Earlier this year, I praised Enlightened and other programs that follow secondary characters through the course of an entire episode in order to bring the shows’ central themes to the surface in new and interesting ways. Scandal is not a show I expected to follow that trend in 2013, with its relentless pacing at odds with the more contemplative modes in which such episodes often operate. “Seven Fifty-Two” isn’t exactly on par with something like “The Ghost Is Seen,” in that it still spends valuable real estate pushing the Albatross arc forward. But it’s probably as close as the show will ever come to putting on the narrative breaks and taking the time to do a deep character dive over the course of a single episode.
Guillermo Díaz, like many on the show, was adrift in the early episodes of the show’s initial run, a victim of caricature in place of character. Scandal was so focused on All Things Olivia that her gladiators were two-dimensional exposition agents rather than flesh-and-blood creatures. (If you’ll recall, the guy who played Desmond on Lost was once part of the firm, and I’ll give you twenty dollars if you can remember that character’s name without consulting Wikipedia first.) But as I wrote at the end of the first season, the lack of deep characterization for Huck, Harrison, and others was only a minor, fixable setback. Television offers up the time to delve into characters that don’t fit nicely into the roles of “protagonist” and “antagonist”, and episodes such as this one help accentuate how well the medium is situated for delivering deep insight into figures that would barely get a few lines in a motion picture version of the same story. Díaz is excellent in all phases, from bright-eyed soldier to broken-down gladiator.
When Quinn starts trying to calm Huck down after his post-traumatic stress breakdown that leaves him muttering the episode’s title over and over again, it made sense that she would be the one to try and ease his mind. After all, this back half of season two has done the proper legwork to bond these two characters. (Only on Scandal could Huck helping Quinn find a family to stalk seem sweet.) Her monologue/confession to him worked because we understood that she simply wasn’t getting things off her chest to someone in no position to respond. She was in fact reaching out in the only way she knew how in order to save her friend. What made the episode all the more remarkable is that each member of Pope And Associates subsequently took turns in offering up confession at Huck’s shivering feet, turning the episode into an investigation of the following question: What’s the difference between a gladiator and an assassin?
Now, Gladiator Versus Assassin sounds like a movie that will debut on SyFy later this year. (As a fan of Spartacus, I choose the former in that duel. But mileage may vary.) But while such a question seems ridiculous on the surface sans context, in actuality it plays out quite effectively. Why? Because Scandal keeps returning over and over again to the idea that Pope And Associates resembles nothing so much as a well-disguised, well-coiffed cult. Abby, Quinn, Harrison, and Huck all owe debts to Olivia. But while some of those debts have basis in objective fact, a lot of those debts have been installed in the mind of the employee with plenty of “verification” offered up by the employer. Olivia didn’t force Huck to join B613 (catchy name!), but she also didn’t shy away from triggering the impulses created within that Jason Bourne-esque program to help her win a case in season one. The skills that make Olivia so effective at her job at large also helps her keep a tight, well-run, and almost disturbingly loyal employee base.
But while these individuals’ skills have been honed razor-sharp under her tutelage, their private lives have essentially ceased to exist. We learn tonight that Huck has spent years trying to discern if the wife and son that he sees in his head actually every existed. Abby’s confusion is different in degree, but not in type, when it comes to her feelings towards David Rosen. Her instincts told her to trust David, but she still betrayed that trust at the order of Olivia. Harrison more than probably is in love with Olivia himself, which makes tonight’s realization that she’s romantically involved with the President all the more painful. Those working for Olivia Pope get a healthy paycheck and an unhealthy psyche.
The show’s canny inverse of the usual “Suit Up” montage, during which Olivia usually breaks down the case of the week while a catchy funk tune plays in the background, helps illuminate the parallels between Pope’s job as fixer and Huck’s former job as torturer. At first, replacing Olivia with Charlie seems like a simple way to freshen up a semi-stale formula. However, by using almost the exact same structure beat-for-beat, Scandal helps draw a connective line between the black ops of B613 and the consulting services of Pope And Associates. As far as the show is concerned, there is in fact little to no difference between those that pretend to wear the white hat and those that wear the black mask. All aspects of one’s personal life get subsumed into one’s work. Sometimes that work involves smoothing over a public divorce. Sometimes that work involves killing a king. One with a real crown and everything.
The title of the episode is a mystery, one repeated like white noise throughout the episode in present day by Huck. At first, it seems like it might refer to the number of people he tortured. Then, I thought it might refer to either the time of his child’s birth or even the moment this now-absent child perhaps died. Instead, it refers to the time of day when he saw his former family get off the subway years after they presumed him dead or simply deadbeat. Huck burns the time into his brain as a type of beacon to help him get home should he get lost within his own mind.
It’s not even clear that he understands what he sees in that moment, a moment that perhaps only became clear years later while on the floor of Pope And Associates’ boardroom. But a man who once took watches from his victims as trophies would understand how quickly things can change in just one moment. Only the audience gets to make the connection, leaving his associates still in the dark as the episode ends. But even if they knew what it meant, what could they possibly do about it? These are broken people. They were broken when Olivia started to collect them. They seem more put together now, but that’s only because they have the money to afford tailored outfits. On the outside, they seem supremely confident and put together. On the inside, they are broken shells put back together by glue and tape.
But that makes sense, in some ways: Olivia Pope is herself no different, as seen every time the show puts her within ten feet of Fizt. Here, tonight’s episode starts to lose some steam. Between another go-round of Emo Olitz and an Albatross plot that seems increasingly difficult to understand, there was a lot of unnecessarily filler here inside an hour that largely took a breath in the aftermath of the glorious destruction of “Molly, You In Danger Girl.” Part of the problem is purely structural. The back nine has been deployed incredibly sporadically by ABC: The first two aired immediately after “Nobody Likes Babies,” then a month went by, three more aired, another three weeks of repeats ensued, and now we’re getting the final four in a row. That’s an almost impressive plan to ruin any and all momentum that this show inevitably creates. Trying to keep track of all the Albatross intrigue would be difficult even if ABC ran these back nine in sequential order. But with almost a month between blocks, it’s damn near impossible.
To be fair, the Defiance plot really didn’t make a ton of sense, either, if you sat down and tried to diagram it. But at least the stakes there were easy to understand on both a narrative and an emotional level, and tied in the majority of the characters in ways even they often didn’t realize. The Albatross arc is, to put it cheekily, a slight albatross around the show’s neck at this point. Is B613 actually part of the government? Why did Charlie spare Huck’s life all those years ago? Why hasn’t B613 tried to kill Huck every single day since they realized Charlie lied about killing him? Is Jake working for Fitz, B613, both, or neither? Why didn’t Scandal give B613 a cooler name than “B613,” which sounds like an early George Lucas art-house flick? So many questions, and so many answers I’m honestly uninterested in obtaining.
Still, given that it’s an overall small part of the pie tonight, I enjoyed the majority of what went down. Assuming the show gets a third season (and that seems extremely likely right now), I’d like to see it periodically take the time it did tonight and flesh out not simply backstory for its secondary characters, but the rotten state of Scandal itself. There’s fertile ground here, even if it’s often uncovered accidentally on the way towards goals more prosaic than poetic. Given how quickly people speak on this show, an occasional deep breath isn’t merely nice. It’s completely required.
- As someone who watched every episode of Fringe, I was happy to see Jasika Nicole appear tonight. I wasn’t happy to see her get roughly as much screen time as she generally did in an episode of that show, but you can’t win them all.
- During Olivia’s confessional to Huck, she states that the two are fundamentally different from the others in the firm. And yet, when the camera pulls back, those three are there, and could clearly hear everything. So, my questions: Did Olivia know they were there, and did she mean what she said to Huck? There are a delicious number of possible interpretations here, and little in the way of signs to judge which one is actually correct.
- The Abby and Harrison confessionals were shot in a style this show normally doesn’t use, with artful close-ups and grainy, almost ugly lens. The show dips into more non-traditional camerawork from time to time (see the shots from inside of and above Huck’s prison cell), but these confessional cameras felt new and imparted information in a unique way.
- “I killed a king. With a crayon!” That's how I originally heard Charlie's line. I like that better than what he actually said.
- Olivia mentions the “dark side of the moon,” so now I want to rewatch this episode and see if it lines up with the Pink Floyd album as well as The Wizard Of Oz.