When Scandal is at its most focused and excitingly charged these days, it’s because it’s stopped being Scandal and crossed over into being Alias. The show no longer leaves you with the feeling that the people working on it have a very clear idea of just what kind of show Scandal is supposed to be, but bring together two magnetic actors playing middle-aged former lovers, one using cruel, sinister tactics in the name of good and the other fully committed to the dark side, battling over the life and soul of their daughter while still seething and probably secretly aching for each other—oh yeah, bring it on!
Joe Morton’s Rowan gets a big showcase entrance at the start of tonight’s episode, marching into the White House while the supporting players all drop their jaws to show how astonished they are that the President would let this viper back into the White House. While his feet muddy up the carpet in “Get out of the way, coming through!” close-up, James Brown growls on the soundtrack, offering his personal assurances that this man has soooooul, and is super bad. Rowan explains that the best way to find out what his demon ex-wife Maya is up to is to interrogate her contact man, handler, and—awkward!—longtime lover, Dominic Bell. Someone asks if he knows anything about Bell that might make it easier to find him, and Rowan snaps, “I’m familiar with his methods.” On Scandal, that’s an understated way of saying that he’s all but got the fellow tied up and stored in the trunk of his car.
After Bell has been captured and dumped on the floor like a sack of laundry that needs sorting, Rowan sticks a loaded gun to his head and dials up Maya. As Maya, Khandi Alexander has no need for musical accompaniment or close-ups of her feet coasting down the hall; every toss of her hair and flicker of her bored eyelashes scream, “The diva has landed.” The funniest moment of the episode comes when Rowan shouts into the phone, “Hang up and your boyfriend dies!” “What do you want, Eli?” Maya yawns back. She sounds like a divorcee who’s trying to enjoy her spa day and is getting sick of her dumbass ex-husband calling her up to ask her again how to work the remote.
Morton’s hammy but controlled performance and Alexander’s high-camp impersonation of Dracula’s daughter stand out because they’re rare examples of someone on this show knowing what they’re trying to do and having the chops to pull it off. Scandal has a phenomenal amount of acting talent on the set, but some of the performers have lost their motivations and the basic outlines of their characters amid all the chaotic twists and turns of the storyline over the course of the past couple of seasons. (Others, notably Columbus Short, have been patiently showing up for work all this time and still haven’t been assigned much of a character to play.) It’s also a relief to hear yourself laugh at something on the show and feel reasonably confident that it was meant to be funny.
With some of the laugh-a-minute stuff here, from the subplot about Sally’s bagman Leo hiring a woman to seduce Jerry in order to obtain a DNA sample that might prove that Fitz is not his father to the tumbler of booze that appears to be surgically sutured to Mellie’s hand, it’s hard to tell what was intended. Scandal is one of those shows that makes a brazen show of dancing on the line between giddily crazy and embarrassingly dumb, and its footwork isn’t as nimble as it used to be. It’s also a show that has to keep pushing the envelope in terms of hooking its characters up; that must be why we’re now knee-deep in a weird triangle between Quinn, Huck, and the professional killer who Cyrus keeps on speed dial. (This guy looks enough like Cyrus’ late husband that, back when Cyrus was considering putting out a hit on the old ball and chain, it looked as if the dude was stalking himself. Shonda Rhimes’ version of Washington, D. C. is a strange enough place without bringing in doppelgängers.) In a scene that had damn well better be meant to be funny, Quinn, who I am never going to buy as Modesty Blaise, and Huck are so busy giving in to their disgusting physical urges that they don’t notice when Khandi Alexander, public enemy number one, walks right past them on her way to her latest rendezvous with destiny. When I say that the scene could be harder to watch than it is, that’s mostly my way of saying that at least Huck gets through their make-out session without licking anybody.
There was a time when it was possible to pretend that the over-the-top criminal behavior on this show—the murders and blackmailing and assorted acts of skullduggery going on at the highest level—was meant as a metaphor for the corruption of politics and the corrupting effects of power. Now the political storyline is secondary to the violent thriller aspects, and the election story itself is dead in the water. Fitz is pouty because it’s getting close to Election Day and Olivia and his other enablers won’t permit him to campaign, because they don’t see any way he can stick his head out the front door without Khandi Alexander blowing it off.
When he finally gets to go on a road trip to the funeral of a United States Senator who was “a soldier on the battle lines of immigration,” it’s a trap; Khandi Alexander whacked the Senator in the sure knowledge that this would flush Fitz out. News like this gives Olivia one more excuse to arrange her features in an expression of Uncontrollable Stress and set her face to writhing and roiling. Kerry Washington showed the talent of a major actress in such movies as Life and Night Catches Us, and she was a real sparkplug on Saturday Night Live and even in the early days of this show, but most of her performance this season looks as if it could be the same endlessly recycled reaction shot, with Washington working her horrified-repulsed expression (Ugh! Steamed broccoli again!!) while draping her hands over some piece of furniture strategically placed to conceal her baby bump. Both Olivia and Fitz look to be suffering from the world’s worst case of cabin fever, and cabin fever is as good a metaphor as any for the show these days.
- Sonia sends her regrets for not being here this week, but she will return for the rousing season finale. Stuff’s gonna blow up. Seriously, I saw stuff blowing up in the trailer.
- Leo, bagged condom in hand, enjoys a cackle over having obtained some of “little Jerry’s man chowder.” In college, I was the drummer in a band called Little Jerry’s Man Chowder, but I choose to believe this is a coincidence.