As Scandal has shown us time and time again, break-ups are a real bitch. I’m not talking about Olivia and Fitz here, but rather these reviews and you, the dear A.V. Club readers. The last time we met like this, the Defiance conspiracy angle was only starting to form, and low readership pushed us to pull the plug right when the show hopped on board the expressway towards Awesometown. Weekly reviews are inherently a flawed system, but it’s still pretty astounding all the same to look back on my hesitation about the arc that would ultimately lift Scandal from “promising” to legitimately great television. Sure, there’s a lot of stuff in that review that ultimately bore fruit. But so much of it is so wrong about so many things that rereading it earlier today made me cringe.
Still, it’s better to be wrong this way than to overpraise something that turns out to be a one-trick pony. I wrote a great deal about the evolution of Scandal this season a few weeks ago, so I won’t rehash a great deal of it here. Suffice to say, the show leaned into its already sizable strengths (its fast-paced storytelling, its near-operatic levels of emotional intensity) and married it to a rigorously-told serialized story that involved election rigging, assassination attempts, far-flung conspiracies, and enough double-crosses to land anyone at home attempting to keep up in a neck brace.
Rather than hiding its true self, Scandal took its characters from speed-talking workaholics and transformed them all into people who acted as if everything they did was the single most fucking important thing they had ever done in their lives. These characters didn’t talk fast because of network programming time constraints. These characters didn’t talk fast because Shonda Rhimes puts more words in her actors’ mouths than anyone except perhaps Aaron Sorkin. No, these people talk so fast because they live every moment as if unsure the next one will even arrive. It’s an approach that can be exhausting in the wrong hands, but when executed correctly (as it almost unfailingly was from the moment we stopped covered through “Nobody Likes Babies”), it can also be thrilling in ways no other show currently on the air can currently approach.
With such speed comes potential problems, however. The Defiance arc started with hints of Quinn Perkins’ past and ended with President Fitzgerald murdering a Supreme Court Justice in cold blood. With only a 13-episode order in front of her, Rhimes set about crafting a balls-to-the-wall story that didn’t worry about what might happen afterwards. It was a refreshing approach, especially in a day and age when plenty of showrunners throw in cliffhangers as a type of dare to networks. (“Go ahead,” those cliffhangers seem to say. “Cancel the show and leave the fans with all those unanswered questions. See how THAT goes over.”) But Rhimes’ concentrated effort also left Scandal and its fans with a single question when it was all over: Where would the show go from there? It’s a question loaded with both promise and dread. It’s a question most shows try to avoid, which is why they string out what’s known well past its natural expiration date. Would Scandal try to top itself? Would it go in a completely different direction? Anything was possible, including absolute freakin’ failure.
With “Top Of The Hour,” the third episode in this new arc, we’re at roughly the same point we were at this point in the Defiance arc. There’s great potential, but no real sense of how this will all play out over the course of the next six installments. Tonight’s episode featured a lot of strong individual threads, but many felt like they were part of different tapestries rather than separate elements of a larger, more singular piece. There was a case of the week in the form of former House star Lisa Edelstein, a series of scenes in which Huck tried to teach Quinn how to be less terrible at her job, and the latest installment of “Drunk Fitz Just Don’t Give A Fuck.” These stories occasionally brushed up against each other but primarily did their own thing independent of the others.
Let’s work our way backward from strongest to weakest. While the Albatross Arc (my shortcut for differentiating this arc from the Defiance one) is its own beast, narratively speaking, it still owes a great deal of story debt to the one that preceded it. Cyrus and Mellie trying to find their way back into Fitz’s good graces is always fun, as both would just as soon step on the other’s throat rather than see the other favored by the President. At the same time, there’s a weird dynamic at play in which these two often perform the roles of adversaries without actually giving fully into it. (They are like the gangsters in Pulp Fiction who get into character when the situation calls for it.) If an episode of Scandal comes along that’s just a bottle episode involving Jeff Perry and Bellamy Young bickering, I might die of happiness.
What neither realizes is that Fitz is still fundamentally broken by knowledge of how he became leader of the free world. He doesn’t have a moral worry about staying in office, but he’s psychologically destroyed by believing that Olivia didn’t think enough of him as a human being to win the election on his own merit. His drunken phone call to her at the home of Olivia’s client Sarah Stanner (Edelstein) provides a sliver of overlap on the Venn diagram of these storylines, but really emphasizes the problem with the cases of the week in Albatross Arc: They are barely (and I mean BARELY) concealed iterations of the Olivia/Fitz dynamic. Now, to be sure, nearly all television shows use secondary stories to illuminate the primary emotional states of its characters. But since the Olivia/Fitz dynamic is static (“primal, unrequited love 24/7 and often twice on Sundays”), that means the secondary stories are themselves static. There are only so many times a show can feature a case involving stifled passion before it turns anvilicious. Scandal is never subtle, but at least the punches it throws usually come from different angles. In this case, not so much.
That’s too bad, because the cases of the week could offer up as many chances for juicy recurring roles as those offered up on The Good Wife. But when someone with Lisa Edelstein is simply standing in for Olivia Pope in a parallel storyline, it just feels like a missed opportunity. When Edelstein’s character mistook Abby for Olivia, I gasped a bit. I thought the episode might key off of that one misidentification and build a character around it. Instead, Stratten was defined primarily by what we didn’t know about her, making her a cipher instead of a character. In some cases, being a cipher isn’t an inherently bad thing (the more we know about Scott Foley’s Naval intelligence officer Jake, for instance, the less interesting he’ll most likely become). But if Scandal is going to re-emphasize the cases of the week that it largely abandoned during the Defiance arc, it needs those cases to reveal things about Olivia and her associates instead of simply reinforcing them.
As for those associates, they were off largely doing their own thing this week. (They still fared better than David Rosen, who saw no screen time at all. Free Josh Malina!) The idea of Huck mentoring Quinn in the art of surveillance is actually a pretty good once, since Huck is awesome, and Quinn’s kinda the worst. So anything that ups her skill and value to the firm is OK by me. But why on EARTH did Huck decide to let her hone her skills by pursuing the corrupt head of the CIA? I mean, scale it down a bit, Huck! Have her follow some low-level page that is stealing cigarette breaks on the sly first, THEN work your way up. Naturally, she’s identified by Osborne’s associate in the laundromat thanks to her lack of improvisatory skills, so Quinn is potentially going to end up in someone’s cross-hairs.
But do we care? If there was a slightly frustrating aspect to the Defiance arc, it lay in the fact that it organically made just about everyone under Olivia distrust her, only to have everyone fall in line before all was said and done. These people have solid reasons to not believe a word that Olivia utters, and oftentimes equal reasons for distrusting each other. Huck still feels the aftershocks of his waterboarding treatment, as we saw in the last episode. Quinn still doesn’t understand the full extent of how she ended up with a new identity. And in one of the better scenes of the night, Harrison and Abby stand across from each other realizing that Olivia’s orders have essentially cleaved off any chance of them dealing with each other as anything more than professionals. Harrison and Abby haven’t gotten a lot to do over the course of the show’s run, but I’ll be curious to see if the show continues their path toward friendship (if not more) or if they’ll drop it next episode as if nothing happened.
After all, the Defiance arc worked not just because of the plotting, but the ways in which each revelation tied into something emotionally resonant with each character. Olivia’s decision to go along with Hollis’ plan is still paying off now because it sowed the seeds of distrust and heartache that now exist between her and Fitz. Contrast that with Osborne, who might as well be a name on a title card at this point. We have no investment in him, what he wants, or why what he does means anything other than having a story upon which to hang these final nine episodes of the season. There’s a lot of good, meaty stuff in this show that simply doesn’t touch the central storytelling spine at present. But that’s OK. If you look back at the review I linked at the outset of this review, I didn’t care much for that storyline either. And look how that turned out!
- Think about the grade atop this review as less about what the show has done this season and how this particular episode itself played out. That Defiance run would have seen a lot of “A” grades, each subsequent one sending non-viewers into an increasingly frustrated frenzy.
- I have no idea if we’ll be doing weekly reviews of Scandal or not going forth. If nothing else, we’ll almost certainly drop in on the finale. Honestly, very few people read these reviews in the Fall, but I’d be mighty curious to see how traffic is this time around.
- “You’re good at this. Stalking people.” “You’ll get there.” This is Scandal’s version of a pep talk.
- I stopped trying to make heads or tails out of the hostage crisis almost instantly, since this show doesn’t really do well in the arena of geopolitical veracity. It got Fitz a win and kept both Cy and Mellie out of his inner circle, and that’s enough to know going forth.
- “Is your vagina apolitical?” Cyrus Beene has all the best pick-up lines.
- Fitz taking his child into the Oval Office and slamming the door in Mellie’s face made me laugh out loud. Fitz is such a drunk, self-loathing ass. It’s great.
- “‘My husband calling me a whore’ feels like an occasion.” I’m doubting you’ll see any wine company use that line in their promotional campaigns.
- “You’re pretty. And you talk real fast.” See, THAT line, spoken by Ryocorp’s lawyer, could in fact be used as a promotional line for Scandal.
- Every time the actor Jay Jackson appears on this show, I wonder how I’ve wandered into an episode of Parks And Recreation. Seeing Perd Hapley and Olivia Pope co-exist in the same universe is never not strange.