Scandal served as somewhat of a curiosity when it premièred last spring on ABC. While Shonda Rhimes has created one long-standing hit for the network in Grey’s Anatomy and another long-running (if lower-rated) show in Private Practice, Scandal only earned a meager seven-episode run, with no guarantee of future episodes after that. Rather than hint at future promise, Rhimes and company put the metal to the narrative pedal, telling a self-contained story that also hinted at future paths down the road. It was messy, but it was often a glorious mess, punctuated by Kerry Washington’s magnetic performance as the leader of a Washington, D.C.-based crisis-management firm. Featuring a female protagonist who struggles to balance her professional life with her often chaotic personal life is old-hat for Rhimes at this point. But in Olivia Pope, Rhimes also found her best iteration of the archetype to date.
If season one revolved around the central mystery of “Who killed Amanda Tanner?”, that season’s final moments offered up another question in its place: “Who is Quinn Perkins?” In terms of the history of televised mysteries, this one didn’t particularly rank high on the all-time leaderboard. But that has much to do with the fact that the first season of Scandal was so Pope-centric that nearly every other character within her firm existed in two dimensions, if they were lucky. A few couldn’t even achieve that. (We learn tonight that Stephen Finch has left Pope and Associates, but was there a single moment anyone missed him in the slightest tonight?) So there’s excitement contained within the question of Perkins’ identity, but only insomuch as it heralds the promise of something potentially ever happening with this character during the run of the show. We know so little about Perkins that knowing anything would be an improvement. There was no history to rewrite here, as no history had ever been written in the first place.
If I worried at the end of the short first season that nearly doubling the number of episodes in season two might hurt the show, “White Hat’s Off” alleviates those fears to a large degree. That’s not to say that I have no reservations about how this season may go. But there certainly seems to be a large enough über-narrative at work to play out over the currently scheduled 13-episode run this fall. In grand serialized television tradition, the answer to a long-standing question closes one door only to open up a myriad of others. We learn within the first few minutes of tonight’s première that “Quinn Perkins” is in fact Lindsay Dwyer, a woman accused of murdering seven people by delivering a bomb to her boyfriend’s office upon learning he was cheating on her. (The press dubs her the “Molotov Mistress,” which isn’t exactly an accurate description but has the added allure of alliteration. Like I said: It’s alluring.)
Dwyer insists that she didn’t do it. And indeed, being the type of person who can assemble the type of bomb used to blow up that office doesn’t track with someone who all but spread her DNA over every inch of a crime scene in last season’s finale. The employees of Pope and Associates are divided about her guilt, and it turns out for good reason. While it’s widely assumed that Dwyer changed her name and fled out of guilt, she insists that she was drugged soon after the bomb went off and woke up days later in a hotel room with a new identity. It doesn’t take a Rhodes Scholar to connect the dots long before the show connects them for us, but that’s not important. What is important is Olivia Pope’s long-standing interest in Lindsey Dwyer. Who does Pope represent here? Who did she call when it seemed like the current day case would go against her? And most importantly, what does this say about Pope’s heretofore unimpeachable morality?
When I talk of morality, I talk of it in the realm of her professional life. In terms of her personal life, things get muddier. Last season saw the temporary end of her reconnection with President Fitzgerald Grant, who is now mending his political image by conceiving a child with his wife. The only interaction between the pair tonight is via phone call, in which the two moon over each other from afar. Everything to do with this storyline is soapy melodrama, but there’s a restraint in the way Washington and Tony Goldwyn play this interaction that lifts the proceedings up from crass levels into something more rarefied. Indeed, ABC in general has been honing its melodramatic skills over the past year, with Revenge, Scandal, and the upcoming Nashville all employing age-old tropes with newfound skill. As such, there’s a comfort and freshness to the way these shows handle heightened, emotionally charged interactions.
The other elements in Grant’s life are semi-successfully executed in tonight’s opening hour. Both Grant’s wife Mellie and Chief of Staff Cyrus Beene (played by the still excellent Jeff Perry) are pressuring the president to engage in warfare in East Sudan. Sadly, while Scandal is set in the nation’s capital, it’s far better at dealing with the personal foibles of politicians rather than geopolitical struggles. (Homeland, this ain’t.) Still, perhaps the most surprising thing about tonight’s première is the way in which the show strives to humanize the First Lady in a way that nearly brings her back to Earth. Last season, she all but cackled her way through her scenes, taking the already high levels of histrionics in Scandal through the stratosphere. Having a high-energy, high-stakes, high-emotion show is fine. But keeping it tethered to the ground is vital. Mellie threatened to unmoor the show each time she stepped on screen, but her plea to have Grant feel their child kicking within her gave hope that these two will find something akin to a common ground this season. If they do, it will make Grant’s lingering feelings for Pope that much more complicated, and that much more sophisticated.
Still, all anyone will probably be talking about is that final moment in which we learn the Pope and Associates is a house divided. Two years before the start of the show, Huck found Dwyer in her hotel room, drugged her, and left her with a passport, Social Security card, and cash courtesy of Olivia Pope. Abby and Harrison’s search for the truth about the strange dismissal of Dwyer’s case will continue for weeks to come, especially as Dwyer returns to the firm. We’ve seen just how seriously Huck takes his loyalty to Pope, as evidenced by him literally torturing people on her behalf last season. I’m curious to see just how willing Scandal is to turn Pope into not only a hyper-competent crisis manager, but also something akin to a female antihero. Here’s a woman that subverted the law and took away a slam-dunk victory from David Rosen. Look for David, Abby, and Harrison to potentially work together this season in order to determine the truth. While it’s more than likely that such seemingly awful acts have been performed with the best of ultimate intentions, it would be far more compelling if everything was done out of cold calculation. Pope fashions herself as someone who never loses. Well, she’s already lost Grant. And she may end up losing her soul as well before the season’s over.
Is that too dark a vision for the show? Perhaps. Will I be disappointed if that doesn’t pan out? It all depends on the execution. I’m intrigued enough by the questions laid out tonight to keep watching. And I’m still continually impressed by the work Washington does on this show. If the other characters even approach Pope’s orbit, this should be a surprisingly satisfying drama this fall.
- For those of you that clamored for weekly coverage last spring… here it is! The plan right now is to cover every episode, assuming the quality of the show holds and there’s an appetite for these reviews.
- Worst carry-over from season one to season two: Those awful stop-motion transitions between scenes.
- How bad is the characterization of secondary characters on Scandal? We know Abby likes to watch sex tapes of Congressmen who like to call their mother before said tape leaks to the press. This counts as major progress toward us knowing what makes her tick.
- The name of the right-wing blog that threatens to host the sex tape? “Capital Spill,” which just sounds… unsanitary.
- The whole “Cyrus actually arranged for Amanda’s murder” plotline seems to be dropped for now, and I’m fine with that. I like the idea that some people just straight up get away with murder sometimes. Plus, Scandal can always bring this up down the line should they want to write Cyrus out of the show.
- For those of you playing the “gladiators in suits” drinking game… sorry, I suppose you’re pretty sober right now.