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Scandal: “No More Blood”

Kerry Washington, Tony Goldwyn
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Tell me “No More Blood” is the worst episode of Scandal you’ve ever seen. Understood. Say you’re done with the show. Fair enough. Or say it’s the most riveting Scandal has been in weeks and you’re suddenly back on board after weeks of waffling. I’d believe that too. I’ll even accept the version where you still really love Scandal but you’re certain you’d love it more if it were possible to take a pencil eraser and wipe three to four characters off the screen completely. I accept all of these as reasonable conclusions, because before “No More Blood” was over, I spent time in each of those places. But there’s such a brute force to this episode, it’s hard to resist entirely. Much of what Scandal is selling these days is flaming horseshit, but the writers and performers sell it so earnestly, enthusiastically, and charismatically, you’re like, “Listen, I can’t immediately think of a use for a pile of flaming horseshit, but I’d imagine on the day when I do think of that use, I’ll be glad I bought some. Give me three piles, please.”

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One thing is for certain about Scandal season four: It will not lend itself well to binge-watching. When this kind of cyclonic thriller—like an Alias, or a 24—is working at less than its full capacity, it goes from being mildly irritating watched in real-time to a pummeling endurance test when the episodes are watched in rapid succession. The week between episodes is vitally important during the rough patches of a television season. It’s the “I’m gonna walk around for a while to clear my head” of television consumption. If I’d seen “Gladiators Don’t Run” immediately before “No More Blood,” I may not have even made it until the end. But there’s been enough time since Olivia was snatched in the winter premiere to just accept that this kidnapping plot, for whatever reason, is what Scandal is doing right now. It’s not ideal, but it’s happening.

The Scandal writers forced this foundation into place, but because it’s there, the cold open can work as the fun, bright moment it is. The fearsome hostage takers, who just so happen to resemble an edgy improv troupe from Cambridge, are thwarted from selling Olivia to Iran because Olivia exploits the language barrier between them. As was the case with several scenes in “Run,” the cold open was thrilling and sad. It shows Olivia doing the fixing for which she’s so reviled and revered, and being typically great at it. But it also shows how Olivia’s compulsion to fix things is equal parts divine calling and personality disorder. Yes, Olivia is in survival mode, trying to remain out of the hands of a buyer for as long as possible by any means necessary. But it’s also a coping mechanism that allows Olivia to achieve emotional detachment. The auction was Olivia’s idea, not because she had anything approaching a solid plan, but because in order to survive psychologically, she always has to feel like she’s moving pieces around the board. Liv spoils the deal, and flashes a mischievous smile as she’s carted back to the car.

And then, Olivia is gone. For nearly half of “No More Blood,” there’s not as much as a glimpse of her. The first half takes place exclusively in DC as the fallout from Olivia’s disappearance continues to ripple through the White House and OPA. In the most dramatic example of how tragically the Olivia kidnapping story is failing, the portion of the episode when it’s most watchable is when Olivia isn’t in it at all. The reason for that is because Olivia has essentially been turned into a MacGuffin. There’s a big bowl of random explanations for the Olivia economy if anybody wants one: the President of the United States is irrationally in love with her; she possesses sensitive national security information; Huck will be forever lost to the darkside if Liv isn’t returned; Quinn can only be stable if Huck is; Abby would have to go the trouble of making a new best frenemy. Scandal doesn’t hesitate to say with a straight face that Olivia is worth over a billion dollars on the free market because the writers are not making a statement about Olivia’s intrinsic value, they’re turning her into a highly coveted object to maximize her narrative value.

Is it problematic to turn Olivia’s fate into a game of capture the flag? Yes it is. But once that game is in motion, there’s a momentum in the White House that is impossible to achieve in Olivia’s portion of the story. Nothing will happen. She’ll try to escape. She’ll fail. Bids will come in, go up, drop out. It’s hard to turn an eBay auction into compelling television. Meanwhile, back in the White House, Andrew and Mellie are staring each other down, Quinn is struggling to pull Huck back from the brink, and Fitz is locked in battle with his joint chiefs, who are trying to convince him the only feasible option is to take Olivia out before she falls into the wrong hands. Cyrus, meanwhile, is approaching the end of his fraying rope, finding it harder to understand the insanity of Fitz’s decisions, setting up a dream resignation featuring Jeff Perry’s best work in many moons. The sequence was as exhilarating as the show has been in all of season four, and with all the hostage negotiation and west-wing intrigue, it was reminiscent of 24 at its prime.

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But just when things are getting fun, here comes the mean ol’ protagonist to come in and ruin everything. It’s not Olivia herself that’s the problem, of course, it’s everything she comes along with. It’s the kidnappers who hoot and holler during the bidding like they’re shooting a corporate sales video for a party bus company. It’s Maya Pope, who at this point works neither as a character nor as mythology. My God, it’s Rowan Pope, who Jake tracks down to help retrieve Olivia. No one thought Rowan was going to be gone forever, but I certainly thought he’d be gone longer than this. It’s apparently only been an in-universe week since he was last seen. But he’s back already, to give what is without a doubt the worst Rowan Pope monologue in the history of Scandal. It was about fishing, was absolutely interminable, and served no functional purpose in the story. Joe Morton is only a man. There are thespian feats even beyond his estimable talents, and there was just no making that monologue work.

Then there’s the return of OPA alum Stephen Finch, who swoops in to save Olivia. Stunts like this are standard practice for Scandal at this point, starting with the Billy Chambers reveal in season two. Like the shows it most resembles, Scandal is a show in which an advanced game of Guess Who passes for a jaw-dropping plot twist. That person you saw before? You’re seeing him again! Have no recollection of who this person is or why he’s significant? Who cares? You got a match! That’ll be enough for some of the audience, but to be clear, he’s still a deus ex machina even though I know his name.

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In the final moments, Liv and Fitz reunite and she upbraids him for going to war just to save her. Olivia’s emotional threads are not as easy to follow in this scene, but Kerry Washington and Tony Goldwyn give it their all, no matter how diminished the returns on talk of Vermont becomes. It’s nice to see Olivia burst Fitz’ bubble, telling him he didn’t save her after all. She’s still alone. This is no more true now than it was before Olivia got kidnapped, but since driving the point home seems to be this storyline’s legacy, that’ll have to do.

Stray observations:

  • How do you fix a problem like Andrew? Have Huck put him into a coma.
  • I have to assume this is setting up for a Mellie vice presidency, which…okay, fine.
  • Jake’s torture monologue was pretty irritating too. Honestly, a two-month long monologue fast would do this show a world of good.
  • That Gettysburger got awfully burnt in Olivia’s oven on warm for a week.
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