Let’s just cut through the hay and talk horses. Scandal used to be a show about a powerful woman, a string-puller, who solved intriguing cases-of-the-week for clients, and had an interesting backstory romance with the president of the United States. Her coworkers were all troubled in their own ways, but grappling for power themselves. Episodes were usually fairly riveting, balancing between an inspired romance between Olivia and Fitz and peeks behind the scenes at how the political machine is run.

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Five seasons in, where are we? Does this show—and, more importantly, its characters, since this has always been such a character-driven show—have any resemblance to its strong season-one roots? Of course, it just got renewed for a sixth season, so is there any reason to believe that things will improve? Ever? Or will this Shonda Rhimes juggernaut just keep steamrolling ahead, laying character assassination on top of character assassination? She’s had her ups and downs before: Grey’s Anatomy, now in its 12th season, is actually on an upswing again. But Scandal currently resides in such a dark place, it’s difficult to see how it could ever escape it.

So let’s see where we are now, shall we?

Olivia Pope: This may be the character I’m saddest about most of all. The season started out with Olivia and Fitz together, which after so many years, the show had to do, as the back-and-forth between the two was on the verge of becoming ridiculous. They also broke up before the winter break, again, rightly so. So now Olivia has her necessary freedom, and what is she doing with it? Cleaning up dead prostitutes and stalking Jake, as she is unreasonably obsessed with his new love interest. This is not the Olivia we know. Yes, a lot of things have happened to her. Her partnership with Mellie is a definite highlight, and she was the only person who could have given Fitz the stern talking-to he so desperately needed this episode. But it’s not just that Olivia doesn’t seem to know what to do with herself. It’s that the show doesn’t seem to know what to do with her without Fitz, which is a damn shame, because she was once one of the most powerful leads of a TV series, male or female.

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Fitz: Fitz always had his faults, but could Olivia’s dreamboat guy really be this lame-duck president who has frequent random sex with anyone he wants? (God, I never thought I’d miss Annabeth Gish’s character.) Again, in a female-led drama, the depiction of women this episode was heinous: a dead “hooker,” her friend who covers up her death for cash, and a row of women who immediately run off to have a quickie with the president just because he nods at them. This is the second episode in a row where I wanted to bathe right after watching this show.

Cyrus Beene: Okay, Cyrus’ machinations were always shady, but I’m still not over all the innocent people that went down last week, just so that he could get his preferred candidate into the spotlight. So telling a fake story to get his new puppet to run for president does not seem like that much of a stretch. Do these people play anything other than reverse psychology? And, bonus, his husband Michael is braiding a doll’s hair for practice on Ella. So the the show actually remembers that Cyrus has a spouse and a kid! These are the straws we’re clinging to.

Abby: Abby was actually on quite an uptick herself, moving past her annoying motormouth mannerisms to become a commendable press secretary, and one that could also speak frankly to the president. Then this episode, her job is diminished to orchestrating and gathering the NDAs for the president’s frequent hookups. Le sigh.

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David Rosen: What I wouldn’t give for Abby and Rosen to still be together. This twisted triangle of his has gone on for far too long already, and I continue to be dumbfounded at the show’s insistence that showing Liz boss Rosen around sexually is somehow hot. Her telling Rosen to take off his pants is actually so horrible, it could turn someone off of sex for the rest of their lives.

Susan Ross: Not to mention what this triangle does to Susan, who was a nice, principled, plucky little vice-president, who did not appear to have any interest in the big prize. But to please her new boyfriend, she’s running for president? This is a show run by a woman.

We do get back a case-of-the-week this week, but it’s a horrifyingly gross expedition right out of Very Bad Things, with a dead prostitute. (The Secret Service would hire a prostitute and then expect not to pay her? And then have enough heroin immediately on hand to shoot up her dead body with a doubly fatal dose?) Olivia blames it on the president’s own bad behavior, that his Secret Service boys are taking his lead, but the show has an unfortunate parallel to its own rotting fish metaphor. There’s definitely something rotting here, something in the writers’ room, and Scandal desperately needs to get on track. Apparently the show will still stick around, at least through next season, but whether it’s something that anyone will want to watch (without bathing) remains to be seen.

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Stray observations

  • “Oh there you are, little Cyrus Beene.” I have never liked Sally more. Remember when those two were exes on Grey’s Anatomy?
  • Huck and Quinn, in a nutshell: “There was a dead body. She doesn’t like dead bodies. She’s not like us.”
  • Okay, this made me laugh: “his hornyship.”
  • For me, the absolute low point was the sex scene with Jake, who comes at Olivia creepily in the dark, and apparently is so powerfully sexual that she is almost completely helpless. Until, eventually, she does say, “stop.” But the rest of it? At that point, I realized that I am probably off this show after this season. Eight episodes left to go.
  • Next up: “Are your hard-earned tax dollars going to educate our youth in the ways of Satan?”

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