Look, this could all end badly. And Lord knows there’s enough already in this season of Scandal to warrant a crooked eyebrow or three. But while the show is a mixed bag, what works here works so extremely effectively that it’s easy to overlook the shortcomings. It’s still bizarre to build this season’s central mystery around the show’s least interesting character, but the mystery itself gives Scandal the appearance that we are witnessing a crucial point in a long-gestating cover-up. That gives the proceedings some heft that keeps a somewhat rocky ship afloat.
Now, mysteries alone do not make a good television show, no matter who is in front of or behind the camera. If Quinn Perkins/Lindsay Dwyer (Quindsay?) remains a cipher throughout this latest long-form mystery, and Harrison and Abby remain exposition delivering automatons (in suits!), then things will get uninteresting fairly soon. If we only get 30 seconds a week of Cyrus’ baby-crazy husband, maybe it’s best that his scenes stay on the cutting room floor. If a wide-eyed analyst can bring down the head of the CIA through his mad Photoshop-identifying skills, then maybe Scandal should stick to the sudsier side of the political scene rather than the geo-political. I bring all this up not to slam the show from the get-go, but to clear the deck so I can talk about the things that actually worked.
The intertwining storylines between Olivia Pope’s “scandal of the week” and her relationship with President Grant are an obvious play for the show to make. But the depth given to that interplay not only justifies the decision to link the two but also allowed “The Other Woman” to examine four women grieving in related but different ways. Olivia begs Grant to let her go during each nightly phone call, but is unwilling to pull the plug herself. Mellie, pushed back into Grant’s sphere at the end of last season by Olivia, still feels the pain of his affair even while previously stating that she encouraged it. Those two women come into the orbit of another pair connected by an adulterous male. That male? One Reverend Drake, “The Nation’s Pastor,” who is found dead on top of Anna, his mistress of 15 years, after his wife, Nancy, called Olivia to locate him.
That’s a lot of soapiness right there. If that simply led to a series of women-on-women yelling scenes, things would get old quickly. But “The Other Woman” often zigs where other shows would zag. Take Mellie’s scene with Nancy near the episode’s end as an example. Olivia has coached Nancy to simply say “thank you” in order to play her part in a photo op with The First Lady. When Nancy is unable to do so (nearly revealing Drake’s affair in the process), Mellie is able to comfort Nancy after banishing everyone from the room. But while everything Mellie says to Nancy comes from the heart, it’s actually aimed at Olivia, who is waiting just outside. This all takes place after Mellie almost literally rubs her belly in Olivia’s face upon initially entering the room. The First Lady is both a comforting figure to Nancy and a threat to Olivia at the same time. Neither aspect negates or contradicts the other. This makes Mellie an infinitely more compelling character than she was in the first season. This show isn’t rewriting the rules of political soaps, but it’s keeping things fresh enough to maintain interest.
Keeping David Rosen involved with each stand-alone case of the week wasn’t doing Scandal nor Josh Malina any favors, so the show wisely jettisoned him straight into The Carrie Matheson Zone, complete with his own Conspiracy Board for extra Homeland-y goodness. The twists and turns that have thrown his above-the-board legal work are indeed ridiculous, and neither the show nor the character pretends otherwise. If Rosen turns into Shonda Rhimes’ version of the titular hero of The Cape, well, then this is suddenly my new favorite show on all of television. That probably won’t be the case, but having him work outside the system will not only provide Rosen more screen time, but also give him a chance to actually delve into the shadier world in which Olivia Pope lives.
All this leads to a brief, tantalizing scene at the end of the episode in which we learn a Supreme Court Justice is involved in whatever cabal is currently trying to keep Quindsay safe. Personally, I agree with Justice Verna Thorton when she tells Olivia that they should have let Quindsay go down for the crime. But that’s neither here nor there for now, since the conspiracy itself is so vague there’s no point in even trying to hazard a guess as to what it might entail. We can assume Thorton didn’t send Olivia and Huck to Oakland to secure The Molotov Mistress. So there will be more players involved, equally as powerful as Thorton, all of whom rely on Pope to keep a lid on this most powerful of secrets. While many people rely on her discretion, it’s also easy to see how quickly she might be the prime target to fall should this story go sideways.
With a second season roughly twice as long as the first, Scandal has moved into the USA Network-ification of its serialized storytelling. That means we’ll see tiny portions of actual serialization creep around the edges of the episode while stand-alone, procedural storylines dominate the screen time. That’s not a horrible way to construct a television season, by any stretch. But one of the strongest parts of season one lay in its relentless pursuit of a single story in its seven episodes, a story that engulfed every major player from Pope And Associates all the way to the White House. Watching Kerry Washington and Tony Goldwyn moon over each other on the phone is far more fun than it has any right to be. But hopefully the widening of this conspiracy scope will put Pope and Grant into closer proximity (both physically and narratively) to each other as this season progresses.
- I didn’t mention anything about Huck’s AA shenanigans because that was some truly painful dialogue at the end. But I do appreciate the show’s willingness to linger on the fact that Olivia activated a potential psychopath last season. The more complicated the show makes Olivia, the stronger this show will work over the long haul. (Also? After Huck’s list of things that he needed to dispose of Drake’s body, I never want to go to the hardware store with him.)
- Olivia telling Grant about Reverend Drake’s affair initially smacked of Scandal treating these two adults like children. But ultimately, their shared laughter functioned like a release valve for two people that couldn’t find it anywhere else. Also, that laughter led to Olivia’s sucker punch about Anna’s status as Drake’s mistress.
- Somewhere in Hollywood tonight, there’s a screenwriter concocted a script about a government run by a “…super-secret brain being kept alive in a bowl of Jell-O.” I'd watch the hell out of that.
- As much as I appreciated the grace note the show tried to give Nancy and Anna, wouldn’t someone in the press ask who suddenly joined in Drake’s processions leaving the church? Isn’t that just slightly suspicious?