This show, you guys. This fucking show.
“White Hat’s Back On” doesn’t just put a period on this triumphant second season of the show. It put about a half-dozen exclamation points followed by a few dozen emojis on it. I’ve tried to articulate over the past few weeks what makes this show work so well, but let me try and sum it up one last time. Plenty of great shows get by through sheer technical execution. These programs are well-cast, rigorously plotted, and professionally executed on every level. There are also plenty of great shows get by through messy, emotion-based character work. These shows maybe don’t hold up to intense scrutiny, but swing for the fences in terms of making their audiences feel something and connect more often than miss. Scandal stands apart from most shows right now because it steals the best of both types of quality programming, throws it on vinyl, speeds that shit up to 78 RPM, and fills the dance hall with its manic, maddening, majestic, malevolent music.
I mean, where to freaking start? Trying to actually recap beat for beat what went down tonight seems pretty much past the point. But what came through loud and clear tonight is that Shonda Rhimes and company understand that their titular heroes are actually incredible fucked up people who may not deserve the type of empathy heaped upon them by the program’s slavish fanbase. That’s not to say the show hasn’t created compelling characters for viewers to follow. But there’s a fundamental dichotomy between the archetypes these characters are playing and the realism of what they actually do. Pope and Associates are the ostensible heroes of this show, but Billy Chambers is obviously right when he points out how horrid they all are to David Rosen. “Olivia Pope and her team of thugs? They’re not anyone’s friends. They destroyed your life. She destroyed your life!” he correctly notes, further pointing out that Pope often is in a position to fix things because she’s often first and foremost the architect of that destruction. She understands how to piece things back together because she had the blueprints for its initial implosion.
It’s something I’ve argued for some time about Scandal: underneath the glossy exterior that gets a cursory look from most media outlets, there’s a heart of fucking darkness to this show. Olivia Pope wears the titular white hat by the end of this episode, but this “gift” from David Rosen is a cruel pun rather than a nice gift. It's a distorted reflection, not unlike the slivers of glass inside the Pope And Associates’ boardroom that splits a single person into a dozen splintered factions as the camera swooshes around a brainstorming session. It’s not a business of equal individuals so much as Stockholm Syndrome with a better benefits package. Olivia may not have been responsible for every terrible thing that lead Huck, Quinn, Harrison, and Abby to her doorstep. But she sure as hell knew how to exploit that pain and make it razor-sharp in service of her services to Washington’s elite. She didn’t turn Huck into an assassin, but she uncorked that horrific genie in season one, and now Quinn is literally covered in blood thanks to that tactical decision. So it’s not just that she had the original blueprints. She also knew how to put these people back together with key pieces added or removed in order to build a better firm.
Rosen’s season-long arc actually dignifies that character’s role on the show, while simultaneously affirming the show’s central view on Pope and Associates. David Rosen lost everything while trying to fight Olivia and her crew up to and including Defiance, constantly being outmaneuvered or just plain screwed by them. Instead of actually pissing into the wind again, Rosen decides to play the game on Olivia’s terms, offering her a way out of the Defiance scandal in order to reestablish his presence in the U.S. Attorney’s office. He doesn’t do anything out of some naïve sense of “justice” anymore. Rosen understands that actually trying to release the Defiance scandal will probably send him six feet under. So that’s out. He only gives a shit about Billy Chambers’ murderous streak inasmuch as it gives him audio leverage to break free from his cycle of shit and put himself back in the employ of the justice department. He returns to that office with none of the compassion and ten times the cynicism, which makes him a more potent figure come season three. Anybody patient enough to work through 20,736 safe combinations is a worthy adversary. If Olivia used to build the perfect employee, she has now built the perfect antagonist.
It’s not just Pope And Associations that gets called to the carpet tonight. All those Olitz ‘shippers got punched square in the jaw by tonight’s hour. “White Hat’s Back On” showed Olivia and Fitz looking less like star-crossed lovers and more like the delusional people they really are when placed within close proximity to one other. Sure, things look all hunky dory at the outset of the hour when Fitz makes like Jon Snow from Game Of Thrones and shows Olivia his “super power.” But her superpower? PLAYING THE FUCKING RACE CARD TO JUSTIFY THEIR RELATIONSHIP TO AMERICA. Because let’s be honest: Fitz’s recitation of Olivia’s plan to “fix” the American public isn’t really about opening up a dialogue about race in America through the introduction of an African-American love interest for a Republican president. The two of them could not care less of that conversation happens. They only care about massaging the situation in enough to make their relationship palatable. They aren’t committing voter fraud here. But they still seem to think that most Americans can’t come to the correct conclusions without a little interference. Our romantic “heroes,” ladies and gentlemen!
So while Billy is schooling Rosen on the merits of gladiatorial combat in the District of Columbia, Cyrus Beene decides to pull the two pins on the two grenades he’s been pocketing all season. In one pocket: the sex tape of Olivia and Jake; in the other, knowledge of Fitz’s murder of Verna Thorton. It’s information that not only do these two not know about concerning the other, but it’s also information a non-small percentage of Scandal fans might like to forget as well. Again: the show deploys certain narrative tropes with such emotive force that it’s easy to miss the fact that it simultaneously deconstructs them. Just as many people still think The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” is a romantic ballad, so too do many people think Olivia Pope and Fitzgerald Grant have a pure love for one another. Cyrus loves both of them dearly, but also understands how toxic they are for each other. “As far as I can tell, I’m the only grown up in the room,” says the man who straight up doesn’t have fucking time to have a heart attack when both Olivia’s life and Grant’s presidency are both in trouble.
After a season in which “reason” didn’t come close to keeping the pair apart, Cyrus goes for the jugular on all fronts. Essentially, he’s handing out lyric sheets to “Every Breath You Take,” decoupling it from the hypnotic tune that underpins it, and doing a close reading to reveal the true meaning behind the words being uttered. “This is not a romance novel,” he spits at Olivia. “Life is not a romance novel.” Scandal has all the trappings of a romance novel from the outside looking in, but puts these well-known stories in motion using people who understand the signposts without realizing they haven’t earned the rights to follow them. Characters in Scandal don’t have relationships so much as play two-person improv scenes based on interactions they have seen other, healthier humans have. They want to be part of that world, but have something fundamentally “off” within them that prevents actual intergration. People like Billy and Cyrus are the directors of this improv group who step out for coffee for a few minutes, come back into the theatre, and see a nice scene on a park bench has devolved into a Bonnie and Clyde situation with dozens of imaginary bodies now strewn across the stage with two wide-eyed, panting, half-naked thespians standing above them, showing each other their “super powers.”
As far as the show’s final twist: well, it’s simultaneously incredible and terrible. It’s incredible in that we’ve yet to see the man potentially responsible for all of Olivia’s good and bad qualities, so Rowan Pope’s potential presence in season three gives the show a new angle to explore. On the other hand: does this track at all with what we’ve seen this season? Go back, and drink each time someone says “Olivia Pope” to Rowan. Actually, don’t, because it you do, you’ll be dead before long. The use of her full name over and over again was a distraction meant to disguise his real identity. Because once you know who he is, there’s no reason for anyone to tell him the full name of his daughter in any type of discourse. To be honest, while I know that he’s Olivia’s dad, I still couldn’t tell you anything about anything related to B613 this season. I’m sure someone has a conspiracy board that can shake everything out for me. But if it basically boils down to some dude not wanting his daughter to boink the President Of The United States and used a black-ops agency in order to cock-block Fitz, I’m not sure we needed all this subterfuge at the end of the day.
Naturally, I don’t think it’s that simple. What the final nine episodes of this season proved was that the show is interested in building upon its past in order to frame the present. The Albatross arc was erected (pun pretty much fully intended, because again, THIS SHOW) upon the land that Defiance built, which was in turn constructed upon the Amanda Tanner plot from season one. B613 still sounds like something you take to avoid getting scurvy or rickets, but its current opaque state leaves the show plenty to explore when it returns. I’m not sure it all came together as well as Rosen’s plot tonight, but does once again suggest that as overstuffed as each episode is, there’s a method to the madness. I once rolled my eyes at the thought of a conspiracy cabal involving Mellie, Cyrus, Olivia, and Hollis. Now I learn that the head of a super secret CIA organization is Olivia’s father and pre-order popcorn for Fall 2013. The show’s earned respect when it comes to its long-term narrative planning, and deserves it as long as it keeps churning stories out like this.
The ratings for this show have grown all season, and I imagine people catching up on it over the summer months will yield even bigger crowds come next Fall. But I’ll be curious to know how people will experience the show through summertime binge-watching. Those that read headlines or puff pieces and expect a light, frothy show will be somewhat astounded to see Quinn Perkins drilling holes into Billy Chambers and getting a taste of that old ultraviolence. People don’t expect to see shades of A Clockwork Orange in their Shonda Rhimes soapiness. But its presence is a feature, not a bug. It’s so wholly unexpected that people to this day don’t know how to handle it. Scandal doesn’t seek to change minds or hearts but instead bypasses both and seeks to affect a fundamental change at the cellular level of the viewer. This isn’t a show to watch so much as a show to experience. And in terms of what’s on television in 2013, there’s not a single experience like it anywhere. I’m not proclaiming it the best show on television. But it’s doing things no other show can do, could do, or will do anytime soon.
- Gotta love Hollis openly talking about Defiance in front of Fitz. He just doesn’t give a damn.
- “Don’t die! Be loyal!” Now I want a show called Cyrus Beene: Political Whisperer.
- “Heart-Shaped Bullets Made of Bubbles And Candy” sounds like a One Direction song. Instead, it’s Cyrus’ description of what he thinks Olivia believes the B613 agents will use when attacking her next.
- Poor Jake. Hope you’re not in the hole as long as Huck was. You might have said having sex with Olivia was your “mission,” but there was little missionary about it.
- “I don’t forgive you.” “I don’t forgive you either.” Bedside manner, Cy/James style.
- Not a lot of Mellie in this episode, although Fitz’s submission pose at the end of the episode suggests a bigger role for her to play in the administration next season. At least she got more to do than poor Harrison, who occasionally wandered on screen to remind people that he was still on this show.
- A nice touch with the Quinn-Turning-Into-Huck storyline: her unconscious repetition of the storage locker number revealed by Billy. It was hard not to hear her say “824” over and over again and not think of Huck constantly muttering “752” a few episodes back.
- Thanks to all who have read these reviews over the back half of this season. It’s hard to write up thoughts in the immediate aftermath of these episodes, but your enthusiasm has helped me push through. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to find a nice family to watch this summer from the comforts of my parked car. It’s a better way to honor Huck than what Quinn did tonight.