This is more how I like Scandal. I know that some of you thought that I was a bit harsh on last week’s spring premiere, and that might be true. It had been a long few months without the show, and I think I’d forgotten a little bit how Scandal operates. “We Don’t Touch The First Ladies” reminded me of the show’s breakneck pace and its absolute indifference toward characterization. But it’s also just a much better episode. Despite near-laughable moments of melodrama—which is par for the course for any Scandal episode—tonight’s episode came much closer to being what audiences enjoy about Scandal.
Chiefly, this series has an uncanny ability to introduce a plot element and then immediately punch that plot element to its logicial conclusion. There’s never any build-up in Scandal—rarely any that lasts more than episode. Mysteries are introduced, solved, and replaced with new, bigger mysteries. It’s a badly planned game of Jenga. Which means that it always feels like it’s about to collapse, which makes it very, very addictive.
Given how long I’ve been watching this show—and how cynical I am about most of its plot twists—I surprised myself by gasping out loud at the episode’s big reveal in its last few seconds, which is that Olivia’s mother Maya is the woman behind the return of Harrison’s beautiful and dangerous nemesis, Adnan Salif. It was already intriguing that Adnan was planning to launder money through the Grant campaign, and even more intriguing that she went out of her way to introduce herself and start making a deal with Cyrus. But it would have been forgettable were it not for that last moment, when she returns to her hotel room. It’s a stunning scene, made all the more stunning by what Nazanin Boniadi is wearing—a metallic sheath that pools on the floor when she takes off her heels. There’s a sexy, mysterious vibe there that Scandal has otherwise mostly lost, so it’s exciting to see a glimpse of it again.
Scandal has to keep the machine whirring in order to hide its fatal flaw—this is a show that has almost no characterization whatsoever. The characters feel like known quantities, but that’s very much because they’re types, and not really people. They’re not written to surprise you—rather, they exist as vessels of a sort, for you, the viewer, to project whatever you want onto them. So, for example, I really like Abby, for no particular reason other than I kind of identify with her, and I like what she stands for. I dislike Quinn and find Huck boring for similarly subjective reasons. There isn’t a moment of characterization on this show that isn’t explicitly stated by one or more of the characters in a quivering monologue; it’s less characterization, to be honest, and more just shouting out character traits.
This hampers the show when it comes to the interactions of its golden trifecta: Melly, Fitz, and Olivia. These three are always, instantly, impossible to stop watching. And at first, Olivia and Fitz had more depth to them, even if they were surrounded mostly by archetypes. Their romance with each other went against type enough that it shaded them both with nuance, and through flashbacks, the show demonstrated to us manifestations of their earlier selves. Our sense of who Fitz is, and what Olivia stands for, comes from those flashbacks from season two. And all that while, Melly was a type, herself—the mean, shrewish political wife who kept up appearances at all costs.
It’s one of the smartest things the show has done, making Melanie Grant into a more complex character. But somehow, it’s done that at the expense of its two main characters. Fitz has turned from a man who is tortured by his own prinicples into a man who yells in practically every scene. I cringe every time he opens his mouth, and he’s just as apt to throw crockery as he is to tell someone he loves them. This episode opened with Fitz and Olivia yelling at each other so loudly, in some basement of the White House, that the Secret Service detail outside could make out every word. And this is their post-coital conversation!
Fitz’s love for Olivia has moved from the love a romantic-hero-type might cherish to the “love” that an abusive bully claims he has for the woman he is manipulating. But the problem is not that Fitz is an asshole; for Scandal as a show, the problem is that Fitz doesn’t seem like he’s changed, it seems like he’s flattened. Like they don’t know who he is anymore, so they just make him yell. It makes for a very ambiguous character in a very strange relationship—because Scandal is unwilling to be decisive about who Fitzgerald Grant III really is, besides an empty suit with a long name. Tony Goldwyn, bless him, does what he can with the role. But this is a dead-end strategy.
Because the other issue is the other woman: Olivia Pope herself has suffered from Scandal’s reluctance to firmly declare who its characters really are. That oft-proclaimed white hat thing? That was characterization. But now, there are no white hats, and there isn’t even a coherent strategy for how Olivia and Fitz are dating or not dating. It’s not nearly as bad as Fitz—Kerry Washington throws herself into Olivia Pope, and Liv has the benefit of a lot of monologues to her staff, her family, and her political rivals to back up her character. But it does seem as if, week-to-week, Scandal makes a new decision for who Olivia really is. This week, she’s doing things to redeem herself for rigging an election; where was that sentiment two years ago? This week, she might have feelings for Jake; didn’t she drop him, repeatedly, for Fitz’s warm embrace? The words don’t make sense. They don’t have to make a ton of sense. But they have to make some sense.
This really stood out for me tonight when Olivia calls herself “the president’s whore” as a bargaining tactic in a screaming match with the man she has just slept with. What kind of woman—and really, what kind of Olivia Pope—would say that about herself? Does Liv really see herself as a whore? Why is anyone on this show even using the word “whore”? How does sleeping with the man you are in love with make you someone who sleeps with people for a living? It’s such an explosive word, and it was entirely incongruous to the moment. Olivia isn’t a whore; she’s a passionate political operative. But it feels, suspiciously, like Scandal just wanted to use the word “whore” this week.
- There’s a Melly flashback again, and then kissing! A+ to Melly kissing!! F to Melly trying to kill herself. A+ to that portrait of Jackie O!
- Here at the Saraiya couch,we laughed hysterically at Jake Ballard’s security-clearance O-face. Scott Foley’s montage expressions should all be animated-gifs, to use for any occasion that requires manufactured suspense.
- “Every Tom, Dick, or Moby in the room…” Bergman has a literary sense of humor.
- “All our britches are moist with this foreplay.” Hollis doesn’t.
- One of the reasons this stands out as a better episode is how funny it is. David Rosen, Charlie, and James all separately critiquing the name choice “Publius” is one of the better running gags the show has done.
- Do you think that maybe Rowan is the voice of Scandal’s critics? His line to Olivia this week: “Does this work for you?” is kind of meta, if you think about it.
- The thing where the first ladies’ portraits, like, judged Melly and Andrew as they were making out? Whaaaaatttt??? ARE THEY ALIVE NOW?
- Sonia’s Scandal Speculation: Okay, so: Rowan is trying to throw the election against Fitz, so Maya is going to pour money into Fitz’s campaign. Where is the money coming from, though? Probably from like, B613, or something. What else would it be? Abby and Rosen are like thisclose to pregnancy land. Quinn is going to start working for B613 and go through some whole crazy arc and end up back at OPA in like, four to six episodes. Harrison wears another purple shirt.
- Sonia’s Scandal Wishlist: In addition to a dead Charlie, you mean? Melly leaves Fitz, runs against him, wins, takes over the White House. Andrew is her First Man. Fitz takes up fly fishing in Vermont. (I don’t know if they fly fish in Vermont, but either way, he goes there.) Olivia uses the Publius information to bring down Cyrus, who retires from public office. James and Cyrus leave DC for Vermont. Abby and Rosen decide to get married. And leave for Vermont. Basically a lot of people in Vermont. Then they start making ice cream, and/or jam, and/or jam-flavored ice cream. No one else dies. The end.