Bottles typically bring people together. Bottle episodes typically tear them apart.
Bottle episodes are shot with a skeleton crew of actors in a single location, usually as a means of curtailing production costs. Comedies, especially multi-camera sitcoms, often thrive under these constraints and wind up turning out superlative episodes, like Friends’ “The One Where No One’s Ready” or Seinfeld’s “The Chinese Restaurant.” In theory, dramas should get even more leeway with bottle episodes, given that their producers must often find creative ways to pare down costs in some episodes to afford costly set pieces in others. In practice, the opposite is true. Nothing bifurcates a drama’s fan base like a bottle episode.
The most recent example is “Run,” the winter premiere of Scandal. Like any extension of the Shonda Rhimes brand, Scandal enjoys a rabid, devoted fan base willing to follow the show around its narrative hairpin turns. Rhimes, who penned “Run,” told TVLine that not only is it the best installment of Scandal she’s written, it’s the best the show has ever done. “It’s my favorite episode that I’ve written, of anything that I’ve written,” said Rhimes. “But it’s probably our favorite episode that we’ve done ever.”
The audience’s reaction wasn’t quite as rapturous—at least, not to any degree of consensus. I gave it an A, but based on the A.V. Club comments and a quick-and-dirty Twitter search, “Run” was either a tense, revelatory episode of television, or a disappointing bore. More than that, given that Scandal is in the midst of a rebuilding year after an inconsistent third season, “Run” represented a recommitment to the show for some fans, and a red line for others. The hackneyed phrase “jumped the shark” made it into more than a few tweets before the hour was out. Rhimes wouldn’t have a monopoly on ABC’s Thursday nights if she wasn’t attuned to what viewers want, so why did her favorite episode of Scandal get such a polarized response?
First, a primer on the episode: Scandal’s final episode of 2014, “Where The Sun Don’t Shine,” ended with the abrupt disappearance of Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington). Olivia’s in the midst of an acute family feud with her mustache-twirling, supervillain father Rowan (Joe Morton), and always runs the risk of being used as a pawn due to President Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn) and his intense emotional investment in her. Olivia spent the first half of the season embroiled in a mystery involving a murder frame-up, a high-profile extramarital affair, and a growing national security threat from a terrorist group in a fictional African country. Suffice it to say there are a few loose ends to tie up.
“Run” doesn’t advance any of those plot points, and the only question posed by “Sun Don’t Shine” addressed in “Run” concerns Olivia’s whereabouts. She’s been kidnapped, and rather than explore the immediate ramifications of her disappearance on those closest to her, “Run” trains its gaze on Olivia as she hatches a plan to escape a dingy holding cell over an indeterminate span of time. Olivia has significant emotional breakthroughs and tries new things—you never forget the first time you shoot someone between the eyes—but ultimately, “Run” ends as it began, with Olivia confined to a cell and in need of rescue. Washington turns in a searing performance, but she’s one of few familiar faces in the episode. A couple Scandal regulars show up in a dream sequence. Most don’t show up at all.
The episode succeeds or fails based on what the viewer expects from an episode of Scandal, and in defense of the haters, Rhimes has built certain expectations of Scandal that “Run” doesn’t live up to. Television writers train audiences on how to watch their shows, and Scandal grew into a breakaway hit because Rhimes geared its audience to expect relentless momentum and OMG rug-pulls. She deployed social-media savvy to drive the show’s success, building hashtag-friendly story arcs and mandating cast participation in the weekly live-tweeting frenzy. “Run” doesn’t feature any of the elements that typically constitute a great episode of Scandal, and could be carved out of the season with no impact on the larger story.
In a sense, Rhimes is as confined as her heroine, though in a prison of her own design, having conditioned her audience for something she can’t deliver. The thing is, Rhimes has proven she can make the runaway-train version of Scandal, but she also seems to realize she can’t do that version of the show indefinitely. She’s mentioned in several interviews that she doesn’t imagine Scandal having the same shelf life as Grey’s Anatomy, currently in its 11th season, but Scandal’s pace in its first three seasons wasn’t even realistically sustainable through a fourth. The slowed pace is wise, considering a refusal to pump the brakes is what turned True Blood from a phenomenon to a punchline.
“Run” represents Scandal as a controlled burn, a more disciplined show that tempers its cliffhangers with character beats and scenic detours. It also represents an evolution of the bottle episode itself, which was historically defined as a matter of fiscal conservation, but in television’s age of experimentation and Twitterized consumption is just as often born out of a need for narrative conservation and a desire to play with form. To qualify as a bottle by modern standards, an episode need not be confined to pre-existing sets or limited to regular cast members, it only needs to stay more-or-less in one place with fewer characters than usual.
Viewers who violently reject dramatic bottle episodes do so not only because it’s difficult to get through a plate of steamed greens after a steady diet of marshmallows. There’s a sense of vanity to bottle episodes that can be off-putting. Rhimes presumably likes “Run” so much because dramatic writing is her craft and the episode’s formalism appeals to her, and viewers with a high tolerance for such structural departures felt the same way. Without that tolerance, an episode like “Run” can come across as a writerly indulgence at the audience’s expense, as if the writer is withholding satisfaction while tinkering for fun.
Dramatic bottles also have an intensity that can make them difficult to watch, as in the cases of Breaking Bad’s “Fly” and Girls’ “One Man’s Trash,” both of which were met with a sharply divided response. In the former episode, Walter (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse (Aaron Paul) have an emotionally gutting conversation while trying to vanquish a pest in their industrial meth lab, while in the latter, Hannah (Lena Dunham) spends a weekend with Joshua (Patrick Wilson) having sex and goofing off between wrenching, existential confessions. Like all dramatic bottles, the episodes force the viewer to commit to intimate moments from which they can’t look away or flee into another storyline.
Such episodes are attuned to the rhythms of the stage, but not every television fan is necessarily a fan of dramatic storytelling in all its forms. To be universally praised, a bottle episode has to succeed as a intimate moment between few characters while advancing the broader serialized story. In its first season, Homeland went from promising rookie to television’s best drama with “The Weekend,” which deepened the relationship between Carrie (Claire Danes) and Brody (Damian Lewis) while upending the plot and delivering a shocking cliffhanger. The episode was so impressive because that balance is nearly impossible to pull off. For most dramas, or even dramatic-leaning comedies, a bottle episode will always be a gamble, a well-intentioned effort to ration resources met with derision by viewers conditioned to excess.