There must be something in the water at TV Club this week, as following Will Harris’s thoughts on 2 Broke Girls, yet another substitute reviewer is writing about a show only days after they publicly declared they were done watching the show in question. It wasn’t that I ever thought Scandal was a bad show, but its multitude of annoyances—thinly drawn supporting characters, irritating shutter transitions, an ultimately uninteresting relationship between Olivia and Grant—regularly kept me from enjoying the things it did well. As much as I enjoy watching Kerry Washington and Josh Malina spar with each other for five to 10 minutes each week, the show surrounding them never seemed as good as it could have, and I was prepared to jettison it after finding “The Other Woman” wholly unsatisfying.
“Hunting Season” changed that for me. In fact, it may well be the episode that hooks me back for the run of the season. After the frustratingly vague details of Quinn’s murder trial and two cases of the week that leaned too heavily into generic soap opera territory, “Hunting Season” is an episode that draws Pope and Associates into full-bore domestic espionage, and the heightened stakes manage to raise the rest of the show’s game around them. There’s a tension to this episode that’s been lacking from anything else this season, more of a sense that the show has higher aspirations and that it’s capable of pulling those off.
Interestingly, it doesn’t seem like that’s the direction "Hunting Season" wants to take at first. The opening scenes make it appear that the firm’s newest client is a Democratic senator, with both an agenda against the president and a history with Olivia. But once she leaves her office and gets into her car, she finds a nervous individual in the back seat saying he can’t talk to anyone else. It’s a clandestine parking garage meeting, in the grand spirit of All The President’s Men, and it adds an early sense of danger that's unexpected for an episode that looks like another series of damage control moments.
The intruder is NSA data analyst Artie Hornbacher. Played by Patrick Fischler, Artie fits every stereotype of the government employee driven a bit crazy by their work, obsessive about listening devices and terrified that “they’re” out to get him—as Abby wryly points out, “He believes that vaccines are demonic.” However, his paranoia appears to be justified, as he delivers to the team a prototype device known as Thorngate, the centerpiece of a domestic surveillance program that has the ability to observe any individual through their phones or tablet computers, all the way up to and including Cyrus in his own White House office. And when you can bring in a piece of surveillance equipment so powerful even Huck is in awe, you know you’ve got your hands on something special.
Leaving aside the logistics of how a device like this could feasibly work, this is new and promising territory for Scandal. Most of the show’s cases of the week tend to be domestic in nature—tawdry affairs, crimes of passion, and the like—while the big political stories like the threat of war in East Sudan serve more as the show’s backdrop. Here, you have a legitimate top-secret government project, one which the possession of puts Olivia’s team in the crosshairs of the entire intelligence agency. When one of Artie’s coworkers turns up dead, Olivia talks about going after the NSA as the murderer; when they try to go public with the news, the Justice Department threatens them with charges of treason if they move ahead. Simply put, it’s tense and arresting in a way the show usually isn’t, maybe not on the caliber of more espionage-centric shows like Homeland but presenting itself well regardless. Even technically it feels right, as the often distracting cross-cut editing style adds to the escalation of events: Olivia meeting with the reporters who will air the expose, Quinn and Olivia prepping Artie for the interview, Grant meeting with his intelligence team to discuss options.
And for all these stakes, the writers still manage to find another twist: Artie’s not the twitchy office drone he led everyone to believe, and the whole thing was an elaborate ruse to have Olivia’s team crack the device for him. It’s a clever spin on the idea, and more importantly it goes to Scandal’s increasing interest at stripping away some of the mythos surrounding Olivia Pope. Too often in the first season, it felt seem like she was invested with some divine power, able to see all the angles and change the course of events with one big speech. But her gut’s failing her, her people are losing their trust, and there’s a sense she may be declaring wars she’s not capable of winning—all moves that make her much more interesting and complicated of a protagonist, and by definition more interesting to watch. (Not that it’s prepared to shut her down though, as this is still a woman who on the fly can talk the head of the NSA into getting 24 hours for Huck to hunt Artie down and drag him back.)
The raised stakes also go a long way to livening up the relationship between Olivia and President Grant, the latter of whom is understandably rattled at the thought of any mention of Thorngate making its way to the press. Unlike Ryan, I don’t enjoy any of the scenes where Olivia and Grant are mooning over each other, as I feel the romantic tension between the two winds up defanging both of the characters and makes them a lot less nuanced than they are in their professional lives. Here though, it’s a different dynamic, something much uglier: Grant’s not just upset Olivia’s not taking his calls, he’s outraged that she’s interfering in a matter of national security and in his mind exploiting an ex-boyfriend to do so. Tony Goldwyn is emotionally convincing in a way he hasn’t been on any of their late-night calls, first yelling at her to get of the car, and then lacing up her boots with far more anger than the task calls for. Washington gives back as good as she gets, daring to yell at the President of the United States to stop walking, grabbing hold of him as if she was drowning, only to storm away screaming that they are unequivocally over. The show is so concerned with painting these characters as star-crossed lovers, but I want to see this messiness instead, more evidence that these are very powerful people who grow more and more damaged the longer they carry on like this.
And they’re not the only ones yelling at the top of their lungs, as Mellie manages to get the Secret Service detail who were guarding Grant at the time to reveal who he was with. Bellamy Young’s been an unexpected pleasure of Scandal, a modern-day Margaery Tyrell willing to do anything to hold power, sacrificing career and even her body for Grant’s presidency. In “Hunting Season” we see again just how smart she is—able to translate all her husband’s complaints about a photo op into fluent political spin—but we also clearly see for the first time how ruthless her core goes as she threatens to turn those masterful personal PR skills on him, ensuring his political downfall and her own ascendancy. It might just be a tactic to get Grant’s head back in the game, or we could be seeing the seeds of his eventual destruction—a conflict that would be a joy to watch, if these scenes are any indication.
Over in The Carrie Mathison Zone, Rosen’s making some progress on his research into the Quinn Perkins cover-up, finally cooling off from Olivia for throwing his career under a bus to realize she wouldn’t do that without a damn good reason. It makes sense he’d come to this conclusion—much as he dislikes what she did to him, he understands what makes her tick—and pursuing this angle means he can be less of an antagonist to Pope and Associates than an engine for following the threads in ways that could alternatively benefit or inconvenience Olivia. The move also sees the welcome return of his assistant Alissa as a new co-conspirator—Brenda Song had excellent chemistry with Malina in the first season when the two pulled an all-nighter reconstructing the Amanda Tanner conspiracy, and she has some of the episode’s best lines as she tries to follow his logic. (Personal favorite: “You can walk me through this once if you shave and put on pants.”)
“Hunting Season” may not be a perfect episode of Scandal, but it’s the first indication I’ve had all season that it’s a show worth paying closer attention to. It’s short on a lot of the serialized details that have been set up—little of substance on the Quinn Perkins cover-up, no mention of the East Sudan war save Senator Davis’s posturing—though it has plenty of solid episodic work and makes up for it on the character side with the increasingly hostile triangle between Olivia, Grant and Nellie. After last week, I was prepared to be out on the show, and now, I’m right back in.
- Abby falls into bed with Rosen in the last shot of the episode. This could either go very well or very poorly—Abby remains a big problem for the show as not only is she undeveloped as a character, what little development she’s had makes her relentlessly unpleasant to watch. I’m holding out hope that her growing distrust of Olivia makes her a more active participant in Rosen’s efforts, and that simply having a closer proximity to Malina makes her more fun.
- The third act twist is helped considerably by Fischler, who’s very good at selling how he could fool all of the observant and cynical members of Pope and Associates. As he proved on Mad Men and Grimm, he excels at playing characters with dark reveals.
- Critiques of Quinn’s character and story aside, she does liven up my viewing experience in that every time someone says her name, it lets me point to the screen and say “Quinn Perkins!” in my best impression of Parks and Recreation’s Chris Traeger.
- This week in Huck Is A Scary Bastard: He not only collects watches, if you steal one he’s able to track you based on the radioactive material in it. Do not steal Huck’s watches.
- Cyrus on Grant’s apparently improved mood: “It’s been weird, like seeing Grandma with a bikini or a Democrat with a Bible.”
- Alissa explains her absence at work: “I called in sick. Lucky for me Jane’s a hypochondriac and a bit of a racist. I say cold, she hears SARS.”
- Thanks to Ryan for letting me fill in this week. I’ll be sure to stop by in the comments next week and see if Shonda Rhimes and company continue the good work.