Scandal made its bones, built its obsessed following and established itself among the few breakout network dramas of the cord-cutting age by leaving its audience never knowing what to expect. But “The Price Of Free And Fair Elections” left a hangover much different than the ones created by the “twisty” WTF moments the show prides itself on. It was an oddly muted sign-off for a show that became increasingly unmoored as its third season progressed, but the reasons for season three’s herky-jerky plotting and hyper-compressed pacing are still impossible to untangle.
As for the aspects fully within Shonda Rhimes’ control, it became even clearer upon rewatching “Fair Elections” how incredibly the B-613 and Maya Pope plots drained Scandal’s resources. Rhimes has openly copped to her adoration of Alias in interviews about Scandal, and she was once so bullish about the world of B-613 she casually tossed off the idea of a spin-off. (Clearly Rhimes envisions an ABC primetime comprised solely of her shows save for periodic, palate-cleansing installments of Dancing With The Stars—though worse things have happened.) But if Scandal’s headlong dive into terrorism and off-the-books spycraft was inspired by Alias, it fell into the same morass the earlier show fell into, struggling to make an all-powerful cabal feel concrete and threatening while attempting to tell empathetic stories about the people behind it.
Joe Morton and Khandi Alexander were the most consistently compelling and fun parts of season three, and when performers that ferocious are at your disposal, in all likelihood you do what Rhimes did and treat them like workhorses. But Rowan and Maya’s psychodrama sucked the oxygen out of the room, and despite being the parents of the show’s main character and having deep connections to nearly every other character within OPA’s orbit, Rowan and Maya never feel completely integrated into Scandal, and the efforts to delve into their story always felt like it came at the expense of Olivia/OPA stories, not in service of them.
Of course, there’s a lot Rhimes couldn’t control, including Kerry Washington’s pregnancy and Columbus Short’s steep descent into madness. It was a short season with a lot of points to hit, and there’s enough wiggle room to feel suspicious of Scandal’s narrative integrity after season three but still feel confident in its potential to be dazzling again. As much buzz as the ABC publicists built around the mystery of Olivia Pope’s whereabouts, the bigger mystery was where Scandal would be when the show returned. In the oval office with Olivia and Fitz? In the OPA war room with the Gladiators? Or flailing in the quagmire of B-613?
Much as its amazing title suggests, “Randy, Red, Superfreak And Julia” sets a course for the return to Scandal’s core characters Rhimes has been teasing all summer. And really, it’s a course correction that began with “Fair Elections,” which seemed to hem the show in but actually left it plenty of latitude. Maya returned to where she was before—hopelessly imprisoned, monitored by Rowan, the revitalized Command. Fitz got to stay in the White House, and Olivia got on a plane to God knows where. “Randy” admirably dispenses with the idea that Olivia’s physical location matters at all—100 miles outside Zanzibar, for the record—and gets right to the business of getting her out of the sun and back into D.C.’s shade.
The idea of an off-the-grid Olivia is a charming one, so luckily the opening sequence gets good mileage out of it—Olivia’s choice of Gone Girl as her beach read is a fun, if a little cutesy visual gag. But Olivia believes she has to take a break from paradise, stop being Julia Baker and return to D.C. to deal with Harrison’s death. As abrupt as Olivia’s return feels, it fits with a character who relies on being needed by others. Plenty of things have happened since Olivia vanished, and everyone has muddled through them just fine. But the arrival of Harrison’s obituary is the excuse Olivia had probably been waiting for, the reason to go where she believes she’s needed, to return to the eye of the storm.
Naturally, Olivia returns to a reception as chilly as her tropical sojourn was balmy. Scandal teems with cynicism, so it’s no surprise it drives home the idea that no one is irreplaceable. It can be argued that the surviving members of OPA are thriving, relatively, in Olivia’s absence. Abby is now press secretary, a shrewd way to keep the White House drama within the show’s grasp even with Olivia out of the mix. Quinn has achieved her goal of becoming Lady Huck, while Huck has landed himself a career in retail-technology support, a field that values and rewards men with affectless tones and absent social skills. As for Harrison, apparently his bespoke exterior masked his roots in poverty and no connections outside OPA; his funeral was more for Olivia’s benefit than anyone else’s. Olivia’s belief that she needs to return to the capital is of her own making.
In that sense, “Randy” echoed “It’s Handled,” with Olivia out in the cold, struggling to regain stasis. But there’s a greater challenge ahead this time. It’s not just a matter of maintaining the status quo: Olivia has to completely rebuild her life, but with the exception of Jake, she has to do it using all-new materials. The gang has scattered, and Olivia is as convinced as ever that leaving was the right thing to do for the people she loves, so she has to figure out what it means to be Olivia Pope without her associates, and without the constant tension of her relationship with Fitz, with whom she shares a half-minute of wordless screen time.
Rhimes’ script is a triumph of subtlety following last season’s histrionics, and suggests a better understanding that Scandal can and should be a rollercoaster, but it can’t be all drops and no climbs. It’s doubtful Rhimes’ is trying to shake up this formula any time soon—an “OPA is back in business” montage can’t be too far off—but there’s promise in the way this premiere resists the instinct to sprint back to the status quo as did “It’s Handled.” Things will get back to normal, but it’ll take some time.
In the meantime, Olivia will be busy handling the case of a congressional clerk who nearly kills the senator who tried to rape her. The return to self-contained scandals is an attractive prospect, but this one left a sour taste in my mouth and tempered my enthusiasm a bit. The familiar rhythms felt right, with Olivia piecing together the truth about the rape, but the revelation that the rape occurred because Senator Vaughn sent a lamb to slaughter to win support for an equal-pay bill… well, yikes. It’s a bum note, considering what pains Olivia takes to reiterate that false rape reports are an extreme rarity. The point is that women don’t lie about rape, but they do offer each other up for rape if it’ll mean a broader victory for women everywhere? Oh okay.
Still, for anyone cautiously hopeful about the show’s ability to recover after the last touch-and-go season, “Randy” demonstrated that Scandal, as much as its central character, is wise enough to know when its taken its loyal following over a cliff, and when its time to pull it all back together.
- Sonia Saraiya is handing the reins to me for a few weeks. Lamenting her temporary absence will not be taken personally.
- I feel a renewed interest in Olitz following Fitz and Mellie’s detente at the close of last season. The knowing non-glance was a shrewd way to handle the reality that the relationship just isn’t feasible at this point, not with Fitz and Mellie still wracked with grief.
- Speaking of which, Fitz tried to commit suicide? Wow. Also: Mellie monologues always and forever.
- Rowan lies to Olivia about Harrison’s death, naturally, which sets up for a reveal at some point in the season. But what would it mean at this point for Olivia to find out her worst suspicions about her father were as true this time as they’ve been in the past? If Scandal is a riff on Alias, Rowan is its Arvin Sloane, and there’s only so many ways to do stories about Olivia hating her evil dad.
- Jake to Olivia: “I’m the one you like to ride.” This goes unchallenged, which presents a credible idea behind this lopsided love triangle. Olivia loves Fitz vertically and Jake horizontally. Fair enough.
- David’s nomination for attorney general signals more desire to veer away from the B-613 stuff, at least for now.
- Portia de Rossi is the RNC chairperson. That’s a character that had to be kept under wraps?
- Regarding the New York Times’ “Angry Black Woman” article, that debacle says more about the flaws of the journalism industry than it does about Alessandra Stanley or about the Times in particular. I’ve been writing criticism for money for nearly a decade now, often times using an arch tone that seemed brilliant and provocative at the time, but was actually just me being an asshole, sometimes consciously, other times not. Critics have to share their personal thoughts, and don’t always explain those thoughts in elegant ways. This is not a defense of the article—reading it felt like having a stranger put his sweaty hand on my bare shoulder—but it’s the sort of thing that happens because journalism doesn’t employ as much editing as perhaps it should. A television show comes about after a room full of people talk through ideas and ruthlessly shoot each other down and only the best ideas remain. Critics work alone, and what editing we receive is featherweight compared to the trial-by-fire television writers go through. In Stanley’s case, three editors read over her copy, presumably ensuring the piece followed an internal logic more than scrutinizing the idea behind it, and their approvals built on each other. Then the essay went out. Criticism can be a scary racket because editors don’t push back as hard as perhaps they should, so critics always have enough rope to hang themselves with. That said, the Times’ lack of diversity undoubtedly contributes to this kind of faux pas. I’ve been asked to give a story “the black read” plenty of times. I’ve never been offended or felt put-upon.
- I promise I’ll write less next week.