Law & Order: How Jack McCoy’s Upcoming Exit Will Shake Up The Flagship Series

What? We can’t believe Sam Waterson’s leaving Law & Order.

There have been many cast changes, but Jack McCoy has been a fixture since the 1990s. 

But sometimes, a character has gone as far as he can. McCoy may be ready to retire, which offers an opportunity to breathe new life into the oldest member of the Law & Order franchise.

McCoy is an old-school district attorney — the kind of man the younger characters look to as a mentor. This is how Law & Order district attorneys tend to be; when he was young, he reported to Adam Schiff, who had many years of experience.

But times have changed, and Law & Order is overdue for a shakeup. Many viewers who love Law & Order: SVU and Law & Order: Organized Crime are having a hard time connecting with this reboot, so something needs to change.

That doesn’t mean McCoy’s impending exit isn’t breaking our hearts. Long-time fans remember his original run and have hoped for more, not less, of him. 

Still, his exit offers the rare opportunity to take the District Attorney’s office — and, by extension, the entire series — in a different direction.

The new district attorney could have a different view of the legal landscape, less focused on winning cases and more on fighting for justice even if the odds aren’t great.

In some ways, Law & Order has fallen into a rut. While the series has always been formulaic, it’s recently relied too much on the tired TV trope of McCoy warning Price that his strategy isn’t a winner and Price somehow pulling a guilty verdict out of his ass at the last second.

And worse still, McCoy’s lost his touch, becoming so focused on winning that he isn’t thinking about justice at all. It seemed like we had seen how McCoy lost his way, first suggesting that the ADAs include a potentially fake video and then giving the green light to attack a cop on the stand.

When a DA who has been extremely passionate about justice his entire career starts pulling stunts like that, it’s time to retire.

He isn’t a big part of the show anymore — but even in a supporting role, the DA needs to stand for justice.

McCoy’s exit could pave the way for someone who hasn’t been so worn down by the system that he has lost sight of why he’s there.

It also could help move the series in a new direction, focusing more on ambiguities in the law and less on winning and losing cases.

The series had already begun moving in a new direction after Jeffrey Donovan left. Instead of the crusty old-school cop, we have a unique, enigmatic detective who’s made his share of mistakes without feeling so stereotypical.

Jalen Shaw has been an excellent addition to the cop side of the series, too. However, there’s still too much of a tendency to shoehorn important issues around racial bias into conversations instead of approaching them organically.

A new DA who wants to take the justice system in a different direction might offer a way to resolve some of this.

A more progressive DA might be reluctant to allow his ADAs to ask for remand, for example, which could address issues of balancing the need for fairness to defendants with the need to keep dangerous people off the streets.

Do we know how McCoy is leaving Law & Order?

Law & Order hasn’t hinted yet at how McCoy will leave the show. I assume he’ll retire because that’s the most logical way to handle this.

Art could mirror life — just as Sam Waterson said it was time and that he didn’t want to grow too comfortable in one role, McCoy could decide it was time to retire and that he’d gotten too comfortable behind that desk.

The series could always go the sad route with McCoy suffering a heart attack, stroke, or violent attack by a defendant, but that would be a tragic way to end his career. Law & Order had better not do that!

But McCoy’s decision to leave could come after experiencing a particularly sad or disturbing case.

This happens more often on Law & Order: SVU, where detectives regularly decide they can’t take the horrors they witness daily.

But a murder investigation could be sufficiently shocking or disgusting that McCoy decides it’s time to spend his golden years relaxing instead of continuing to try cases.

This would be a moving, fitting end to his character’s career and symbolizing the new direction the series will embark on.

One of the saddest things about McCoy leaving is that we probably won’t get any more stories with Sam Waterson’s real-life daughter.

Law & Order Season 22 Episode 22 gave us a glimpse into what the series could be if only McCoy had something more to do than focus on winning cases. McCoy’s estrangement from his daughter and his resentment that she was defending a case he felt strongly about were brilliant.

We won’t get a redux, but maybe the new DA can have family issues. Even though Law & Order was originally a Dragnet-like show where the cops and lawyers were mostly there to do a job and didn’t have much personal life, viewers responded strongly to those.

One of the reasons Law & Order: SVU has endured for 25 years is that it’s not just about the cases — it’s about the flawed but heroic detectives and prosecutors fighting for justice.

Giving the new DA a complicated family situation or a personal reason for wanting to convict the bad guys would go a long way to making this series more compelling.

Who’s replacing McCoy?

Jack McCoy will be replaced by a not-yet-named district attorney played by Tony Goldwyn. I’m excited because Goldwyn is no stranger to the Law & Order universe — he played Frank Goren on Law & Order: Criminal Intent. 

He’s a generation younger than McCoy, so he’ll have different ideas about pursuing justice.

But he’s also old enough that he’s not likely to be completely radical, which will give him plenty of opportunities to butt heads with the ADAs, especially Samantha Maroun.

Wait, is Sam Waterson leaving in the middle of the season?

Sam Waterson is leaving midseason, and his last episode, February 22, 2024, isn’t that unusual. Lots of Law & Order characters take off midseason — Law & Order: SVU’s Amanda Rollins did, and years ago, Jesse L. Martin left Law & Order midseason, too, among others.

I prefer it when they leave midseason than when they go between seasons. When characters disappear over the summer, it never works out well. McCoy’ll get a proper swan song, and we’ll have plenty of time to get used to the new DA (and decide if we like him.)

Hopefully, McCoy’s farewell and the new character’s beginning can happen during the same episode. A retirement party would be a perfect way to demonstrate the changing of the guard.

Although McCoy’s exit is sure to be heartbreaking, it’s also exciting. I can’t wait to find out what direction the series goes in now.

What about you, Law & Order fanatics? Hit the big, blue SHOW COMMENTS button and let us know!

Law & Order airs on NBC on Thursdays at 8/7c.

Sam Waterson’s last episode will air on February 22, 2024.

Jack Ori is a senior staff writer for TV Fanatic. His debut young adult novel, Reinventing Hannah, is available on Amazon. Follow him on X.

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