Expectations wreak havoc on the emotions. The heart wants what it wants; People want to get what they thought was coming, even if they end up getting something they would deem objectively better than what they imagined.

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Scandal‘s success is directly linked to the buzz around it, created through the combined effort of ABC’s savvy marketing department and Shonda Rhimes, who encouraged the Twitterized consumption of the show with plot hashtags and fever-pitch promos. As cool as #OperationRemington is as a marketing concept, spurring the audience toward the conversation created expectations that, even if reachable, would be a turn-off if the writers didn’t deliver. It’s hard to say how I would have regarded the Remington reveal had it not been teased so aggressively. But when it was revealed that Fitz and Jake were ordered to shoot down a plane of civilians, thereby killing Olivia’s mom, who later turned out to be alive, I thought it was ridiculous. I didn’t even have any developed theories around it, it was simply sillier than I wanted it to be.

“The Key” makes good on the deft cliffhanger that preceded it, using Jake’s detention on suspicion of poisoning Jerry and shooting Harrison to blow some of the dynamite Scandal has been storing up. It’s so satisfying by virtue of winning the expectations game. Not only because of the low bar set by those wobbly earlier episodes (though that didn’t hurt matters,) but because the writers and the network gave the story some time to unfurl without actively encourage viewers to let their imaginations run six episodes ahead. It would have been just as easy to do this in season four as in season’s past. It would have only required the network to tease that someone was going to take the fall for Jerry’s death, and end with the #WhosGonnaTakeTheWeight hashtag, the culmination of a coffee-and-bagels brainstorming session that stretched into the wee hours of the morning. I’m glad that’s not what happened.

This way, the narrative possibilities of Jake’s detention slowly wash over the show. It isn’t until the last shot, with Fitz trying to pummel Jake into submission, that the full potential of this direction opens up. Scandal‘s structural flaw lies in how superfluous its regular characters are, but the upside is the ability to create genuine suspense around a character’s potential death. Jake could die. Fitz is on the war path, and he’s shown no hesitation to killing people. I’d be mostly unperturbed by that development, but that’s why it feels so palpable. Scandal can do—and has done—pretty much anything to its characters.

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“The Key” puts that season three mythology to work. It seemed the plan for the season four recovery was to jettison the problematic elements of season three, but “The Key” has its eye on every burner. The murders of Harrison, Jerry and James and Huck’s thorny reunion with his family are explored in “The Key,” all while deepening the Catherine Winslow mystery. I have little interest in the key in Faith’s gut—which, to be clear, is insane—but it’s exactly the type of minor arc Scandal should be working right now. There isn’t much space on season four’s plate until Scandal finishes season three’s leftovers.

That’s fine if it yields scenes like those in “The Key,” many of which are killer. It’s hard to start anywhere other than Mellie’s time-trial sprint through the seven stages of grief upon learning Jerry was murdered and not simply a victim of fate. Mellie’s reaction felt right at first, and even Fitz seemed patiently bemused, but she goes even further, pivoting in place until Jerry’s death is not only a random tragedy, he’s martyred himself for the Grant presidency. Initially, Mellie’s progression seemed excessive, but considering her past—lying about her miscarriage, concealing her rape—it’s clear there’s no tragedy she can’t integrate into her destined-for-greatness narrative, even if doing so leaves her detached from reality.

Fitz’s psychology is a bit tougher to nail down, and that’s a good thing. Does Fitz really believe Jake killed Jerry? And even if it is a genuine belief, how was it formed? Has he really convinced himself that Olivia has nothing to do with his rage? There’s no way for the audience to know because there’s no way for Fitz to know. In the premiere, when Fitz’s suicide attempt is revealed, the reasons for it are left ambiguous. In the simple explanation, Fitz was wracked with grief over his son’s death, and the woman who would normally be his port in the storm is nowhere to be found, while Mellie can barely take care of herself let alone offer him emotional support. But while the truth is likely more complex, Jake’s identification as Jerry’s killer certainly streamlines everything for Fitz. Even if Jake is an innocent man, it’s awfully convenient to kill two birds with one lethal injection. Blaming Jake isn’t only convenient for Fitz, it’s deeply satisfying for him, not to mention Cyrus. No one can blame Fitz for finding the theory irresistable.

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Olivia obviously doesn’t like the explanation, though I’m not sure it was necessary for “The Key” to go about showing that they way it does. Since their return from paradise, Olivia and Jake’s relationship has been understandably amorphous. But in “The Key” it’s curiously solid. Olivia is referring to Jake as her boyfriend, and Jake is throwing her love for him in Fitz’s face, as though anyone believes those feelings are equivalent. Jake’s detention is still a conundrum if his relationship with Olivia is undefined, so Jake and Olivia’s relationship didn’t need to suddenly congeal in time for his arrest. Still, it leads to a fantastic confrontation between Rowan and Olivia, in which he offers an explanation for Jake’s guilt that’s downright plausible, if held together with glue in a couple spots. It’s still unclear what stakes are involved in Rowan’s exposure, but whatever those stakes, they get higher the harder Rowan works to cover up the truth.

For the first time though, I feel comfortable letting Scandal do what it’s going to do. “Like Father, Like Daughter” was great, but “The Key” represents Scandal getting its swagger back in earnest. The writers are making the same show anymore, but the show they are making can still be crazy fun, and it’s getting there.

Stray observations:

  • I really waffled on the grade, leaning towards an A- in some places and a B+ in others.
  • The cold open, with its play on Rear Window, is a thing of beauty.
  • Huck tickled me when he responded to Olivia’s wistful musings about absence with some choice details about body decomposition.
  • Smelly Mellie is back!
  • Rosen is going downhill in a hurry, but so is Abby in her own way. I enjoyed the Abby and Olivia scenes this week though, given how clear it is their new rivalry is obscuring their affection for each other, not replacing it.
  • This week’s Shade Fastball Award goes to none other than Cyrus: “Your boyfriend…I’m sorry, your other boyfriend.”
  • The “Lovely Day” cue made me incredibly uncomfortable, and I’m starting to think Scandal’s musical palette doesn’t fit anymore. It made sense initially, since the more self-contained early episodes had those caper elements, and the show was using old soul and funk tracks the same way classic Blue Note jazz or old lounge tunes are used in bank robbery or “one last score” montages. A song like the Isley Brothers’ “Fight The Power (Pts. 1 & 2)” is fun as hell, feels stylish simply by virtue of being curated, and is a great fit for Scandal’s taking care of business scenes. Outside the context of a case of the week, a song like that feels intrusive and out of place, and such was the case with “Lovely Day.”
  • The Huck stuff made me uncomfortable too. I get that I’m supposed to support his quest because he was thrown in a hole and tortured by Command until he started talking like an obscene caller, but all I can see is a psychologically damaged dude menacing his estranged wife.

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