Certain episodes of television start off with a bang and carry that momentum through the entire hour. Others never quite get out of first gear and limp along until the final credits roll. A third type of episode, such as the one Scandal deployed tonight, roll along harmlessly enough and then unleash a series of uppercuts in the final act. “Snake In The Garden” feels like an awesome episode the second that it ends, but that’s because those final 10 minutes were so great that it’s easy to forget that almost next to nothing of interest really happened before it. But is that a dealbreaker in terms of its overall quality? In this case, not really.
For a while tonight, it seemed as if the Albatross Arc was designed as a fake-out. The Scandal audience likely anticipated another lengthily-arced story in light of the Defiance storyline, and “Snake” seemed to cut off the head of that particular story with Osborne’s identity as the mole revealed to President Grant. I’m not sure how I would have felt about that misdirection, but that’s primarily because I didn’t even have enough time to process how I felt about it. Before I could ponder the possibilities of the rest of the season, Osborne pled his innocence to Cy, my Spidey-sense started going off, and before long, the former head of the CIA was discovered dead of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Well, this is Scandal, so nothing so cut and dry would ever go down. Instead, we learn in the final moments that Jake Ballard actually killed Osborne at the behest of the very same man who invented the mutherfrakkin’ Terminator. (That would be actor Joe Morton, for those of you who haven’t seen Terminator 2: Judgment Day recently.) It’s a twist that’s both predictable yet keeping in character with what we know about Jake thus far. Scott Foley’s performance has been off-kilter from moment one, which has thrown off both Olivia Pope in-show as well as Scandal audiences at home. Once Jake got Olivia to close her eyes in her apartment, it was equally likely that he would have kissed her as he would have pulled out a samurai sword and cut her nose to naval, Spartacus-style. So the fact that he’s a cold-hearted killer in addition to being a cold-hearted snake isn’t exactly a surprise. (Just look into his eyes. Seriously. Look. Dude does NOT blink. It’s unnerving.)
It’s a good way for the show to re-introduce the “let’s change everything you think you know about the main story and turn it on its head” cliffhanger that gave the first half of the season so much propulsion. But Scandal didn’t just randomly throw shit against the wall each week and then pray that it would turn out remotely comprehensible in the end. Everything made sense once given full context. The effect wasn’t confusion so much as disorientation. It also earned the show points with its audience, since seemingly outlandish twists kept getting solid payoff after solid payoff. The trouble with the constant deployment of such twists is that audiences start to expect them. So once the idea that Osborne was framed was introduced, having Jake be part of whatever force was going to silence him seemed like a pretty likely scenario.
If I had to wager as to what will happen now, I’d bet on Morton’s character working for a Halliburton-type company with financial stakes in Kashfar. But I wouldn’t bet much money, since I sort of don’t give a shit about the actual specifics of the plot so much as watching those involved wrestle with the decisions they make while engaging with that plot. A good example of this lies in Mellie’s seemingly slight but ultimately powerful storyline tonight. For most of the episode, Mellie wandered along the periphery of the episode, engaged in an inner battle that bordered on incomprehensible. But in those final 10 minutes, Bellamy Young signed, sealed, and delivered her Emmy submission tape by having Mellie drop a hellacious amount of truth on President Fitzgerald “Make Mine A Double” Grant.
She explains that their teenaged children have begged to not come visit the White House that weekend, even though plans have been in motion for months. They now fear and loathe their father. Why? Because Fitz has been a mean drunk since learning that he didn’t fairly win the election. To be sure, he’s not the most powerful scotch-loving a-hole in the world simply because of those election-rigging revelations. It’s because he learned of Olivia’s involvement, thereby knocking her off the pedestal upon which he had placed her. “[Y]ou found out your precious Olivia Pope doesn’t have the secrets of the universe tucked between her magical thighs,” Mellie helpfully (and graphically) explains. Not only did Olivia fall from the heavens to earth in Fitz’s eyes, but so did his self-worth in the process. Mellie’s disgust is palpable throughout, but so is her pity as well as righteousness. In the first season, neither Scandal nor Young had a handle on this character. Now? The show simply doesn’t exist without her. Period.
The success of the Albatross arc will depend on Scandal tying in its twists and turns into fundamental alterations of its characters in the process. They don’t have to completely change, to be sure, but they also can’t stay the same. Sure, it’s fun to watch David Rosen hang out in Olivia’s office and eat food on nearly every surface in it. But it will be more fun to see his ongoing exposure to his former adversaries in action alters his perception of how they conduct business. Having him harp about calling the police gives Josh Malina more lines, but doesn’t give him more character meat to chew on. If he’s just there to help provide a deus ex Malina near the end of the arc that breaks the Albatross arc wide open, that will certainly serve the show’s plot. But if Rosen’s integration also gives his character more shading, then it’s a win-win for all involved. Such shading need not be overly complex. It can be as simple as the Quinn/Huck relationship, which has transformed slowly from Huck’s Batman to Quinn’s kinda useless Robin into a partnership between two lost spirits for whom Pope And Associates simply isn’t family enough. Character shifts don’t have to be seismic to have incredible effects on the overall show.
I’ve danced around the periphery of things and left tonight’s main plot alone, since the tale of Hollis Doyle’s kidnapped daughter Maybelle was pretty much a dud from the first minute. “Snake” tried to tie in this narrative with Jake’s plea to be Olivia’s “do over,” but nothing about the case was dramatic, surprising, or emotionally affecting. I enjoy the way Gregg Henry chews up the scenery as if he were a starving man at Cici’s Pizza Buffet, but neither the episode nor the show as a whole provided enough context to make his emotional plea to Quinn effectively land. Had his presence sparked a potential mutiny amongst Olivia’s employees, than the show’s reintroduction to Hollis might have been justified. (There’s a hint of it both in Quinn’s initial reaction and Harrison’s line, “Why is the devil our client?” But it was largely ignored.) As it actually played out, Hollis could have been replaced with any high-powered official with whom we had no prior experience, and the overall result of this storyline would have been the same. But that’s the nice thing about standalone stories: If they suck, at least they won’t suck for long.
Now we’re left with five episodes to untangle the Ballad Of Jake Ballard. Who does he work for? What did he and Fitz do in Iran that has been redacted? How big of a pimp is he for kissing Olivia, getting her to admit that she’s no longer thinking about Fitz, and then walking out the fucking door? All great questions for future analysis, and it’s analysis that Scandal likes to unpack in a rapid, audience-friendly manner. With so many shows focused on the long haul at the expense of the present, it’s refreshing to have a show that respects its viewers enough to constantly provide episodes that simultaneously work as standalone pieces of entertainment as well as parts of a great whole. Not everything worked tonight, but the energy and straight-up ballsy storytelling is still intact from the Defiance arc. How long this is sustainable? Beats me! But also: Who cares? No show knows how good it will be in its future. It can only take care of the here and now. And for now? This is still a pretty great show.
- Is there a name for the “Pope And Associates get stuff done while really catchy funk/soul music plays” montage? If not, can I propose we start calling it “Suiting Up”? Seems about right.
- Best Cy line? It’s a tie between, “Not when something Mellie this way comes!” and “Karma!” I’ll let you break the tie in the comments.
- Seriously, I saw the Maybelle twist from the first minutes she was onscreen. And I am awful at guessing anything. I guess I am now a gladiator in pajamas.
- If Pope And Associates combine their vehicles to form Voltron in the season finale in order to take down a Terminator, I’m ready to declare Scandal the best show on television.
- “Wine seems to be a food group for you.” I smell a Cougar Town/Scandal crossover, in which Jules would beg everyone to stop… talking… so… damn… fast.
- Tony Goldwyn gives good quivering lip.
- A note about these reviews: it’s still not certain that we’ll continue doing this every week. The best way to guarantee that? Kickstarter! Just kidding. Read, comment, and get lots of fans to do the same.