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Law & Order: SVU's Mariska Hargitay previews Olivia's guilt in season 18

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Peter Kramer/NBC

When Law & Order: Special Victims Unit returns, tension abounds as Chief Dodds (Peter Gallagher) holds Olivia (Mariska Hargitay) personally responsible for his son’s demise — and he’s not alone.

“She blames herself for what happened and, as a result, will be even more protective of her team going forward,” Hargitay says. And so much so, Olivia may overcompensate and “try to insert herself into situations that she shouldn’t,” says new showrunner Rick Eid, teasing that Benson will still work in the field while being the boss, with Fin (Ice-T) her reluctant No. 2. How will Benson handle double duty? EW turned to Hargitay to find out:

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: In terms of Benson’s mindset, where are we picking up with her in season 18?

MARISKA HARGITAY: It’s a few weeks after Mike Dodds’ murder, and Benson is still carrying a deep sense of guilt. She blames herself for what happened and, as a result, will be even more protective of her team going forward. She and her squad are having to adjust to this new normal. Benson will also have to deal with how this affects her relationship with Chief Dodds, Mike’s father. Emotionally, it’s still raw and upsetting for Olivia; there’s a lot of guilt there, and we see it in her tension with Chief Dodds. Practically, the squad is a man down, a sergeant down. Fin is a reluctant second in command, so we’re a leader down, too.

It almost seemed like Tucker was going to propose in the finale. Is Olivia ready for that?

She wants to be, but the emotional fallout of Mike’s death is causing her to question everything.

What new challenges at work will we see Olivia face this season?

This is the first season Olivia’s definitely in charge of the squad room, the boss. She’s lost Mike Dodds, a member of the squad room, who’s also a second, her sergeant. She’s feeling the pressure and loneliness of command, trying to figure out how to best help the unit move forward and be effective.

Will we continue to see Olivia’s therapy sessions?

Benson’s ongoing desire to work through what churns inside her, the drive to “fix” herself — and the belief that she actually can — will remain part of the show.

Throughout last season, we saw Olivia relying more and more on alcohol. Will her self-medication be explored in the new season?

At some points towards the middle of last season, Olivia did have a tendency to solve problems and release stress with alcohol, but by the end of the season, she self-corrected. She’s witnessed and experienced a lot of pain, and she feels alone in it. Sometimes drinking has been numbing to her, a way for her to avoid feeling. But the thing about Olivia is that she works through it. She’s a seeker, and ultimately, she wants to understand herself. She doesn’t want to numb, she wants to overcome.

On the home front, what are the next milestones we’ll see for Olivia and Noah?

Benson is going to be searching for the right school for Noah, so we’ll get a peek into the insane pre-K process in Manhattan. Talk about challenges. #MomGoals. We’ll also see Benson continue to be a protective and doting mother, charged with the task of keeping Noah safe in this world that has shown her its darkest sides, while at the same time encouraging him to open his heart to all that the world has to offer.

What kind of conversations have you had with new showrunner Rick Eid on where you’d like the series to go this season?

I’m very grateful to have worked with wonderfully collaborative showrunners. This season’s no different. I met with him a number of times before we launched into the new season, and we’re in a constant conversation.

As the series is heading into its 18th season, have you thought about how much longer you want to continue playing this character?

I’m always eager to dig deeper into compassion, strength and empowerment. I think #LearnAndGrow sums it up. And maybe Benson can start using hashtags!

What do you really want to do on SVU this season that you haven’t gotten to do before?

We know Olivia has had close relationships with male partners and a male boss. It would be so empowering to see her and the other woman and also new mother in the squad room, Detective Rollins, work together in finding common ground. I’d like to see them forge a friendship in a more meaningful way — they’re both strong, independent, feminists. They share the same values and anxieties; it would be good way to reinforce that #WomenNeedToStickTogether.

In what ways do you think SVU is changing things up this year?

The goal is to keep telling important stories and keep making great television. Within that framework, any time there’s a new showrunner, things seem to transform organically. Rick brings new interests, new layers, a new set of eyes to the show. And it’s, of course, also possible that a new character or two will join us.

You’ll be directing two episodes this season. What do you hope to achieve in those hours?

I’ve been bitten by the bug, and I can’t help myself. It’s been really fulfilling engaging a different part of my brain.

SVU has been able to throwback to cases from the early seasons. Will we see more of that this year?

We haven’t discussed any throwback cases in particular, but it’s certainly a possibility. One of the things that’s beautiful about being on a show for so long is that there’s a lot of past history to draw from.

Joe Biden is going to guest-star as himself, highlighting an issue you’re both highly dedicated to. What was it like getting to work with him on SVU?

Vice President Joe Biden sits in my pantheon of heroes, and he is a true friend. He and I both feel very strongly about the urgent need to address the rape kit backlog nationwide. I can’t overstate how meaningful it was to me to give voice to our deeply held convictions together in the squadron — and to see this show that has been a part of my life for so long serving as a platform to advance this cause.

Law & Order: Special Victims Unit returns Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET on NBC.