Monday Morning Critic: How ‘Scandal’ Got Its Groove Back
Welcome back to another installment of the Monday Morning Critic. In this space each week, I’ll be looking at the week that was in addition to the week ahead in television. The format will shift each week, as the world of TV will dictate the form and content of each piece.
In this week’s installment: how ‘Scandal’ got its operatic groove back.
In another life, I wrote about ‘Scandal’ on a weekly basis. I still watch every episode, but have given up episodic reviews in favor of sleep. While I’m still a fan of the show, the past season and a half has not lived up to the operatic heights of its epic second season. There are a variety of factors at play here, but partly that drop was almost inevitable. That second season saw the show go from perfectly fine procedural to “are they really doing this” insanity, with finely plotted arcs set as backdrop for some truly incredible emotional melodrama. Nothing was out of bounds for ‘Scandal,’ until things became so outlandish that they no longer possessed the ability to shock. As so often happens, a show’s greatest strength quickly turned into its biggest liability. ‘Scandal’ was full of sound, fury, and licking, all signifying almost nothing.
But last week’s episode, ‘Baby Made A Mess,’ found the show suddenly plugging back into that season two engine that made it like nothing else on TV. Here are five reasons why this past Thursday’s episode marked a return to form.
Olivia Pope was once again incredibly good at her job…
Kerry Washington’s performance was the initial draw for me in season one. With little else truly grabbing the imagination in early installments, Washington’s star-making performance was more than enough to keep me viewing. Part of that star power came from Washington making us believe that Olivia Pope was indeed the all-powerful fixer the show kept telling us she was. Over the past few seasons, 'Scandal' has curiously chosen to make Olivia a more passive figure, which has decentralized the show to its detriment. While actors like Joe Morton and Bellamy Young have been unbelievably good, this is Olivia Pope’s show, and 'Scandal' needs her to be the sun around which everyone in this incredibly messed up world revolves.
…while simultaneously being far from a hero.
One of the best parts of last week’s episode came from its analysis of what drives Olivia Pope to “inspire” those around her to do her bidding. I’ve long argued that Pope And Associates is less a business and more of a cult, and former Secret Service agent/former B613 soldier Tom Larsen served as the in-show confirmation of this fact last Thursday. While Olivia and her father Rowan are now enemies, they are also more alike than Olivia normally admits. One of the most potent ideas in season one lay in the fact that Olivia recruited employees who were almost blindingly loyal to her. The show teased out this sick symbiotic relationship through season two, but never really followed through with it. And yet in ‘Baby Made A Mess,’ Olivia has Quinn Perkins pay off a guard to brutally attack Tom in prison just to prove Jake Ballard is innocent of the murder of the President’s son. The line between Pope And Associates and B613 is far thinner than most would like to consider. Sure, Olivia freed an innocent man, but did so in less-than-moral ways. Why did this move work so well?
The show tied in its outlandish activities in emotionally grounded reasoning.
Read that sentence above again involving Jake Ballard. That makes next to no sense on paper, and sounds downright silly when relayed to someone who doesn’t watch ‘Scandal.’ And yet, none of it seems that strange in the moment, because ‘Scandal’ has trained us to understand that its world is populated with people who feel so intensely and acutely that there is almost nothing they won’t do when pressed up against a wall or backed into a corner. There were times in which season 3 felt like Shonda Rhimes trying to do her version of ‘Alias,’ and there have been more than a few times this season in which the show has felt like dystopian ‘Felicity’ fan-fiction. But last Thursday saw all of this show’s characters suddenly engaged in a way I simply haven’t seen in far too long, which made the episode less about what happened and more about these people trying to achieve specific goals.
The show is finally supporting its supporting cast.
If you asked me to say anything specifically about Abby over the first three seasons, I would have struggled to say much beyond “occasionally bones David Rosen.” That’s not Darby Stanchfield’s fault. That’s all on the writers, who put more exposition than emotion into her, Harrison, and others. (Admit it: You don’t miss Harrison at all, because the show never gave him a thing to do besides wear checkered shirts and say “gladiators in suits” four times an episode.) Last season’s attempt to make Quinn a B613 bad-ass wasn’t a bad idea in theory but failed in execution. But now? Darby’s presence in the White House has given that character a purpose and an identity outside of Olivia Pope, even while still tying her to the show’s protagonist. Huck’s virtual interactions with his son far exceed his tendency to lick people in season three, and Quinn’s quiet efficiency this year is better than trying to turn her into Evil Sydney Bristow. Throw in Morton, Young, Jeff Perry’s sad-but-still-effective Cyrus Beene, and Tony Goldwyn’s underrated work as President Drunk Romantic Suicidal Bastard Fitzgerald Grant, and you now have a cast of well-developed characters to match the show’s always excellent cast.
The show has something to say about women’s place in society without trying to solve it.
When Abby turns to Olivia for advice about potentially working with the ex-husband who savagely beat her during their marriage, Olivia offers up platitudes about how Abby revealing her struggle to the world would serve as a beacon for those currently (and quietly) suffering under the same conditions now. It’s a fine response, and one with a lot of value. Where ‘Scandal’ really excels is in demonstrating how platitudes fail in the real world. Abby responds that any temporary victory would be quelled over a short period of time, leaving nary a dent in society overall except for those women who are later see as pariahs more than brave individuals. It’s a harsh statement, but its veracity stops Olivia cold in her tracks. Olivia has hope, but she also has brains. Both women understand that being right isn’t always nearly enough.
While I call ‘Scandal’ an opera, I don’t mean to call it unrealistic. This show only seems outlandish, but really gets to the heart of what make people do the crazy stuff they do more than almost any other show currently on-air. These are people driven by ideals as much as demons, and while the show bends towards hope (to use a word that Fitz is desperately holding onto right now), it never thinks for a moment that these characters are inherently owed a happy ending. Sure, that might drive the Olitz fans crazy. And I’m not saying the show will never put those two together. But that’s literally the last scene of the show, if it happens. And should that scene go down, it will probably resemble the final imagery in ‘Fight Club,’ with The Pixies warbling ‘Where Is My Mind?’ while Olivia/Fitz hold hands and watch Washington D.C. burn to the ground. People can achieve victories in ‘Scandal.’ But in demonstrating the costs of those victories, ‘Scandal’ moves beyond frothy, operatic entertainment into a television show with something serious to say about the passions that govern everyone’s lives.
That message has been diluted over the past season and a half, but came satisfactorily roaring back to life last week. Here’s hoping the show has rediscovered that spark that once made it one of the best shows on television. It’s not that it’s simply more enjoyable to watch ‘Scandal’ when it’s firing on all cylinders. It’s that we need ‘Scandal’ to fire on all cylinders. When it does, it has true cultural value in terms of its ability to put ideas out into the television landscape that few shows would even dare to approach, never mind fully embrace. At its best, ‘Scandal’ shows the beating heart under us all, and isn’t afraid to show the blood that beats in its chambers. We saw that again last week, and I can’t wait to see it again.