It’s difficult to write about “Gladiators Don’t Run” because, honestly, I’m not quite sure I understand it on a fundamental level. What does it mean that Olivia is up for sale to the highest bidder? What impact is this supposed to have for the character and for the series? These are questions with answers, and they might even be thoughtful answers. In fact, they’ll almost certainly be thoughtful answers, if not good ones. One terrific thing about Scandal is how meticulously it inventories its most insane plot points and tries to make emotional sense of them. Whenever Quinn mentions, as she does in “Gladiators,” that Huck once yanked her teeth out, it’s a reminder that while Scandal‘s writers have no compunction about tossing out random nonsense, it isn’t random nonsense they have no intention of following to its logical conclusion. So why doesn’t it feel that way? Why does “Gladiators” feel so inconsequential?
This episode should feel more electric, more exciting, and scarier because everything Scandal is exploring right now is rooted in horrific current events. Kayla Mueller was executed by terrorists, and photos of her dead body were emailed to her family. Even though “Gladiators” was obviously conceived, written, and filmed ages before any of that happened, the episode should have a chilling undertone even when its being goofy, balls-out Scandal. There should be some weight to Olivia’s detention, given the terrorism parallels, as well as the subtext of a black woman being auctioned off, during Black History Month, no less. But the insanity of “Gladiators” feels like it could be swapped out with any other Scandal insanity without much impact.
The Olivia’s kidnapping arc was always a lose-lose situation for Scandal. If the bad guys absconded with Olivia and she was tucked safely in her bed within hours, it would be a cop-out. So while the Scandal writers are to be commended for sticking with Olivia’s kidnapping for a while, the execution lacks vitality, and again, is just difficult to understand. Part of it is what I like to call “The James Bond problem,” the narrative dead-end in which the story’s central character is placed in peril that never quite feels like peril because the story ceases to exist without him in it. Bond movies solve the problem by finding novel ways for him to escape the danger. It’s never in question whether or not Bond is going to live, but the fun part is how he cheats death. You forget all about the pen that doubles as a zip line until it’s time for 007 to use it.
That alluring half-smile Olivia flashes at the end of “Where’s The Black Lady?” suggests she knows something or has something her captors aren’t aware of, like a pen that doubles as a zip line. Alas, no. A pen is just a pen, and an abductee is just an abductee, at least as it concerns Olivia’s ability to change her own circumstances. Olivia becomes special when it comes time to auction her off, with Ian guessing he can get around $500 million for her, which Olivia laughs off as an insult. She thinks she can double it. She’s right. There’s a joyful mischief to the early goings, suggesting Ian has fallen victim to some kind of reverse Stockholm syndrome and Liv is pulling his strings so subtly he doesn’t even feel it. But just as that dynamic is getting interesting, Ian’s henchman kills him and takes over the auction process. He can’t be swayed, especially with the Frankenstein scar running down his forehead, and his desire to seek vengeance against Olivia for killing his friend in the fake prison where…oh whatever, you remember what happened. His young tech support guys can’t be swayed either.
“Run” was so great because it showed Olivia refusing to be made a victim, and even in “Black Lady,” she convinced Ian to set up the auction because she preferred to act than be acted upon. Olivia’s kidnapping is no longer the story in which she learns to stop worrying about saving everyone else and starts saving herself. It’s Olivia being victimized—there’s yet another rape threat in this episode—and being powerless to stop it. Who are the people who like watching a powerless Olivia? It’s even more offensive that the power she does have lies solely in her value to a powerful white man. That’s gross. Fitz sends kids to die to save his mistress, which is mostly discussed in terms of its potential political ramifications. That’s gross. She gets sold to Iran for whatever reason. All of this is just so gross.
All this gross stuff might be forgivable if this story was even remotely plausible, but it isn’t. There’s no accepting the premise that anyone would pay $1 billion for one person with the hopes that, because she’s a one-time White House staffer with a rumored romantic connection to the president, it’ll somehow pay off on the back-end. That’s plainly ridiculous. Simply put, Olivia isn’t that valuable. Not in the real world, and not even in the Scandal universe. Every move in “Gladiators” underscores that. The fierce bidding, Huck’s horrifying massacre, the negotiations with Mama Pope, it forces the audience to actively question the value of the show’s protagonist. That’s bad business.
What “Gladiators” does sort of right is showing the effect Olivia’s abduction is having on the people closest to her, which is that it triggers their descent into madness and leads them to believe there is no price too high to ensure Liv’s safety. As usual, the only person whose behavior isn’t totally inscrutable is Mellie, whose ambition bubbles back to the surface. Mellie has tried for years to wrap her brain around the fact that her husband doesn’t belong to her, or at least to find a silver lining. Mellie has figured something out between Fitz’s suicide attempt, his acquiescence to Andrew’s demands, and his willingness to eliminate food stamps nationwide for five years if it’ll rustle up enough money to bring Olivia home so they caress each others cheeks and talk about jam. Fitz doesn’t care about being president, he cares about Olivia. It’s a common affliction.
- Attention all terror cells, rogue nations, and eccentric billionaires: I, Joshua Alston, can be purchased for the low, low price of $699. I will confess this is a “you get what you pay for” situation. I possess no high-value information. There are no heads of state in love with me. According to the most recent available data, my face has launched zero ships. However, I make great pancakes and am terrific company to have on a road trip. While I’d like to say you can’t put a price tag on those attributes, I’m certain you could, because I did, and I came up with $699. Do I hear $699? No? $650?
- I adore Khandi Alexander but this was a complete waste of her time and talent.
- Abby gets some screen time this week to be upset about being left out of every loop, but it’s still not clear what Shonda Rhimes was talking about when she kept saying in interviews this was going to be the “Season of Abby.”
- Huck. Just…Huck.