The highest praise a television episode can receive is to be called the one essential episode of the series, the one someone should watch if they’re only going to watch one. It’s a conversation television lovers have all the time now, due to the daunting glut of excellent content out there. A good friend recently asked if I’d seen Silicon Valley. I haven’t. He says it’s great. I believe him. I told him to get into Broad City. I’m sure he also believes me when I tell him it’s great, but he may watch and he may not. There’s too much stuff. So it’s a fair question: “Okay fine, if I’m going to watch your thing, tell me the one episode I should watch to figure out if I should make more time for it.” For Scandal, that episode is “Run.”
Prior to “Run,” it’s hard to identify which episode that would be. Certainly not the pilot, which conveys foundational information but isn’t representative of what Scandal actually is. In fact, none of the first season is representative. But when Scandal became heavily serialized, especially once the B-613 stuff started occupying so much real estate, the episodes became hard to distinguish from one another, even when they were especially good. Pop quiz: In what episode did Huck and Quinn first have grunting, nightmare-inducing intercourse? Who even knows, right? Scandal isn’t a show in which some of the insanity is distinct from the rest of it. In the middle of a roller coaster ride, you’re too busy steeling your stomach to count how many loops you’ve been through.
“Run” is such a pleasant surprise because it’s completely self-contained. Sure, it’s probably beneficial to have some context around Olivia, Jake, and Fitz, to know who Tom is, to understand the prickly history with Abby. But Olivia’s kidnapping came so far out of left field, the Scandal faithful tuned into “Run” without much more insight than a first-timer who was flipping channels and stopped on The Face That Launched A Thousand ‘Shippers. Even now, it isn’t entirely clear how all of this links back to Vice President Nichols, Lizzie Bear and Kubiak, but none of that matters where “Run” is concerned. It’s an amazing thing Shonda Rhimes does here, and a necessary one. No television show suffers more from a midseason hiatus than Scandal, and it was shrewd to craft an entire episode that can stand on its own merits. “Run” is as perfect a place to resume as it is to start fresh.
Beyond its narrative independence, what makes “Run” so great? Olivia Pope. She’s a phenomenal character, and Kerry Washington truly inhabits the role. This episode is Olivia in her purest form, free from creepy, guilty clients, from impeccably tailored white couture, from OPA responsibilities, love triangles, and malicious, overacting parents. Those storylines have taken up Olivia’s time and pulled her away from kicking ass as only she knows how—especially her vacillating affections for Jake and Fitz. I’ve stopped caring who’s handling Olivia. I want to know who Olivia is handling.
In “Run,” Olivia is both the fixer and the client. Just as she’s preparing to have drunken sex while listening to Stevie Wonder—if you’ve not done this, repair that immediately—a masked man rushes in, snatches her up and vanishes. Jake runs out in his boxer briefs but Liv is nowhere to be found, because she has, in fact, been whisked to the apartment across the hall. Director Tom Verica clearly had fun staging this, arguably too much fun, because watching Olivia violently seized again and again was traumatic and didn’t become less unsettling through repetition. But it was impressive sleight-of-hand, the first of many tricks Rhimes pulls out of her bag.
The Olivia of “Run” is such a badass, the episode has the inadvertent effect of showing the mistakes Scandal has made with her over the last season or so. Taking Olivia to a place of abject victimhood simply doesn’t work, and it definitely doesn’t work now that the audience has seen Olivia refusing to be a victim even as she’s literally being victimized. Even out of breath, terrified, emotionally gutted after watching her elderly neighbor shot to death, Olivia counts cards. She knows who’s in charge, she knows who can answer her questions, who can hurt her and who can’t. She has a general idea of where she is. She thinks there might be a tracking chip embedded in her back. Olivia is never the babe; she is always the woods.
Of course, the deck was stacked against Olivia from the beginning, and what criticism “Run” gets will be squarely aimed at the final twist, in which it’s revealed that Olivia’s Middle Eastern prison is actually an elaborate set. Her cellmate, Ian, is not a captured journalist, he’s the ring leader, the man who muffled her screams. The twist is over-the-top, but not in a way that’s egregious or off-brand. And I’ll admit it wasn’t a surprise for me. As soon as Jason Butler Harner started talking, I said, “Yeah, that dude’s in on it.” Plus, I never, ever trust an off-screen death. It never means what it means. Still, a lot of thought and craft went into the execution of that reveal, most notably the blood spatter on the henchman’s face when he comes to menace Olivia after purportedly shooting Ian. Even the cynics who never bought in must admit a lot went into surprising Scandal’s less studied viewership.
Plus, though it ended on a dour note, with Olivia marching back into her fake-but-real prison cell, what was most important was that Olivia reclaimed her independence and relied on herself in the most satisfying way possible. Olivia shot a guy in the face. For a crew that did so much surveillance of and research on Olivia to pull off this elaborate scheme, the kidnappers certainly missed the fact that Olivia has no problem shooting someone following a few moments of consideration. That was a significant moment, and one we’ll be hearing more than one classic Shondaland monologue about before the season is out. I’m not sure Scandal is quite the same show now that Olivia has shot a man to death, but I’m not sure it matters.
Will any of it track with next week’s episode? Perhaps, perhaps not. Frankly, I don’t care. Right now, I’m dancing. That was probably the point of the closing scene of “Where The Sun Don’t Shine.” Olivia was demonstrating the attitude Scandal viewers need to have if they’re going to genuinely enjoy the show in its current form. Don’t worry about the looming threat of Rowan Pope. Don’t worry about next week’s episode. Don’t even worry about what’s going to happen after the commercial break. Just enjoy the moment. I’m not much of a dancer, but “Run” hit so many of the right notes, I had to make an exception.
- Olivia’s dream sequence was terrific, and that’s from someone who really hates dream sequences. It’s not a device Scandal uses often, and this was the best and most earned deployment yet.
- Dream Abby: “Do you know how to use a Dutch oven? Do you even know how to turn on a regular oven?” First of all, Abby, you’re so much of a hater you have to invade people’s subconscious minds to do to it? Second of all, turn on an oven? I suppose that dinner from Gettysburger was warming itself? (Good look on the dream clues, though.)
- Jake to Quinn: “She’s not on an island with another man.” For a split-second, Jake considered the possibility.
- I hate to be a broken record about Alias, but from the in medias res opening straight through to the end, this was pure Alias. I’m still surprised by how literally Rhimes is interpreting her admiration of that show. It’s definitely the Shondaland version of it though, hence the frequency of people laughing hysterically at inappropriate moments.
- I was hoping to never hear the “bitch baby” speech again, but the fragments of it when Olivia charged the door were a nice touch.