So let’s get this out of the way: “Mama Said Knock You Out” is a good episode of the show, but hot damn did that first half have some serious problems. Even putting aside the horror show that was the Grant kids (and not “horror” in the show’s usual, face-licking ways), there were a lot of stops and starts throughout the first half-hour. In some ways, the stuttering nature of the episode was reflective of the show’s world: In the immediate aftermath of James’ death and the imminent attack on B6-13, everyone’s more than a little distracted. And that’s somewhat understandable. But when Scandal itself is distracted, it’s a slightly bigger problem.
Because let’s be honest: Realism isn’t really the show’s forte. That’s not a bad thing, because its operatic nature both distances itself from reality yet calls attention to innate human truths that realism itself can often obscure. Or, in plainer terms related to this episode: It’s not very much fun to watch people in a shellshocked stupor, but it’s hellaciously fun to watch them take a page of musical artist Peaches’ playbook and try to fuck the pain away. Having their kids Jerry and Karen at the White House for an important campaign interview should squash the libidos of Fitz and Mellie, but both are too in love with the idea of love and can’t help themselves around Olivia and Andrew, respectively. Harrison understands that Adnan Salif is bad news, but when her underwear falls to the floor like a damn magic trick, he’s back between her legs. Over in B6-13, Quinn is still reeling from Huck’s oral assault last week, but not so repulsed that she doesn’t initiate some Huckleberry Hate Sex on a nondescript Washington bridge.
And yet, just listen to the way that Jeff Perry pronounces the word “pleasure” when describing how Jake serves the president. There’s a hitch in his voice, almost as if the very word gets stuck in Cyrus’ throat, suggesting that there’s almost no “pleasure” in anything described in that last paragraph. Why? Because “pleasure” has no real place in Scandal. You could call it “carnal lust,” or “animal desire,” or a host of other pre- or post-conscious impulses. But in a show in which everyone often mistakes passion for love, “pleasure” is absent. Maybe it existed, at one time: The beauty of “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” lay in those flashbacks in which there was a sliver, a tiny little sliver, of hope for these people. Fitz wasn’t on the 500-foot-tall horse he was tonight when lambasting Mellie for her infidelity. (More on that later. I have thoughts!) He was a man amused at Cyrus’ hesitation over coming out. His smile at the outset of his presidency was warm. But it was a smile borne of absolute ignorance and naiveté. Flash forward to tonight, where the word “pleasure” hangs in the throat, sticky with regret, remorse, and the impossibility of it ever applying to anyone unfortunate enough to spend more than a little time inside the White House.
For the past three seasons, Olivia Pope has both presided over this circus of pain as well as participated in it. (She’s like the president of The Hair Club For Men that way.) But leave it to Maya Lewis to assess Olivia’s role in a more provocative way. During their first conversation during the back half of the third season, Maya says, “You think you’re family. But you’re nothing but the help.” It’s an incredibly charged statement, one that serves as something of a bookend to Rowan Pope’s first blistering monologue back in “It’s Handled.” There, he re-stated his central mantra to Olivia while she grew up: “You have to be twice as good as them to get half of what they have.”
Put those two statements together, and Olivia’s drive and outsider status come clearly into focus. On one hand, she’s driven to work much harder for much longer than anyone else around her. Cyrus notes this, observing that she can “play through the pain.” But she also works for the ultimate betterment of others rather than herself, according to Maya. It’s not even clear if Maya actually believes what she says or if she’s just playing mind tricks on her daughter. You can debate either one, but you can’t debate the potency of the words and the effect they have on Olivia almost immediately. You can already hear Maya’s words in Olivia’s mouth when she speaks to an emotionally broken Cyrus a little later in the episode, and you can see it in her actions as she goes into “work” mode in order to salvage the Grant family interview. Both Olivia and Scandal operate in an often color-blind world, but there are repeated jagged edges that appear indiscriminately across the show’s landscape. That’s not a flaw, per se, because a show that constantly called attention to race would probably not be as effective as when issues surrounding it spontaneously and violently erupt.
“Mama Said Knock You Out” is the latest example in the show’s history of how those spontaneous eruptions don’t occur in a vacuum but rather in a perpetually seething cauldron. Scandal posits that all races, religions, and ethnicities can be equally complex, heroic, fallible, horny, and a dozen other positive/negative adjectives you can describe. But it never for a second pretends that racism doesn’t exist, and that Olivia’s existence in particular isn’t suffused with a myriad of metrics through which she is gazed by people within this world. The use of reflected glass in Scandal as a prism that splits up then re-assembles its characters in-frame has been around almost since the beginning of the show’s run. But it’s vital to note that it’s not just a cool trick, but an insight into the way that people see Olivia. If you slow the camera down during any of these shots, each frame reveals a slightly different visual image of her, offering up a kaleidoscope of options. Same person? Sure. Same face? You betcha. But a different vantage point offers up a different perspective, and that’s exactly what Maya’s use of the word “help” does: It reframes both how we see Olivia within the world of the show, and how Olivia sees herself in relationship to the White House. Scandal doesn’t present any solutions to this problem, because it’s far too damn smart to think it has them. But simply raising the issue at all helps put this show on a different level than most primetime dramas.
All this stuff is way more exciting and interesting than Jerry Grant’s Twitter feed, because eff that noise. Scandal is, for better or worse, an adult show (I’d argue for the FAR better), but also one that demonstrates how adults are basically children whose dreams have been erased by delusions. Cyrus laments that James still believed in fairy tales, and that’s why he died. Cy has a point. After all, this is a show in which The White House might as well be Cinderella Castle at Disney World. Both are mighty nice to visit, and both are equally responsible for the day-to-day maintenance of America’s safety. It’s jarring to see the Grant kids (and suddenly Old-Timey Teddy, with a haircut apparently inspired by Boardwalk Empire) in this world, since Scandal already treats Washington like an elementary school playground, populated with adult-sized kids groping their way through life, unsure of when that whole “responsibility” thing is supposed to kick in. Having actual kids enter the scene calls attention to this fact, but also ruins the heightened melodrama of this show’s world. Sure, these kids have problems, I guess. But the full-time characters on Scandal have PROBLEMS, ones spelled out in emojis covered in blood, sweat, and tears.
One problem in particular suffuses the Fitz/Mellie throwdown near the end of tonight’s episode: Would Mellie finally tell Fitz that his father once raped her? Season three’s “Everything’s Coming Up Mellie” re-contextualized her series arc in a major, tragic way, and has hung over almost everything Mellie has done since. Revealing this fact tonight would have simultaneously knocked Fitz off his high horse, but also shattered everything into a thousand pieces. Once the blow out starts, that information is put back into play. But will Mellie use it? What ensues is a classic Scandal emotional rollercoaster. You want Mellie to finally say it… but you don’t. You realize you’re excited when you can see the words starting to form on Bellamy Young’s lips… and then you’re then horrified at what might happen should those words take shape. You can see the EXACT moment she finally steels herself up to say it… only to have Olivia barge in and break the mood. After that, you can further seeing Mellie’s mind at work, with the temporary catharsis from finally unburdening that secret after so long no longer outweighing the long-term damage she would inflict upon her husband and children. So she maintains the burden, swallows it once again, so that she and Fitz can temporarily pretend to be adults long enough to do a live television interview.
This isn’t a world in which children have any place. Just adults and their parents and the fucked up things they do to one another when they are too old to believe in the power of reconciliation have citizenship here. Rowan and Olivia might be trying to bring B6-13 into the light, but there’s no place for them in any world in which that unlikely event occurs. B6-13 isn’t just part of the government. For all intents and purposes, it IS the government, with Fitz just one of a long line of public faces designed as slight-of-hand. The White House is just as much an illusion as Olivia’s white hat.
That’s all potent, powerful stuff. We just needed to wade through a somewhat stilted first half of the episode to get to it all.
- The Grant family dinner was so, so, so awkward. I kept waiting for Fitz to invoke a certain famous Saturday Night Live sketch and randomly yell, “I drive a Dodge Stratus!”
- Mellie and Karen always dress in the same colors: green through most of the hour, then blue for the interview. The former makes Andrew’s comment to Fitz about the “grass being greener” so much sketchier than it needed to be.
- Maya and Adnan have hired a Ukrainian agent to apparently assassinate Fitz, for reasons that I could not care less about. Everything about Maya and Adnan is such a mystery than any attempts at guessing would be ridiculous. But have at it in the comments.
- Tony Goldwyn directed tonight’s episode, and in addition to pulling out some great stuff from Young and Perry, he also staged some nice shots including the Huck/Quinn bridge scene. Having the two face opposite directions when initially talking not only emphasized the different trajectories of their lives, but the lighting made their faces look like part of some Scandal-esque Mount Rushmore.
- Quinn still knows her way around a drill.
- “You don’t tell me to do anything, because I’m not your bitch.” Ah, Jake, good to see you’re wearing your big boy pants in the Oval Office.
- “You were on your knees with Uncle Andrew.” OK, MAYBE it was worth it to have the Grant kids show up so Karen could say that. But that’s a strong maybe.
- “Both. I like both.” Well, OK then, Mellie. Noted.
- Big thanks to Sonia for letting me drop by for the week.