Credit: Michael Parmelee/NBC
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The SVU squad lost one of their own during Wednesday’s finale—but fortunately not via the Grim Reaper.

After sex trafficker Johnny D (Charles Halford) made a bid to escape during his trial, Amaro (Danny Pino) took him down, but got shot in the process. Without hope of being promoted to Benson’s No. 2, Amaro decided to leave the squad behind to move out west to be with his family. Why did Pino leave the series after four seasons? EW talked with executive producer Warren Leight to find out:

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What came with the decision to write out Amaro? Was it Pino’s decision?

WARREN LEIGHT: It was, at the end, a good mix of the two. Danny did seven years of Cold Case and The Shield and then four years here. Even last year, he was beginning to want to spread his wings a little. I understood that. At the same time, from a character point of view, we had put his character through a lot. Although his intentions were good, a lot of what he’d gone through ended up putting him in trouble with the brass downtown. Amaro is a character with ambition and the more we would talk to cops about what happens after a guy shoots an unarmed kid, what happens to a cop after he loses it with a pedophile, where is he going in NYPD? And they said, “These days, nowhere.” Even in the last four years, the world has changed. There is a lot more awareness of when cops abuse power and a lot more scrutiny with things—you see this a lot with cases in the real world, like Freddie Gray and Ferguson. Amaro’s character is at a real dead end with the NYPD. It was interesting to acknowledge the reality of the way his behavior—however well-intentioned and however he’s trying to turn it around—has painted himself into a corner.

Did you ever consider killing Amaro off?

Danny is a beautiful actor and a beautiful team player. There are other actors that I’ve worked with that I wouldn’t mind putting through a horrible end, but Danny is certainly not one of those. We wanted to make sure that if it was time for Amaro to move on, he gets a hero’s exit, which is what we gave him. For the fans who have had unfortunate earlier experiences with a lack of closure, I wanted to make sure that it made sense. Danny was great about this and we were able to build to it over the last five episodes or so.

Does this leave the door open for Amaro to return?

If you notice, I’ve brought [Richard] Belzer back. Munch came back once and we tried to bring him back this year, but there were some conflicts with it. [Dann] Florek came back. These people are part of everyone’s collective memory of the show. We brought BD Wong back. We brought Warner (Tamara Tunie) back. When we can, and when the story is right for it, I would love to be able to do it. If you kill a guy, it’s much harder. One of the things that I regret more than anything, after I left Criminal Intent, they did away with [Eric] Bogosian’s character, Captain Ross, and there were a couple times in the last few years where I would’ve loved to have had Captain Danny Ross walk into the squad. We brought Kathryn Erbe back for a couple of episodes. I like that there are people who come with their own backstories whom fans have a relationship with. If we’re lucky, we’ll get to see Danny again next year. He has a home in L.A. and family there, so part of this is also a question about that for him.

How will Amaro’s exit reverberate next season, especially with Rollins (Kelli Giddish)?

It’s stressful for the writers right now. We’re down a man. Like any situation, if someone goes, it puts more pressure on the people who stay. Even if someone new were to come in, it takes a while to get them up to speed. Rollins is going to be going through a lot of transition next season. This is part of the stress, but only part of it. Amaro’s departure is one that makes other characters go, “If he left, why am I still here?” Can they find a renewed purpose? Or does it cause them to question their own paths? That’s usually what happens when someone leaves the group, it makes everybody else think about what they’re doing. We’ll see the ripple effect of that. Last year, we had a good sense the season would be about family, and that was the last word of the finale. I have a sense of what next season is going to be about, which is transitions. It will be interesting to watch people go through them.

Will we find out who will become the new sergeant soon?

I hope so. The season is going to start with such a hot potato of a case. It’s basically all hands on deck, so they won’t have the chance right out of the box to worry about office politics.

Will you be adding any new characters next season?

We’re discussing it. We’ve had good luck in the last few years when we don’t make a big deal out of it. Whether it was Donal Logue or Peter Gallagher or Peter Scanavino or Raul Esparza, when we brought guys in and let them find their way, as opposed to saying, “This is the new partner for 22 episodes.” When I first came in, with Elliot’s (Christopher Meloni) abrupt departure, we really had to scramble to figure out where the show was, but since then we’ve learned that easing people in is better than having a big inauguration ceremony.

Speaking of Stabler, where did the idea come from to call back to him in Benson’s pep talk to Amaro? Some feel it was a bit of a diss to her old partner.

Yeah, I think these people are just looking to feel like we’re dissing Stabler. I really feel that’s not what that scene was about. She said, “My relationship with him didn’t allow growth.” That’s a statement of fact. There was obviously a great love between the two of them, but there was an element of codependence to it. After he left, other things opened up for Olivia Benson. She’s a sergeant, she’s on the road to lieutenant, she has a foster child she just adopted. She was stuck for a while, which, by the way, is also not throwing shade on Stabler. That may be a reflection of who she is in that relationship.

But none of that is where this came from. Where it came from is Amaro is leaving. Everything we do, we come from character. We never think, “Oh, let’s kick the hornet’s nest of the Stabler fans.” That’s never the intention. Amaro is telling her he thinks it’s time and he’s not feeling great about that decision. In that episode, he was up for becoming sergeant. He was somewhat in denial about what his reputation was within the department. We all know him to be a good cop. He wasn’t perceiving himself the way the brass does. He’s wounded physically and a little bit emotionally. He’s going to her and saying goodbye. He says, “I know I wasn’t what your old partner was.” In that moment, Olivia’s first impulse is to take care of Amaro. She loves him and values him, and she’s trying to sure him up and let him know how much their relationship has meant to her. It was a moment of weakness, maybe even fishing for some reassurance, and she gives it to him.

I read those things this morning, I thought, “Oh, just stop. All of you just stop.” I’m very grateful to Danny for working with me to figure out how to arc his character out in the way that would give the fans closure and having enough awareness and concern to do that. He just stepped up enormously in the last six episodes and took care of everybody—both Danny and Amaro took care of everybody else. We could write a scene where Elliot receives a Nobel Prize for peace and the next day, the tweets would be, “How dare they do that!” So, that’s my longwinded answer. No, we were not throwing shade on Elliot. We were in the moment with a character going through a soul-searching decision.

Law & Order: SVU will return to NBC this fall.

Law and Order: Special Victims Unit
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