Brian J. White
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Cinematic storytelling offers a wide array of techniques storytellers can use to achieve maximum dramatic impact. One of those tricks is the strategic use of pop music, which Shonda Rhimes perfected with Grey’s Anatomy, though she’s been criticized for using evocative piano rock to convey emotion and significance when the writing and acting fall short. Non-diegetic scoring and pop music cues can be manipulative, and while Rhimes has obviously overshot the mark a few times in the 11-season history of Grey’s, the criticism of that show is unfair. If she hadn’t done it before, Rhimes proved with this week’s Grey’s shocker that she knows how to rouse emotion with words, and the music is just wrapping paper. The irony is that Rhimes is, in fact, guilty of musical manipulation, but Scandal, not Grey’s, is the smoking gun.

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The opening minutes of “First Lady Sings The Blues” set me on the edge of my seat. It wasn’t because I care whether Jake lives or dies, but because the palpitating score signaled that something important was happening. It’s an amazing illusion, one that helps me understand some viewers’ unwavering love for Scandal. Don’t understand most of the B-613 nonsense? You don’t need to understand, you need to have ears so you can hear the music. Jake’s condition is important because the score says so. Huck and Quinn breaking a dead woman’s bones and folding her into a suitcase is a rollicking good time because it’s delivered with a KC And The Sunshine Band song, the kind of danceable relic often used in heist scenes. If Olivia says the emotionally draining confrontation she just had with her murderous father is all in the past because Stevie Wonder is playing, so it is. The medium is the message, and for viewers to whom television is an ephemeral experience, that’s just fine.

For close watchers, Scandal looks held together with tape and glue. Rhimes and her team have lost their handle on B-613, and the writers are doing as well as can be expected after painting themselves into such a tiny corner. At least it’s evident that the last few episodes of the season will draw the B-613 story to a close, and hopefully do so in the grand way befitting a Scandal finale. Unfortunately, an episode like “First Lady” is the price we pay to possibly see the long-awaited fall of Rowan Pope. Until Scandal is in striking distance of its big play, there won’t be much story, only music, tap dancing, and window dressing.

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Jake’s near-murder is ridiculous on a number of levels, but the characters have to keep busy during the calm before the storm, and the effort to save Jake’s life isn’t any goofier than anything else the show could build out of the materials it has on site. Still, it must be acknowledged how little internal logic or cognizable stakes are beneath the B-613 storyline. The fatal flaw, as I’ve been complaining about all season, is that the writers have made Rowan too formidable. I don’t blame Olivia for forgetting the convoluted events in her life, but as I recall, Olivia lured Rowan out into the open while elite snipers ordered by the president moved in to kill him. As always, Rowan got the jump on Liv and the snipers were killed as he strolled away without a care in the world. So naturally, Olivia is like, “Oh I know, I’ll see if this butcher wants to take care of it for me.” She’s hatched better plans.

It’s too bad how futile the episodic story turned out to be, because it was among the more compelling self-contained plots of the season. Rondi Reed gave a confident performance as Mary Peterson, formerly known as the KGB assassin codenamed Black Sable, whose life paralleled with Olivia in a more effective, synergistic way than is usually true of the case-of-the-week. Olivia identified with Mary’s survival instinct as well as her desire to escape the violent, chaotic aspects of her life, and she sets out to get Mary relieved of her duty to serve before Mary is forced to kill again. But the effort is for naught as Rowan catches wind of the slapdash assassination plot and kills everyone within a five-mile radius, just to be on the safe side.

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Again, Rowan’s omnipotence is reinforced, a wrong step that looks all the more unwise within the context of Mary’s story. In a brief monologue, Mary explained what the KGB is, how she became involved, how it took a toll on her life, and why it remains a clear and present danger to her and her loved ones. Granted, the KGB is real, but Scandal doesn’t even have its basics nailed down. It’s nearly impossible to articulate what B-613 is, what it does, or why shutting it down is so important. Jake, Quinn, and Huck have all at some point talked about how the end of B-613 would blow back on Olivia, but when Rowan confronts Olivia in “I’m Just A Bill,” his rationale is that she can’t strike at B-613 without harming Fitz in the process. Who besides Rowan is materially affected if B-613 ceases to exist? It’s anyone’s guess. Further muddying the waters, the characters keep talking about killing Rowan and shutting down B-613 interchangeably, which is confusing as hell given that it’s neither evident how killing Rowan would stop B-613, nor how somehow neutralizing the organization would make Rowan less of a threat.

I recall reading a comment here accusing Rhimes of stealing all the worst elements from Alias, and while I disagreed at the time, it looks like a pretty fair assessment these days. If nothing else, the vague, inert mythology is certainly in full swing. But there are advantages to borrowing from Alias too, and that influence lent “First Lady” a few moments of frenzied fun by putting yet another handsome double agent into Olivia’s midst. Despite the intense whiff of bullshit permeating the entire episode, putting a barely stable Jake feet away from Russell and unable to talk was a blast. The cliffhanger, with Olivia holding Russell at gunpoint after putting it all together, was also a joy, even though it was telegraphed pretty early in that last scene.

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“First Lady” has an odd rhythm because the Mellie plot usually offers some respite from the B-613 angst, but here, Mellie’s story is nearly as irritating as Olivia’s. I don’t blame Mellie, I blame Sally Langston, a character that absolutely should never be seen or heard on Scandal again. It’s always cute when writers build relationships with performers, and Kate Burton is great, but Rhimes is often too intent on holding onto performers, like Burton and Scott Foley, whose characters no longer serve a purpose. Sally’s perched on a cable-news bully pulpit which she uses to provoke a fight with Mellie, calling into question the appropriateness of the sitting First Lady’s foray into politics. Instead of taking the bait, Cyrus appears on Sally’s show to vouch for Mellie and in the process, reveals his own ambitions with his eyes. Sally is apparently a body language expert who is really selective about how she uses the gift, hence her lengthy marriage to a man everyone knew was gay except her. The White House panics about Sally’s criticisms, which feels alien since Sally is so hard to take seriously. So some smack was talked about you on a cable news show that resembles the bastard child of Hannity and The 700 Club. Who even cares?

I guess that’s a question that applies across the board to Scandal these days. The season four finale has its work cut out for it, because it not only has to do away with the show’s worst elements, it has to move the audience from indifference back to investment. Best of luck, but right now, that seems about as simple as assassinating Rowan.

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Stray observations:

  • As my esteemed colleague Gwen Ihnat noted last week while graciously covering for me, Rowan’s relationship with Olivia never stops getting creepier. I’ve tried to steer around the incestuous tone, but by the time you put a second guy up to having sex with your daughter and discuss it with him, you’re on thin ice.
  • The other problem with the Rowan-Olivia relationship is that he’s far too powerful. Scandal could have set up a complex dynamic like the one between Alias’ Sydney and Irina, but with Olivia and Maya. Alas, Khandi Alexander apparently isn’t available often enough to develop a relationship like that. In Maya’s absence, Rowan is Olivia’s tormentor. But why? A person in federal custody, like Maya or Irina before her, is helpless. A helpless person will say or do anything to gain an advantage, and a woman with no connection with her mother will always be a sucker for maternal love. If Olivia was dealing with Maya, Maya would be manipulating her emotions at every turn and would have good reason to do so. Rowan is immensely powerful and needs nothing from anyone, so it looks like he’s terrorizing his daughter just for kicks. That’s not only gross, but it makes Rowan’s role even more difficult to understand. Running B-613 leaves this much free time?
  • When Olivia told Jake they should have stayed on the island, I yelled “Jake, we have to go back!” If Rhimes is going to borrow from an ABC production with an unwieldy mythology, why not Lost? The result couldn’t possibly be any further removed from reality.
  • The doctor calls David Rosen “Scared man with glasses,” which is pretty long for a nickname, but it could stick.
  • Speaking of David, he’s still like, “Hey guys, what about a grand jury?” Is it not yet clear B-613 is operating under a set of rules in which such measures carry no weight?

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