Hi. Let’s talk a minute about television. Let’s talk for a minute about the way things are supposed to unfold on television, going by the types of shows that tend to get all the critical acclaim. Let’s talk for a minute about the slow builds, the long-arced storylines, and the way that people generally hide everything important from one another until it’s sweeps or the season finale. Let’s talk for a minute about how that’s all fine and dandy, and more than occasionally produces some of the best shows on TV, and let’s talk for the rest of this review why Scandal kicks the living shit out of most of these shows when it comes to delivering the goods on a weekly basis.
We here at The A.V. Club stopped covering this show on a weekly basis right before the Defiance arc went into high gear, and that’s just one of those tsunamis of bad luck that’s unfortunate but impossible to undo. The reasons why are too boring and behind-the-scenes to discuss here, but let’s just say I was chomping at the bit to write something about the well-oiled, deeply emotional, and high-octaine machine that Scandal turned into right after we stopped covering it in the Fall. I got to write up a piece in the aftermath of that arc that summed up my general feelings about the first half of the season, but that’s still different than being able to sit down and attempt to collect my thoughts in the aftermath of a dizzying, delirious, insane yet utterly compelling hour of this show. “Molly, You In Danger, Girl” is the first classic episode of Scandal I’ve gotten to cover here, and son of a bitch it feels great.
Honestly, there’s no earthly reason why an episode called “Molly, You In Danger, Girl” should be one of the best television episodes to air this week. And sure, that’s an absurd statement if for no other reason than everything involving pop culture is subjective. But when this show works, it works on a level that no other show is even attempting, never mind executing. Scandal is the kind of show that isn’t for everyone, but it’s so much more than a bunch of Olivia/Fitz ‘shipping. Sure, that’s there, and every magazine in the country coming to the realization that this show is great wants to highlight that and only that in helping define what makes the show so addictive. But reducing it to the pining between Kerry Washington and Tony Goldwyn does such a gross disservice to what’s happening here that it almost makes me angry.
For starters, “Molly, You In Danger, Girl” is an extremely well-plotted episode of an increasingly interesting conspiracy. Early in this back half of the season, it seemed like the Albatross storyline would be a pale shadow of the Defiance arc. That’s nothing against Shonda Rhimes and company. The Defiance stuff could have been lightning in a bottle and still worked as a superior 13 episodes of television. But what’s encouraging at this point isn’t that the Albatross stuff might be a repeat of Defiance, but rather functions as a variation of it. Having established in the first 13 episodes this season it can do a serialized arc, Scandal seems to understand what makes stories like this tick within its world.
And really, the secret boils down to taking the cable model and applying it to network television in an immensely satisfying way. Whether or not this was by accident or necessity isn’t particularly important. Having an initial 13-episode order didn’t mean Scandal HAD to throw the kitchen sink at ABC and its viewers in order to stay on the air. But they did, and the result was that the back nine had to start fresh from a plot perspective but neck-deep from a character perspective.
Often, a 22-episode season of a network hour-long will either consist of 22 self-contained, procedural episodes or one long slog of a story that really only has eight hours of narrative juice spread over nearly three times its organic length. Sure, these 22 episodes will constitute a “season” of television, and can be packaged as such. But Scandal since the Fall of 2012 has consisted of two big stories connected by those that happened to be involved with both. The fact that both happen to occur within a block of programming commonly called a “season” is almost a happy accident more than anything else. It’s not that the Albatross arc pretends Defiance never happened. (Hell, Fitz admits to Cy that he murdered Verna Thorton in the closing moments tonight.) It’s that everyone now on Scandal has to live with the consequences of Defiance within a world that refuses to let them breathe for a damn second.
As for breathing, almost no one has time to do so on this show on a “slow” week. This week, each character would have been better served by having an oxygen mask handy. Sometimes it was necessary due to all the words tumbling from their mouths (hi, Cy’s epic takedown of James’ holier-than-thou position), or sometimes it was due to all the sexy times leaving lovers short of breath (oh hey, Jake and Olivia and your mindgame foreplay), or from living inside a vacuum rather than a real marriage (what’s going on, Fitz drunkenly reminding Mellie of the true nature of their courtship). Tonight’s episode works as well as it does because underneath the double crosses, twists, and the most dramatic segment of Storage Wars ever were a series of scenes involving broken people desperately trying to reignite long-lost sparks of passion, and/or wondering if they are even worthy of that passion at all.
The magazine covers that position Scandal as a “will they/won’t they” romance either fail or refuse to recognize that this show is populated by walking ghosts that talk a good game but then shrink once alone. These gladiators in suits (or helmets, if you ask David Rosen) have tough exteriors that barely protect extremely vulnerable skin underneath. Sure, Fitz and Mellie put on a show for the American public. But Cy put on a show for James for years. The slightest provocation sends Huck scurrying to the corner. Quinn Perkins chooses to live within the name assigned to her because her real name reminds her of a father who would rather she had died in an explosion. Rosen cracks wise to Abby but guts her the moment she shows any type of emotional weakness. This is not a show filled with nice people. This is a show filled with hyper-competent people that can fix anything except the gnawing feeling they deserve the pain heaped upon them.
That stuff doesn’t sell magazine covers. But that’s the meat of Scandal, which is populated with pulpy government conspiracies that make for easy copy but really is about the ways in which being really good at your job doesn’t make you a happy person. It’s a show about how a single person can throw you so far from your axis that rational thought becomes impossible. It’s a show about the possibility of redemption but also about how unrealistic the chances for it are. The “Jake is a good guy who’s a bad guy but maybe he’s a good guy and let’s hope that he’s a good guy because if not Olivia slept with a bad guy and oh wait WHO IS THAT GUY in Olivia’s apartment while she’s bleeding out in Jake’s apartment” stuff…I mean, it’s fun, and absolutely ridiculous, but I let it all wash over me because I enjoy not having migraines. It’s entertaining, to be sure, yet not what makes the show really compelling television.
What makes “Molly, You In Danger, Girl” (a title that my wife suggested would be the name of a club Stefon would offer up on “Weekend Update”) the highlight of this back half of the second season is the way it manages to keeping revealing new facets of people we thought we already new. All good shows do this, but Scandal does it on a seemingly weekly basis. The reveals tend to work because as the events on the show wear these people down physically, it also wears down their mental and emotional defenses as well. The Cy living at home with James doesn’t launch into a tirade about his husband’s hypocrisy. But living in a hotel so long the maids know his name? That does the trick. Your prototypical Serious Television Drama will take its characters from Point A to Point B in the way that Scandal does. The difference is that the Serious Television Drama often moves at the speed of continental drift, whereas Scandal is an Olympic sprinter hopped up on a four-pack of Red Bulls. But Scandal doesn’t feel rushed. It feels urgent, and that urgency gives the show its propulsion each week.
That propulson is what really makes the show work, at it applies to the plot as well as its character development. It can be headache-inducing for those used to a more glacially-paced hourlong, but I’d argue that the pacing on Scandal respects its audience far more than its more critically heralded peers. With so many options for viewers to watch, they need to watch shows worthy of their limited viewing time. On that front, Scandal is the most user-friendly network drama on the air. If calling this show a “guilty pleasure” or a “new obsession” makes for an easier headline for other publications or an easier talking point for ABC publicity, so be it. For years, critics and journalists have wondered when a network show would take the strengths of its cable brethren and broadcast it to the masses. Well, Scandal is the show that’s doing that better than anything else currently on the Big Four. This isn’t a guilty pleasure. This is great fucking television. Period.
- Last week, Bellamy Young got in a great moment in which Mellie verbally dressed down Fitz. This week, she had an equally strong moment while being on the other end of a verbal assault. Every word Fitz spoke about their meeting at Frank’s Tavern cut her as much as the broken wine glass cut Olivia. You could see every word land like a punch on Mellie’s face.
- I’d watch the hell out of Olivia and Cy: Wine Time. It would just be the two of them drinking and gossiping.
- I like the small detail of Jake uninstalling all of his surveillance equipment before Huck’s monthly sweep and then reinstalling everything immediately afterwards. On top of that, it seems clear that he left the bread crumb of that storage facility specifically to lure Huck in. If you can out-Huck Huck on Scandal, you’re kind of a badass.
- I like the Huck/Quinn relationship, but am not quite on the same “Huckleberry Quinn” ‘shipper train as many I’ve seen on Twitter. I’m OK with them being a lonelier, weirder iteration of Jack Donaghy and Liz Lemon. Sometimes just being friends is OK.
- “Gladiators in helmets, right?” “Suits.” I’m assuming Rosen is messing with them here, but it’s also possible that he couldn’t hear over all the Corn Flakes he’s been eating during their brainstorming sessions.
- “You rocked her.” This is a line James says to Cy in regards to their child. But it was especially hysterical coming ten seconds after Jake and Olivia started having super sweaty sex.
- “‘Sleeping with you and not wanting you to die’ is not having feelings for you.” Man, if I had a dollar for every time I heard THAT romantic sentiment…
- “I just take deposits. I don’t know the magic of the place.” Zeke the storage unit employee makes it sound like one of the lockers leads to Narnia.
- I'm supposing the reveal of Charlie as the guy who snuck up on Huck is supposed to implicate Cy as Albatross, but since this is Scandal, there's absolutely no way something that seemingly obvious is correct.
- Even though we’ve officially reinstated weekly reviews, it looks like Scandal will be off the air for three weeks. In the meantime, we can petition ABC for show-inspired wine, or other types of show-related booze. May I suggest “Gladiators With Champagne Flutes”?