Artemis Pebdani (left), Kerry Washington (ABC)

At its heart, Scandal is an undeniably feminist show. It’s the story of Olivia Pope, a woman succeeding in a field historically dominated by men, and doing it with more efficiency and class than any of her peers. It’s the story of her past and present employees Abby and Quinn, whose lives were so irrevocably shattered that they had no option but to rebuild from ground zero. It’s the story of Mellie Grant, the First Lady of the United States who has sacrificed nearly every aspect of body and soul to get to the position of power she finds herself in. The women of Scandal are a tough, formidable group of people, a force not to be taken lightly in any circumstance.

Yet at the same time, what makes the feminism of Scandal so fascinating is the unflinching way it presents the obstacles that they have to deal with. It’s at times brutally honest about just how thick the glass ceiling of Washington culture is, and of how at turns dismissive and ruthless the environment can be. The history of this show is littered with women who tried and failed to stand up: mistresses discarded in the river, politicians’ wives marginalized or forced to take the fall, or candidates ruined by disclosure of facts that would barely tarnish their male counterparts. Sure, they may be able to take island sojourns or descend into unwashed gluttony, but sooner or later they have to fight to hang onto what is theirs, because the world is more than happy to take it away.

“Baby Made A Mess” is an episode where there’s plenty of fighting for these women to engage in. And in Abby’s case, it’s with someone she did her fair share of physical fighting with. After a Virginia senator literally shits his career away, Fitz’s pick for the seat is none other than Abby’s ex-husband Chip Putney. Played by Battlestar Galactica’s Michael Trucco, he’s every bit the sleazebag that the brief glimpses of Abby’s life before Pope and Associates told us, and the archetype of the worst that the women of Scandal have to deal with. He thinks nothing of reinserting himself into Abby’s life, confident of position and money to keep him free of any problems.

Except he’s not dealing with the same Abby Whelan. It’s fairly remarkable to consider Abby’s arc at this point, given she began the show as the least tolerable of the gladiators, seemingly there only to say nasty things about Quinn and the firm’s disreputable clients. As the show grew, her character managed to grow along with it, rather than being jettisoned or marginalized the way fellow gladiators were. Abby served as the loudest voice calling Olivia on her bullshit, reminding the audience how little of a white hat she actually was; and her relationship with David Rosen made both of those characters far more well-rounded. Her new position as press secretary has been a brilliant move, as transplanting her to the other side of the Scandal narrative completely re-energized the character, having to learn her own methods of dealing with the volatile personalities of Fitz, Mellie, and Cyrus.

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All of those tricks are necessary here, because Chip’s reappearance throws Abby into a spiral. It’s almost impossible to see a circumstance where “Baby Made A Mess” isn’t Darby Stanchfield’s Emmy submission, because she gets to run the full gamut of emotions here. There’s shattered Abby, waving from behind her desk (“I threw up. I didn’t know that was going to happen”); there’s warpath Abby, holding a gun in Chip’s face and rattling off the different ways she could justifiably shoot him; and then there’s pragmatist Abby, who knows Fitz needs a friendly senator more than he needs her. The latter is the most heartbreaking, as when Olivia tries to convince her there’s a way out of this she can cite all the other women who stood up and became less than footnotes. It’s certainly the best work Stanchfield has ever done on Scandal, making her nuanced in a way season one Abby seemed incapable of being.

That performance makes the resolution all the more disappointing, even if it makes sense within the world of the show. Leo Bergen’s decision to leak news of Chip’s dirty tricks leaves the feeling that Abby needed someone to save her—and offensively, the saving is done by someone who disparaged the opposition as an “ugly egghead.” That’s not even going into the kiss the two share, which opens the door to a pairing that would undo so much of the show’s Abby development. True, the political realities of the world mean Abby was never going to take down Chip herself, but the way he eventually goes down leaves the status quo even more depressing than it was at the start.

In the other rooms of the White House, Mellie is forging a more promising alliance. After the marvelous interactions with Bitsy Cooper last week, it was clear that a return to form wasn’t far away, and Scandal doesn’t make the audience wait for it. Most wonderfully, for the second week in a row it’s another savvy woman in politics reawakening her thirst for power, as Elizabeth North continues cultivating an alliance with the First Lady. Any narrative mechanic that allows Bellamy Young and Portia de Rossi to share scenes together is doing God’s work as the two share a marvelous rapport, making small talk about china patterns that quickly turns into bitterness about what would happen if a First Husband existed. Both of them are keenly aware of their position, and know the unspoken rules of how to get ahead in this world.

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They play the game quite well in the early going, as Mellie winds up subverting a puff piece to dictate Fitz’s next move in response to a situation in Angola. It’s a triumph for the character and fans of the character, and the glorious shot of Mellie standing proudly on the White House balcony in a red gown—not ten feet from where she loafed around eating chicken a few weeks back—gives every impression of a phoenix rising from the ashes. When Fitz tries to pull her back she makes it entirely clear that option is off the table (“I’m back baby, Real Mellie. Remember how much you hated Real Mellie? Well, I’m back”) and when that happens, there’s honestly no other option but to cheer.

Cheering for Olivia is a more hit-or-miss approach this week, because the character’s making a lot of unpleasant calls. She grits her teeth and forces Chip’s woefully outgunned rival Susan Ross (Artemis Pebdani of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia) to make herself more attractive, weakly stating that as a feminist she understands why she wouldn’t. Though that at least makes sense for the character’s brutally honest approach to politics—what makes no sense is the return of the late-night calls with Fitz, an aspect not missed this season. Her attraction to Fitz is woven deeply into Scandal’s DNA but too often it makes her look stupid, and the history that’s stacked up at this point makes it increasingly creepy. (Seriously: “So when I say there’s hope, that means you call me every night?” “Unless you want me to come and tuck you in.” Gross.)

The real turning point comes when Rowan shows up at Olivia’s apartment, and makes it clear that she had best stay within her boundaries or face the consequences. Watching Kerry Washington’s face in that instance is tremendous, as it seems for the first time Olivia comprehends her father’s perspective of her. For all his talk of doing the right thing it’s entirely clear that Rowan doesn’t value her as a person with agency, and that the world he has built for her has to stay his world first and foremost. When Olivia responds to his diatribe with the retort “What’s clear is that you seem to have wasted a lifetime doing all the wrong things,” Washington achieves the nigh impossible task of outdrawing a Joe Morton monologue.

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Indeed, that’s why Olivia continues to find success—people think of her as one thing, but she’s able to turn around and become something they didn’t expect. Her confrontation with Tom in the supermax is a prime example: he may look at her and marvel at the Helen of Troy-like spell she casts over Fitz and Jake, but he’s incapable of seeing past that aura of mystery to see someone cold enough to hire a guard to shiv him within an inch of his life. Olivia finally manages to get the confession she needs, gets her two lovers into a government bunker together, and begins laying the groundwork to upend her father. In an episode full of bold moves, this is the boldest, and one that augurs the promising continuation of Scandal’s season four rally.

Stray observations:

  • Speaking of the title: Aren’t there supposed to be two babies on this show, Fitz’s son and Cyrus’s daughter? Are our tax dollars paying for 24-hour childcare?
  • In other corners of the show, the Caitlin/Faith/Kubiak/Winston plot reaches new levels of monotony as Winston offers up Generic Ominous Threat #3 of “You can’t stop what’s coming” prior to blowing his brains out. Given how overstuffed the show at this point, this feels more like a conspiracy for the sake of a conspiracy with each week, there because after Defiance and Remington the writers feel every season needs one.
  • The more compelling plot development is that Cyrus finally grows wise to his boytoy’s deception, thanks to a piece of false intel that makes its way into Mellie’s talking points. Much as Mellie has returned to fighting form, it’s a safe bet that the old Cyrus Beene—who eats cardiac arrest for breakfast—will be on the warpath next week.
  • Huck’s son proves himself a chip off the old block by being able to track his father to his place of work. This should work out well for all involved.
  • Interesting decision not to have David at all involved in the Chip storyline, given his history with Abby and the way that relationship ended the first time.
  • “Damn it, I can’t cry in the White House! Press secretaries can’t cry, it’s like a rule.”
  • “Dahmer was in supermax! That place holds people who eat people.”
  • “I like to think of it as Chicken-Fried Mellie.”
  • Thanks to Josh for letting me take the reins this week! Tip of the white hat.

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