to death in the interrogation room, following the man's admittance to killing his own family. The only thing that stops Stabler is the realization that he'd be leaving his children without a father. Later, in season four's "Pandora," Stabler nearly beats a suspect to death in Europe while working on a child pornography case. The camera hones in on Stabler, and we see his decision to ultimately keep himself from killing the man play out across his face.  In season six's "Rage," Stabler encounters his nemesis, Gordon Rickett, a depraved serial murderer who targets young girls. Stabler yet again contemplates killing a suspect — but luckily, Benson intervenes before he can. Stabler takes his rage out on a nearby locker.

Close calls

According to  executive producer and showrunner Neal Baer, Stabler is afraid of his own violent tendencies, and unable to fully confront the trauma of his past. As Baer puts it, Stabler is uncomfortable with "who he is, who his parents [are], where he's from, how he's tried to overcome and maybe ignore or be in denial about his roots." His volatility is "a side of him that he's tried to keep repressed" — though as any fan of the series could tell you, he doesn't actually succeed in doing so.

"Live by the sword, die by the sword" might be a cliche, but it's very much an applicable one when it comes to this complex character. Stabler moves through the world of SVU radiating violence: Inevitably, it splashes back upon him. During his time on the force, Stabler is nearly killed many, many times. Over the course of 12 seasons, he is shot nearly 10 times, stabbed, blown up twice, thrown from a window, gassed, tossed off a roof and temporarily blinded. It is, frankly, a miracle he's alive at all.

A lifelong friend

In spite of Stabler's trademark anger, he's managed to keep his working relationships stable. He's been partnered with Olivia Benson since joining the SVU, and the duo are frequently noted for how well they work together. Benson's empathy and Stabler's anger balance each other out: Where Benson might get mired down in the sad details of a case, Stabler's rage pushes the pair to keep hunting suspects and seeking justice. Conversely, when Stabler threatens to fly off the handle or loses the through-line of an investigation in a sea of red rage, Benson is there to act as a calming force.

Actress Mariska Hargitay explained their odd relationship in an interview with TV Guide, noting that they balance so well, they are almost a universe unto themselves. "I think the reason that they're so close is that they share a passion for their jobs and for the people. They have a mutual respect for one another," she said. "I think that the average lifespan of an SVU detective is four years because of the difficulty and stress involved. They're been doing it for longer than that, so they feel like they're in their own world, almost."

Seeking help

Stabler ultimately overcomes his rage by seeking the help of a therapist. The moment that convinces him he needs to get his anger under control comes when he sees a man abusing a child. But this isn't just any criminal: The man in question is Stabler's former partner, Pete Breslin. Breslin's son Luke is accused of committing an assault. Stabler's protective nature when it comes to his friends and family leads to him making bad (read: possibly illegal) decisions. He tries to tell the family of the victim that it would not be wise to press charges against Luke, earning him a reprimand from his captain. Lesson seemingly learned, Stabler goes to the arraignment of Luke Breslin after the victim refuses to back down. Stabler happens upon a private moment between Pete and Luke, and sees Pete beating his son in the bathroom. Stabler attacks Pete, beating him unconscious. 

This encounter affects Stabler profoundly. Realizing that his anger might one day manifest in him attacking his own son, Stabler begins to see psychiatrist Rebecca Hendrix and work through his issues with his own father. It's a step in the right direction, and frankly, a long time coming.

Leaving the force

Stabler's brutal nature comes to a head with the case of 16-year-old Jenna Fox in season 12's "Smoked." After Jenna's mother is murdered, she is brought into the SVU so that detectives can tell her that three suspects have been apprehended. Fox concludes her meeting with the detectives and leaves, only to return to the precinct with a gun. She fires on the suspects, killing two of them and injuring a third. Stabler distracts her, but this merely causes her to fire wildly and kill a bystander. In spite of this, Stabler still tries to end the situation without violence. He attempts to talk Fox down, but is foiled when the wounded suspect starts to tease Fox about her mother. She raises the gun and Stabler responds by shooting her in the chest.

The shooting triggers an investigation, during which Stabler's superiors can't help but notice his long record of extreme violence, justifiable and otherwise. They open up a wider investigation into Stabler's career, knowing that he will likely chafe at their recommendations.  Stabler is deeply troubled by the fact that he took a young woman's life. Rather than reliving it repeatedly in a review process, he retires from the force.

Not gone for long

Stabler wasn't gone for good, as it turns out. It was announced in March 2020 that Elliot Stabler will be returning to the small screen, just outside of the world of SVU. A spinoff will follow Stabler as he takes on the world of organized crime. While the team behind the show are remaining relatively hush-hush, the show's logline reveals that the detective "returns to the NYPD to battle organized crime after a devastating personal loss." We don't yet know who is missing from Stabler's life, but details of a since-scrapped season finale of SVU offer some insight. Apparently, before the 2020 coronavirus pandemic shut down production, the show's 21st season was going to close with the return of Kathy Stabler. Her son has fallen in with a bad crowd, which puts a target on mom and son alike.

Beyond his own heartbreak, it seems like Stabler will be dealing with wider changes in the NYPD. "The city and police department have changed dramatically in the decade [Stabler's] been away, and he must adapt to a criminal justice system in the midst of its own moment of reckoning," NBC says. "Stabler will aim to find absolution and rebuild his life while leading a new elite task force that is taking apart the city's most powerful criminal syndicates one by one."