So how many episodes of a television show is the right amount to constitute a season? It’s an interesting question, especially in light of the fact that broadcast networks seem to be trying to figure out how to alter their current models to align more closely with their cable brethren. There’s obviously no magic answer here: A season should run as long as there’s story to tell, but who determines the validity of that story? What’s the difference between “stalling” and “table setting”? All of this is a way of saying that while I have reservations about how a full, twenty-two episode season of Scandal might play out, a seven-episode season seemed to suit it just fine.
That’s not to say things have been perfect. Not by a long shot. But there’s been an urgency at play that’s allowed its defects to quickly disappear into the ether as the show kept throwing more and more at the audience over its brief run. Creator Shonda Rimes said in interviews that she modeled the show on the BBC miniseries State Of Play, which…well, if you’re going to aim, aim high, right? Insomuch as she sought to tell a complete story within a short period of time, then yes, the comparison is apt. But whereas State Of Play quickly, efficiently, and ruthlessly drew viewers into the lives of a sprawling series of characters, the first season of Scandal has essentially been The Olivia Pope Show. Everyone else serves that character, literally or figuratively.
However, since Kerry Washington is so damn good in that central role, and since there’s time to flesh out secondary characters in subsequent seasons, that’s hardly a slam against the show. Had her fellow “gladiators in suits” been more three-dimensional, the cases of the week handled by Olivia’s crisis management firm might have been more compelling. We got hints of their past, primarily through an ongoing White House investigation of the firm, but little in the way of understanding what truly made those people tick. Other than one or two vague traits, what do we really know at this point about Stephen, Harrison, Abby, Quinn, and Huck? Not a lot. So while Washington’s performance has been stellar, it’s also overshadowed everything else so far to the point where the show has been teetering on the edge of imbalance at all times.
Moreover, the show kept insinuating (intentionally or not) that Olivia served as charismatic cult leader as much as boss. But Scandal seemed unwillingly to truly explore the darker side of a woman that collected damaged souls and employed them as vocational weapons. Having Olivia ask Huck to revisit his torturous past was exploitative television, plain and simple. What made it exploitative wasn’t simply that it had Scandal put forth the idea that torture produces results. That’s pretty bad on it’s own, but not the real crime here. That Olivia was neither reprimanded or punished by the show for asking Huck in the first place actually cheapens that character. Her affair with the President was interesting for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was that he represented her one blind spot. But last week’s flashback-heavy episode essentially lifted the moral burden off her and President Fitzgerald Grant. What could have been a relationship that added complexity to both characters turned into a case of bad timing, with a cartoonishly evil First Lady the real bad guy in this situation. Would it be too much to ask that Olivia be incredible at her job and have awful, ugly, yet undeniably human, traits? Apparently so, at least in this shortened inaugural season.
Tonight’s season finale, “Grant: For The People” dings her nearly impeachable character slightly, but mostly serves to drive a more permanent wedge between herself and the President as a potential couple. Billy Chamber’s murder of Gideon Wallace sets forth a series of events that threatens to topple the presidency. In the wake of that impromptu act, he uses his best remaining weapon: the press. He takes over a briefing about cult killings in rural Georgia to deflect attention away from himself and finally reveal Grant’s affair with Amanda Tanner. Now, it would be easy to connect him to the scene of Gideon’s murder…except Pope and her associates wipe the scene clean after Quinn stumbles upon it while returning with breakfast. Then again, as we were reminded tonight, Quinn isn’t actually her name.
It’s a totally cheesy twist, one that certainly gives the show ample room to play in season two. It helps that Josh Malina’s U.S. Attorney David Rosen helps sell the severity of her hidden identity in the episode’s closing moments. Rosen has battled Pope all season, but really has come to the forefront over the last two weeks as an actual character as opposed to a walking, talking plot mechanism. That’s taking nothing away from Malina, who like almost everyone else on the show not named “Kerry Washington” has had precious little to do this season but appear when the plot needs him or her to do so. Quinn herself is probably the best example of this trend. She was introduced in the pilot as our way into Pope’s world, and yet Scandal never bothered to spend enough time with her character to make tonight’s twist impactful. Instead, the OMFG moment came out of left field as a Hail Mary rather than a clever narrative trick that re-contextualized everything that had happened up until that point.
A better trick? Revealing that Cyrus Beene, not Billy Chambers, was behind Amanda’s murder. This was another pulpy twist, but Cyrus has always been someone who is many things concurrently without having any of those elements seem like contradictions. Here’s a man who has the quality that all good villains have: conviction. He’s someone that can worship Alexander Hamilton and be afraid to adopt a baby with his partner and have someone murdered as a point of political expediency. He inhabits all of those facets at all times, which makes him in turn all the more dangerous as a character. Beene is the damn hero of Scandal, so far as he’s concerned. To him, Amanda Tanner’s death was a necessary sacrifice to allow the nation to better prosper under Grant’s vision.
I am curious to see how Olivia Pope’s team functions under her vision in a second season. Again tonight, they served as plot gophers, popping in frame for the legal equivalent of the world’s most serious coffee run. But those errands take a toll. If Stephen didn’t have to bang the coroner to get Amanda’s autopsy results, maybe he’s a faithful husband to his now ex-fiancée. If Olivia hadn’t asked Huck to torture Charlie a few weeks back, maybe he doesn’t re-develop the taste that looks alive and well in his deadened eyes. These people don’t simply work for Olivia. They all but worship her. And while company loyalty is fine and dandy, slavish devotion isn’t. Here’s hoping the true identity of Quinn actually sparks a debate amongst the other associates next season about why they so blindly work for Olivia Pope.
Because honestly? As great as Washington is in the role, there’s only so much she can do as a woman above reproach. Sure, the First Lady gets under her skin tonight. But Mellie gets under Olivia’s skin by saying, “Why didn’t you keep fucking my husband, you idiot?” So, sure, Olivia gets taken down a peg…by a cuckoo insane person. Immediately after that, the White House security guard Morris extols her virtues for a solid minute, all but saying Olivia actually makes peace in the Middle East possible just by her very presence in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Olivia walks away brokenhearted, with her romantic dreams with Grant dashed thanks to her help in saving Grant’s presidency. But it would be more interesting if she treated Morris’ words as hollow from a professional perspective. Sure, Olivia Pope can fix things. But she causes a lot of damage in the process, with little shrapnel ever reaching her. If Quinn’s true identity is the first time Olivia gets blowback for her actions, then it’s a bold move for the show. If this cliffhanger is resolved in the second season opener, Scandal will have a Pope problem on its hands.
Had the narrative of these seven episodes unfurled over an entire season of broadcast television, Scandal could have been torture. (Can you imagine twelve episodes of Gideon and Quinn dancing around each other before falling into bed together? My God. Stick a pair of scissors in my neck, please.) But at seven lean hours, Rimes and company got to push the show at a sprinter’s speed from moment one, sprinkling in a case of the week for the first few hours before going full Amanda Tanner in the final hours. Working within constraints is one thing, but using those constraints to one’s advantage is another. Rather than treating the short order as a half season to be completed at a later date, Scandal took the opportunity to tell a full story while simultaneously hinting at more ahead. After all, it’s not like there’s a lack of opportunity for stories in the national’s capital. What will help Scandal take the leap next year is if its characters develop into more than set dressing in Olivia’s office. Juicy monologues full of wit and wordplay are great. But having someone we care about saying them is far, far better.
- Trying to recap the plot of tonight’s episode, and the first season as a whole, makes me realize how quickly this entire story falls apart when analyzed from a distance. Rosen’s sarcastic summary halfway through the episode didn’t help much, even if I grinned at the show’s self-knowing nature. Shorter, faster-paced seasons do wonders for one’s ability to suspend disbelief.
- Had Quinn actively tried to spread her DNA around Gideon’s apartment more than she accidentally did, I doubt she would have done as effective a job.
- Not sure how I feel about the Vice President’s characterization this season. For a moment, I thought the show was trying to sell her authenticity, which would have been refreshing. But no, Scandal ruined that with the reveal of her daughter’s hidden abortion. And it wasn’t just an abortion: it was an abortion involving a thirteen year-old girl. So much for subtlety.
- It’s weird seeing George Newbern as an assassin. I mean, that’s the dude from the Father Of The Bride series!
- “They had sex and ate grilled cheese. We should bag that too.” Huck is a creepy laugh riot.
- “I know how to fake it with my wife. You taught me well.” Love, Scandal style!
- For those that care, the grade applies to both tonight's finale and the first season as a whole. This aligns the grade I gave in my initial review before the pilot aired.