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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Scandal: “The Price Of Free And Fair Elections”

Illustration for article titled Scandal: “The Price Of Free And Fair Elections”

Well, it took a whole season, but “The Price Of Fair And Free Elections” finally showed me what Scandal has been trying to do for the last 18 episodes. This hasn’t been a good season of the show, but tonight’s episode practically crackled with energy—it’s my favorite episode of this season since “It’s Handled,” the third-season premiere.

I’ve gotten the impression that many other Scandal fans disagree, and you know what? I don’t blame them. For an 18-episode slog, this is a disappointing ending—and season finales have to be more than just a strong standalone episode. But I think if every episode of Scandal this season had been just like “The Price Of Free And Fair Elections,” this season would have been aces. It’s fast, it’s dramatic, and it pivots so fast it’s basically careening off the rails—which is all I want from Scandal, most of the time.

Looking back, the third season was short on story and long on time. Because you could essentially watch three episodes of this season and learn everything you needed to know: the first, the last, and “Everything’s Coming Up Mellie,” which tells the story of Mellie’s terrible secret. Multiple flashbacks from this episode go back to just those two episodes—a quick and dirty way of making the viewers connect the dots. As far as season-long arcs go, it’s bad storytelling. There were whole sections of this season that either didn’t work or didn’t go anywhere. Nothing about Quinn, Huck, or even Harrison was particularly interesting; and in the end, what happened to James and to Sally didn’t even matter. Drama was produced merely for shock value, and more than once, Scandal lost sight of who its characters were.

But the wreckage of this season was somewhat inevitable. How could anyone, even Shonda Rhimes, top that insane second season? Scandal made its bones by flying too close to the sun, again and again. The third season barreled straight into the sun without looking back. Restraint is not Scandal’s strongest suit.

What I liked best about “The Price Of Free And Fair Elections” is that it made me think, unexpectedly, about politics in our real world. I don’t often think of Scandal as having much verisimilitude—and then I remember that I’ve had the privilege to shake a governor’s hand, and I’ve gone to D.C. and watched members of Congress and their aides stream out of the Capitol in droves. There’s a vast swath of this country for whom government and power is a very distant and abstract concept. Scandal brings some of that weighty power to us—and how. Splashy murders, steamy sex scenes, and casual alcoholism dot Washington. But it’s over-the-top for a reason—because power like that really is over-the-top, when you are very far away from it. It’s a fantasy, so it might as well be sexy, too.

And meanwhile, in between conspiracy theories, Scandal sometimes says things that ring so absolutely true that it doesn’t matter to me at all that it exists in a crazy, implausible bubble; because somehow it’s speaking hard truths in its theater. It’s a cynical show—the anti The West Wing, in many ways—and tonight is more cynical than most. As cynical as our “villains” can be—Leo prepping Sally for her Florence Nightingale act is a great, terrible moment—it’s our heroes who were once idealistic that are the most jaded. Jake, Olivia, and Fitz seem broken in this episode—and for once, they’re not even particularly angry about it. They’re just done. Used up and spit out.


“The Price Of Free And Fair Elections” brings the story of Scandal around to where it really should always be: Olivia and Fitz. Not because they’re the best characters, or my favorite pairing—but because the story of Olivia and Fitz is the story Scandal wants to be telling. It finally clicked for me tonight, watching Olivia defend Fitz against her father and mother, watching Fitz choose Olivia over Mellie: Scandal is telling a story of trying to make a reconciliation and even love between white people and black people possible, in a world and power structure that has never made that possible. It explains to me why Fitz, in particular, is less a character and more of a cipher—a general stand-in for the patriarchy. No wonder their relationship is hot and cold and abusive and passionate—they’re working with a history of great violence.

In this grand unified theory that has at least a few flaws, I see Olivia’s parents as the figures of the black men and women before her who found a way to survive—either by being twice as good to go half as far, or by being half as bad to be twice as villainized. Neither of them trusts Fitz, and with good reason: All the love in the world can’t erase history. Meanwhile, Fitz is ignorant of his own power and confident in his many illusions—the truth is hard for him to come to grips with. And yet somehow, every graceful act of forgiveness or tenderness he makes is twice as moving as it should be—because we know that Fitz doesn’t have to be good. He’s so powerful, he’s past that. He can be half as good to go twice as far, or twice as bad to be half a bad guy.


And then, in the middle, here’s Olivia. Trying to go once as good to go once as far, if that makes sense. Trying to equal the playing field. I know that Shonda Rhimes couldn’t really control that Kerry Washington was going to be pregnant for this season, and props to both of them for working through what must have been a tricky circumstance—but in losing Kerry Washington’s inherent petite fragility, I feel the second half of this season lost some of the essence of Olivia’s character. Namely, that her fragility is her strength. Her naïve optimism, her willingness to be wholly subsumed by love, passion, or anger, is what makes her such a unique character—a person of the future. Olivia isn’t a person; she’s an idea. And she’s desperately trying to drag Fitz into the future with her.

So of all the plot twists that happened this week—blah blah Jerry’s dead, okay, whatever—my biggest question is this: Why did Olivia tell Fitz about Mellie? It wasn’t her secret to tell, and it was in the midst of an outpouring of affection from Fitz, who wanted to have her babies, instead. (This was just 20 or so minutes into the episode—so any seasoned Scandal viewer could have told you that whatever Fitz was saying right now would be overturned before the episode was over. Half of tonight’s hour is just waiting for the other shoe to drop.)


But Jerry’s death was already hard-baked into the storyline—and that would have been enough to justify both Fitz winning and him being unable to leave Mellie. So it’s not merely for plot expediency that Olivia tells Fitz what’s been happening to his wife. There’s some kind of sabotage or self-sabotage at work here.

One, I think “The Price Of Free And Fair Elections” is invested in vindicating Fitz as a “good” guy. Letting him know about the rape gives him a chance to finally be the good guy, after months of being a jerk about almost everything and everyone. Two, I think the writers wanted to tie off the rape story this season, especially as Jerry (the child in question!) was also going to get killed off.


But third: It seems to me Olivia Pope is saying, this isn’t good enough. She doesn’t want a Fitz who will leave Mellie to have her. On one level, that’s self-hatred for the character, who seems determined to not have what she wants. But on another, it’s a statement of independence for a strong-minded woman. She admits that she loves him (and that hasn’t happened in a precious long time), but she’s also admitting that they don’t really work together—and, more, that he needs to sort his shit out, first. This struggle does not have a happy ending.

Rowan’s masterminding of the crime that kills Jerry and vaults Fitz back into the presidency barely surprised me—Mama and Daddy Pope will always get what they want, in whatever convoluted way they need to. I was more surprised that Tom was involved, but Tom, like the rest of us, is just following orders.


But Rowan’s major success here is what he makes Olivia believe. Later in the episode, Olivia determines that she’s the problem—“I am the scandal,” she says, in a brilliantly self-referential moment. Except she’s not. Or she is, but not in the way she expected. Rowan’s packing her on a plane and sending her away—in part because he loves her, and in part, I think, because he is terrified of the world Olivia is trying to make. A world where Command doesn’t mean anything. A world where you don’t have to be twice as good to go half as far. (It’s significant, I think, that Rowan’s shambling, deferential walk up to the President has all the outward appearances of Uncle Tomming—and of course, it’s all an act. Rowan plays at looking like a good soldier.)

Olivia didn’t cause the scandal by being the daughter of a terrorist—she caused the scandal by asking for something her father didn’t like. So he dealt with it by giving it to her, in a backhanded way—Fitz president and unharmed; Mellie, by his side. The price is that Fitz is broken, and Olivia, child of the future, is on a one-way ticket out of Washington. Rowan is essentially saying: Okay, Olivia, here’s what you wanted. See how you like it.


I have no doubt that Olivia will figure out his betrayal in mere moments; but in the meantime, I look forward to mulling over what Olivia Pope, and Scandal, means to us, and to how we view power and race. Because Olivia didn’t get on that plane alone—she got on with Jake, another white man, who said matter-of-factly to David Rosen: “Go home and stew over the fact that bad guys run the world.”

Bad guys do run the world. It seems to me like Olivia is deciding if she wants to be one of them.


Episode grade: A
Season grade: B-

Stray observations:

  • Many, many thanks to you all for keeping up with my reviews this season—an erratic, confusing season, but fun all the same. Thanks are also due to Phil Dyess-Nugent, who subbed for me when I was sick last week.
  • A good friend of mine is a high school teacher, so sometimes she clues me in on slang that “the kids these days” are using. The latest is “extra,” as in—too much, but way too much. I am doubtful of my own ability to use it properly in a sentence, but this finale was definitely extra.
  • “Clean that up!” Abby’s response to Huck and Quinn speaks for all of us, everywhere.
  • “Are you going to stab me?”
  • This review already is way, way too long, but the direction after Jerry’s death is fantastic—the black-and-white stills, the camerawork in the hallways of the hospital, and even the composed palettes of color, scene to scene. Olivia’s sobbing in the waiting room is tinged with green; Mellie and her daughter, in blue; Fitz in the Oval Office, in cream tones. And then the slow build of “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” in the background? Some of the best work Scandal has done this season, and maybe ever.
  • So, Harrison is dead, right? Or does this all just depend on how the Columbus Short domestic violence suit plays out?