To let ABC’s promos for “Like Father, Like Daughter” tell it, all season long the audience has been waiting to see Fitz and Olivia’s long-awaited reunion. The premise is debatable, but I’ll get back to that later. The promo is significant because it offers some insight into Scandal’s fourth season, especially when compared with the promo for this week’s episode of How To Get Away With Murder. In the Murder teaser, the voice over promises to blow the audience away with Viola Davis’ last nine words. Sorry, I meant LAST. NINE. WORDS. The Scandal promo only promises the reconstitution of a romantic relationship with which even the most tender-hearted viewers must be exhausted by now.

A beat-for-beat comparison between the two promos is startling because Murder’s promo sounds exactly the way Scandal’s spots used to, back when its writers had a full deck of devastating trump cards ready to drop at a moment’s notice. Who is the mole? What is Operation Remington? What the Huck? Much like Alias, Scandal was written around cliffhangers in its first three seasons, but that era of the show is in the rear view. For most of this season, that shift has resulted in an irregular pace and an absence of purpose, qualities that feel especially disconcerting because they grew out of the sensible decision to delete or diminish Scandal’s most problematic elements. Season four was becoming a case study on the perils of good intentions.

Thank heavens for “Like Father, Like Daughter,” which arrives in enough time to woo back many would-be Scandal defectors. After weeks of aimlessness, Scandal suddenly feels like it has a story it wants to tell. What that story is remains oblique, but it’s clear by now what type of story it’s going to be. It’s the type of story teased in the lukewarm promo, a story about people at the top of their games professionally who are deeply damaged despite—and because of—their success.

In other words, Scandal has huddled from the perimeter of the Shonda Rhimes brand back to its core. It’s no longer a political thriller with heavy-to-a-fault spy genre flourishes, it’s Grey’s Anatomy in the White House. And if that’s indeed what the writers are going for, the absence of a central, hashtag-friendly mystery makes perfect sense. I’ve been suspiciously anticipating this direction, but I’m far less worried than I was. If “Like Father, Like Daughter” is any indication, that version of Scandal would be well-worth watching, if perhaps not the Twitter fuel it once was.

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It helps that “Daughter” actually has a scandal, a high-stakes situation that requires Olivia’s special set of skills. Karen, thoroughly wasted, calls from a college party and Liv and Quinn swoop in to whisk Karen out before the party goers can place her face and broadcast her wild streak to the world. The debacle becomes an imbroglio when Liv gets a look at footage of Karen being, ahem, bookended by a couple of bros-in-training. Overlooking the fact that Scandal continues to have both too much and not enough to say about the politics of women’s bodies, the Karen sex tape is an elegant way to bring Olivia back into the White House in an organic way. When there’s a fire this big to put out, there’s no time to think about emotional slights and unquenched desires.

The NSFW footage creates a maelstrom strong enough to pull all of Scandal’s characters together, and the result is an episode that feels more cohesive and more urgent than any other this season. And the situation has ramifications for every character in the show. The raw nerves and heightened tension are all over the characters, who simply don’t have time to equivocate with each other. Cyrus flattens Abby, calling her out for blaming others for her inferiority complex as she struggles to fill Olivia’s shoes. Fitz levels Mellie, telling her she’s in no position to suddenly resume her matriarchal duties after months in a melancholy daze. Olivia wrecks the parents of the amateur videographer, who make themselves strong candidates for the worst human beings ever by threatening to leak a sex tape starring not only the president’s daughter, but also their son.

“Daughter” has a salacious enamel, but underneath is an emotionally intelligent story about people trying to deal with the aftermath of horror. Mark Fish’s finely tuned script seems to say “If you think last season was rough for you as a viewer, imagine what the characters must be going through.” Admirably, Scandal seems fully prepared to allow its characters to deal with the fallout from the events of season three. Bellamy Young gets another choice story as Mellie finally reclaims her sense of purpose when Karen finds herself in trouble, and she gathers the strength to assert her role as a mother, even as she feels threatened by the interloper a few doors down.

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That leads me back to Olivia and Fitz, which continues to be a point of concern if it’s meant to be a foundation element of the show. Fitz and Liv’s doomed romance is certainly less jarring and unwelcome now than it was in season three, when there was so many far more important things going on and when Fitz had become a scotch-swilling demon. But Scandal is walking a fine line with Olitz because in “Daughter,” the writers tip-toe over the line and start trying to actively sell the relationship, which should never be necessary. It’s fine to write to the idea that viewers really want Liv and Fitz to wind up together, but there has to be enough ambiguity to appease those who aren’t as supportive of the relationship.

Fitz and Olivia’s relationship isn’t the charmingly complicated romance they would like to think it is. But I’d argue it’s not any kind of romance. What Fitz and Olivia have is essentially a folie a deux, a collaborative delusion of how pristine and simple their lives could be if only they weren’t crushed by a sense of duty. Their insatiable egos depend on a sacrifice narrative—I could be so much happier if everyone didn’t need me so much—and their fantasies of small-town mayorship and homemade jam fuel their quests for influence and prominence. There can be no failure when you’ve sacrificed the perfect life and the perfect love, and Fitz and Liv help each other maintain the ridiculous notion that that life would be possible for them if not for a million or so inconvenient circumstances. But while the Olitz relationship doesn’t have to be what they think it is, it always has to feel like while they may be suffering from that delusion, the writers are not.

There may be some time before the Olitz problem presents itself again though, as her Jake reveal revived Fitz and Liv’s cold war. Suddenly, the Jake problems presented by “Inside The Bubble” are wiped away by making Jake a threat to Fitz and Olivia’s relationship again. Fitz has no interest in hearing Jake’s evidence that Rowan masterminded Teddy’s death, and is all to eager to accept Tom Larsen’s “confession” that he was acting on Jake’s orders. There’s no way Olivia will buy this explanation, and returns Jake to his role as a monkey wrench. If he’s the guy to convince Olivia and Fitz to move on from the Vermont delusion, he’ll prove his worth after all.

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Stray observations:

  • As conflicted as I am about Liv and Fitz, their confrontation was so effective and so bruising. Fantastic scene.
  • My heart crumbled a little when Karen asked Mellie if she was okay.
  • Season three put Olivia in helpless victim mode, and she lost some of her moxie. So I adored the little beat after Mellie confronts Olivia. Mellie grabs her wrist, Olivia gives her that “Oh for real?” look, and Mellie thinks better of it. That’s the Gangsta Liv I fell in love with.
  • Speaking of Gangsta Liv, as she confronted the kid’s gross parents and called them child pornographers, I half-expected her to say “As someone whose parent used a sex tape of me as a pawn, believe me when I tell you it’s profoundly uncool.”
  • The “Eiffel Tower?” Damn Karen, behave yourself!
  • Cyrus and Michael are really settling into it.
  • David Rosen is still brooding about the judge’s suicide. He wants nothing to do with the B-613 files, which have become quite the MacGuffin, Lovecraftian bankers boxes full of information man was not meant to know and cannot grasp.
  • “Controversy” was an inspired choice.
  • UPDATE: There appears to be quite a bit of confusion about the episode’s title, but it’s apparently “Like Father, Like Daughter,” not “The Bleep.”

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