Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Scandal: “An Innocent Man”

Brian Benben, Kerry Washington
Brian Benben, Kerry Washington
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Scandal is a show about Olivia Pope.

That’s different than saying Scandal is a political thriller about a D.C. fixer who’s in love with the married president. Scandal is about Olivia. It’s about owning roughly 4,700 items of expertly tailored, lightning-white outerwear with gloves to match each one. It’s about functional alcoholism disguised as benign oenophilia. It’s about being conceptually obsessed with rectitude, but not hesitating to belly-crawl through the filthiest muck human nature has to offer, because victory demands sacrifice. That which defines Olivia, defines Scandal.

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In summer interviews, Shonda Rhimes vowed to return Scandal to “Olivia-centric” storytelling, a tacit affirmation of audience concerns about the problematic elements of season three as much as an acknowledgment that said elements were an outgrowth of an effort to build out a larger world in which Olivia is a major player and a narrative hinge, but not the 800 pound gorilla. Season four has made clear there will be no abandonment of the goal of broadening Scandal’s scope beyond Olivia’s romantic shenanigans. But doing so will require slow, meticulous fine-tuning because when Scandal doesn’t have Olivia anchoring it, it floats into some awfully weird places.

At this stage of its evolution, Scandal wants to tell ambitious stories about policy sand traps, megalomania, and sexual politics, and to tell those stories using an array of diverse perspectives. And maybe it’ll grow into that show, but until then, it’s bound to being all Olivia all the time. “An Innocent Man” makes a strong case for why it was sensible—perhaps even inevitable— to retrain Scandal’s focus on Olivia, but never lets the audience forget that while this was the best possible approach following season three, it’s not an ideal solution.

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From the first frame, we’re in Olivia’s head, watching her subconsciously work through her dueling feelings for Fitz and Jake and her suppressed suspicions about Rowan’s involvement in this debacle. When Liv awakens from her nightmare, Abby pounces to her side, having stayed there all night to make sure her friend was okay. My initial reaction was “Finally, Abby is making herself useful,” and the significance of that reaction hit me immediately. Abby can only justify her place in this narrative universe by being of use to Olivia, because Scandal is about Olivia and its characters are measured by their relationship to her.

The theme of Pope worship is frequently acknowledged in the show, with recent examples being Abby’s frequent insistence that she’s no longer one of Olivia’s “foot soldiers,” or David Rosen’s line in “The Key” about everybody inexplicably trying to emulate Olivia. “Innocent” is a showcase for what makes Olivia so appealing. She’s dogged, determined, assertive, confident, not to mention an amateur sommelier and a phenomenal dresser. So when Olivia has a crusade, she’s mesmerizing and fun to be around regardless of the particulars underlying the effort. Such is the case with Leonard Carnahan, who begs Olivia to help him prove he didn’t try to assassinate the late President Edward Cooper.

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The story is underbaked in the center, but damned if those edges aren’t golden brown. The introduction of President Cooper is fascinating, given how much policy is discussed on Scandal with no accompanying discussion about ideology. “Innocent” doesn’t go towards nailing down Fitz’s ideology—the same Republican prez who forced through gun control now wants to shutter military bases, go figure! But just the mention of another president, even if he’s as much a random amalgam of commander-in-chief archetypes as is Fitz, widens the sky and puts Scandal closer to presenting actual ideas about its often heady subject matter.

The problem was Carnahan, who was as limited as a one-off character as Scandal’s regulars can be, with no reason to exist beyond serving Olivia’s needs. Olivia’s need in this instance is to be reminded of her fallibility, which is rooted in her insistence on relying on her gut no matter how many times it misleads her. Olivia clearly suffers from an extreme strain of confirmation bias. She’s not only in love with being right, she’s in love with the idea of being able to sense who and what is right, and that romantic notion blinds her to the havoc she creates when she’s wrong. It’s clearly the right time for Olivia to be grappling with these ideas, as she frets over Jake being detained for a crime of which she wants to believe he’s innocent. It’s standard operating procedure to do a case of the week that neatly dovetails with Olivia’s boy drama, but the Carnahan story was a clumsy way to get there, especially given that Carnahan’s hammy confession makes the average Law And Order climax look like the apex of subtlety.

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Still, Carnahan accomplishes his primary goal, which is to work Olivia into a lather about Jake’s detainment until she’s so upset, Abby and Rowan are forced to intervene, browbeating Fitz until he allows Olivia to visit Jake. Jake is a tricky character to work with, but his detainment on suspicion of Jerry’s murder, there’s some humanity restored to him, especially as he tells Olivia about his family in preparation for his execution. Kerry Washington plays the scene beautifully, and, as is rarely the case, Olivia’s feelings for Jake track. What frustrates Olivia is not so much that she’s genuinely conflicted in this love triangle, but that the circumstances around Fitz and Jake make them equally impossible to objectively evaluate on her own terms. It’s a love triangle with ever changing dimensions, and Olivia is reacting to the changing dynamics far more often than she’s driving them. Maybe with time she would have arrived at the conclusion that Jake is no more than a friend with benefits, but when her married ex-boyfriend starts trying to execute him, y’know, it gets muddy.

That brings me to Mellie, who as usual, has the most interesting non-Olivia stuff going on. First off: Yo, how much fun is Bitsy Cooper? I thought her shtick might get old after a scene, but I relished every moment Bitsy and Mellie spent together. Their scenes set up what could be an exciting new dynamic, with a ravenous Mellie emerging from hibernation and becoming Fitz’s foil again. Mellie as Fitz’s foil is not new, but before, all of Mellie’s power plays were based on a strategy of breaking Olivia’s spell on Fitz so he would focus on building the loveless political power couple of her dreams. Bitsy flipped the whole script, reminding Mellie that she has power independent of Fitz, and can be a potent force if she plays it right.

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Here’s the thing though: Why is Mellie the most interesting non-Olivia character? Because, again, Scandal is about Olivia Pope. The writers have such a firm grasp of Mellie because as the biggest obstacle holding Olivia back from her true love, Mellie is the easiest to define in relation to Olivia, the center of Scandal’s solar system. Mellie is born of one of the first questions a writer would ask herself in approaching this story: Who is Fitz’s wife, and what about her would allow Fitz to carry on with Olivia without seeming like an unfaithful, unprincipled asshole? Mellie is awesome, as is Bellamy Young, but the character is still symptomatic of Olivia’s domination.

Also symptomatic of life in OliviaTowne is the folder Caitlin and Faith died to protect from Kubiak, which contains…lots of photographs of Olivia? Oh really though? I have to fall back on my habit of comparing Scandal to Alias, because this reveal reminded me immediately of “Page 47,” wherein Sydney Bristow finds a centuries-old sketch of her face in Rambaldi’s notebook. It’s fun in that it comes out of left field, but it sucks because it comes out of left field. It’s hard to imagine this making sense, but the version of Scandal that’s all about Olivia is superior to the version that’s all about B-613, so the occasional spoonful of nonsense might be the price of admission.

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Stray observations:

  • Huck is catfishing his son, which is cute and terrifying in that Mrs. Doubtfire kind of way.
  • If you’re going to be a gay escort and have a sugar daddy, try to have Cyrus Beene be said benefactor. Dude is Captain Save-A-Grad-Student. It was so satisfying watching Abby needle him about all his generosity.
  • Also: I know men lose focus when someone is satisfying them sexually, but if Michael is good enough to make the cautious Cyrus start leaving a paper trail, that’s some powerful, premium sex.
  • As much as I understand Rowan fatigue, I can never resist the pleasure of one of Joe Morton’s histrionic monologues. I wish for Brian Benben’s sake that Morton hadn’t gotten a monologue in the same episode in which he had to deliver that godawful confession.
  • I always quibble about this and should probably let it go, but does OPA take paid gigs anymore? I distinctly remember a time when Harrison or somebody would gripe about some despicable client and Olivia would say “We need the money,” at least acknowledging the general idea that businesses need income to operate. At this point, I’m convinced they’re squatting in that office space.
  • I know I just complained about Scandal’s music, but there’s never a bad reason to trot out The Isley Brothers’ take on “Summer Breeze.”
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