Scandal: “Beltway Unbuckled”
B-

Scandal: “Beltway Unbuckled”

B-

Scandal

“Beltway Unbuckled”

Season 2, Episode 4

As much fun as Scandal’s soapiness can be, having actual stakes tied to modern-day political topics looked pretty darn good on the show during “Hunting Season.” Early attempts at geopolitical relevance rang false, but the program’s take on the implausible-yet-possible Thorngate gave Scandal as a whole a good kick in the ass.

So how does the show follow up with tonight’s “Beltway Unbuckled”? With an attempt to start weaving a conspiracy so convoluted that I half expected Dr. Horrible to walk in on the secret cabal of Olivia Pope, Mellie Grant, Cyrus Been, Justice Verna Thorton, and Hollis Doyle. It’s a fun cliffhanger, to be sure, even if it doesn’t make a damn lick of sense at this point. I’ll go out on a limb and assume that Olivia and her good friend Verna are pulling a Severus Snape here working with The Oil Tycoon That Shall Not Be Named. But honestly, I don’t really care all that much to untangle the meaning of that scene. I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that we didn’t just witness Scandal turn into The David Rosen And Ginger Shower Power Hour and worry about such things down the line.

After all, most of “Beltway Unbuckled” spentds so much of its time laying pipe for later on that most of the present felt flat. Only four episodes into this season, Scandal already shows signs of straining to find ways to keep inventing reasons for Olivia and Fitz to be in the same room together. An outing about the intricacies of diplomatic immunity might have yielded some of the juice extracted from last week’s surveillance plotline. But it was primarily a red herring to force Fitz to call things off with Olivia (for now) and to have Huck fall off the murder wagon to prevent a college girl’s father from turning into a “whiskey” addict like himself. Having a weekly standalone case for Pope And Associates affords Scandal the opportunity to explore different aspects of Washington life. But if the exploration is barely skin-deep, then maybe it’s best to simply spend the show’s time deconstructing Olivia herself.

Abby’s constant prodding of Olivia to reveal her secrets has been slightly grating, but it’s also wholly understandable. From the moment Olivia got Quinn’s case thrown out of court, she’s been a cipher to those around her. Harrison and Quinn herself choose to ignore the warning signs, but Abby’s laser-like focus lands her in David’s conspiracy web as well as his bed. Even if Olivia isn’t a member of The Beltway Evil League Of Evil, she’s certainly unable to wear the white hat at this point in the show’s run. She’s essentially bribed her employees to work for her through a series of legal maneuvers and psychological guilt. She triggered Huck into a murderous relapse last season that directly resulted in the death of a diplomat tonight. Not only has she lost some of her moral high ground, she’s also lost her vocational fastball and her romantic mojo. These are all bad for her, but great for us. An unimpeachable lead is the worst type of lead. 

Part of me hopes that her scene with Fitz tonight is the last for quite some time. The show has bled that stone dry at the present time. While the show can easily revisit it later after both have time on their own, it’s best to send them off into different orbits for the time being. It’s one thing to have a show featuring star-crossed lovers. It’s another to have said encounters featuring DOA dialogue such as, “You must really hate me for falling in love with you.” Having Fitz dry hump her against a tree last week in front of Secret Service agents signaled that the relationship was too volatile by half, so credit to the show for recognizing that and having both seek space (albeit unwillingly) for themselves at this point. 

Screen time heretofore devoted to Olivia/Fitz drama can be re-allocated in future weeks toward Olivia’s staff, who are in desperate need of dimensionality. Having Harrison take the lead on a case, or have said case strike an emotional cord with him, would go a long way toward making him more than “that guy who talks so fast I keep rewinding the show to catch what he’s saying.” The show has slightly rehabbed Quinn since the trial, but it’s still unclear what skills she brings to the firm. We know that Abby doesn’t trust Olivia, but we know very little else about her. But mostly, I just want an episode about Alissa, David’s assistant. She’s incredibly likeable, with personality and intelligence to spare. Scenes involving her and Rosen leap off the screen, and more of them in the future would not be unwelcome.

By making Olivia’s role in this conspiracy purposefully opaque, the show has both complicated her motives but also muddied them. There’s a difference between the two. The former offers shades of gray to each decision she makes. The latter makes any attempt to discern those reasons nigh impossible. With no chance of understanding her motives, her actions run the risk of becoming meaningless. She might be pulling the same trick the titular hero of Angel did with the Circle Of The Black Thorn in that show’s finale season. Perhaps she’s the villain of the show. Or, she might be the type of complicated female anti-hero that television desperately needs to balance out the overload of testosterone inside this character type. Until we have a sense of where she falls, each scene feels like a slightly different character that happens to be played by the same actor. I’ll watch Kerry Washington do almost anything. But I’d prefer to watch her play one consistent version of Olivia Pope.

Stray observations:

  • “And lo,” the Weekly Review Gods said unto The A.V. Club, “Let it be known that while your coverage of Scandal was admirable, the time hath come to let these gladiators in suits get their soul cray cray on without your analysis following forthwith. Think not upon this as a curse, but a blessing. And if things bringeth you too far down, know that it’s possible that David Rosen might invite you up to his apartment to see his ‘conspiracy board,’ if you taketh our meaning.” All of that is a way of saying that this will be the last of our weekly coverage here of Scandal for the time being. That makes my time away last week all the more unfortunate, although Les Chappell did a great job highlighting the qualities that made “Hunting Season” a standout hour of the series as a whole. I’ll wager that I’ll be back for the finale to check in on the season as a whole. Stay strong, fellow gladiators, and thanks for coming by these past few weeks.
  • Mellie’s the wildest of wild cards at this point. I can’t square the circle of her constantly battling with Olivia and Cyrus and then sitting down with them in Hollis’ office. She wants a seat at the table in the White House, but will settle for a seat at the table at Doyle Energy. Maybe the show will pull a How I Met Your Mother and explain it all away via “pregnancy brain”.
  • In Scandal, if you’re a woman under 25, and you don’t work for Olivia Pope, and you’re not Alissa, you’re banging every single member of Congress. Them’s the rules.
  • I did call Rosen and Abby working together back in my review of the première. This isn't me bragging. This is me shocked that I actually predicted something correctly.
  • “Stop calling me 007. Because you’re using it sarcastically!” Again: Why isn’t this show about David and Alissa?
  • Again, thanks to those that have checked in over the past months, and another thanks to Les to stopping by in my absence last week.

More TV Club