Rowan Pope was, for a time, the best thing to ever happen to Scandal. Those days are but a faint memory, because whereas once Rowan was an intriguing building block in the Olivia Pope mythos, he is now an entity unto himself, one powerful enough to derail an entire season in a single scene. Rowan was once a planet in Olivia’s orbit, but now he has a gravitational pull all his own. Rowan was once a man, but by “The Last Supper,” he has become a god-made-flesh worthy of the episode’s grandiose title.
The rise of Rowan began in Scandal’s earliest episodes due to a story design that stokes the audience’s appetite for mythology. Olivia Pope & Associates was never merely a dimly lit crisis management firm, it was an island of misfit toys, a motley crew of lost souls eager to take orders from its enigmatic leader. It was never entirely clear what Harrison or Abby were doing most of the time, why Quinn was there to begin with, or why Huck talks like he was hit by lightning in the middle of an obscene phone call. Who are these weirdos? And more importantly, who is the woman responsible for redeeming and repurposing them?
Initially, Rowan represented the promise of illuminating Olivia, so the reveal of his identity at the end of season two was invigorating. It doesn’t hurt that Joe Morton hurls all his thespian energy into every scene, delivering his wordy, sing-song monologues with enough gusto to warrant a YouTube tribute set to “Turn Down For What.” Rowan’s speeches can be irksome now, but they once represented Scandal at its balls-out best.
These days, Rowan isn’t a proxy for Olivia, he’s a proxy for B-613, the allegedly terrifying spy agency that remains a cipher despite its near-constant mention and its vise grip on the plot. As Command, Rowan consumes so much space for the same reason he has so little narrative value: he’s omnipotent, wrathful and completely inscrutable. In other words, Rowan is a god. Is there a greater, worthy purpose to Rowan’s acts, even though it seems his sole purpose is to torment the other characters? That’s not for us to know, for Rowan’s ways are not like our own. (For example, seems like torching the B-613 files would be more expedient than filling every box with blank paper, but please don’t tell the elders I said that.)
“The Last Supper” was much better than I’m letting on, in part because it clearly fits into a larger endgame that will—Rowan willing—neutralize the B-613 stories at least temporarily. But the cliffhanger was a deflated cake. If Rowan is too powerful to be taken down by Olivia, Fitz and Jake acting as a united front and flanked by elite sharpshooters, he may be too powerful to take down in a resolution that is satisfying and free of contrivances. Basically, their arms are too short to box with Rowan.
What makes this episode so fascinating is how it demonstrates Rowan’s utility, provided he’s not in the foreground. Olivia’s entanglements with Fitz and Jake haven’t felt this vital for a while, if ever, and it’s because of Rowan’s machinations. Jake was marked for death only a few weeks ago because the character is never more than two right turns away from becoming superfluous. Fitz was walking wounded when the season began, but he got a chance to reclaim his vigor by getting justice for Jerry. Olivia is wracked with guilt over the agony Fitz and Jake have suffered because of their association with her, and by finally agreeing to end Rowan, she has a shot at penance.
As interesting as the bizarre love triangle has become, it relies too heavily on Rowan and risks crowding out the overarching mystery involving Catherine Winslow and the envelope full of Olivia photos. That slow-burning story got interesting in a hurry, with “The Last Supper” braiding the season’s disparate story threads together in a shocking reveal. Granted, the more time passes without a larger explanation of why Kubiak killed Caitlin and Faith and what Olivia has to do with any of it, the more I fear the explanation will disappoint. But the scene revealing Kubiak’s close dealings with Lizzie, and Lizzie’s closer dealings with Andrew was a fun gut punch regardless of what comes of it.
Season four got off to a slow start, but has since weaved Scandal’s characters into an intricate tapestry of incestuous relationships. “The Last Supper” deals directly with just how knotty all this has become, forcing Olivia to examine her ethics, which are a moving target now as ever. Lizzie approaches Olivia to find out why her phone has been hacked, and Olivia goes to work, unaware Cyrus is monitoring Lizzie after catching onto Michael’s true agenda. Olivia’s ethical crisis over working for Cyrus behind Lizzie’s back is curious but intriguing. It’s as though years living in an environment rife with betrayal and infidelity has made it all the more important to Olivia to have one facet of her life in which she dances with the one that brought her.
Speaking of infidelity, I’m cautiously hopeful about the relationship between Andrew and Lizzie and what it could yield. I understand how someone could write the affair as egregious, if only because revealing the relationships between Lizzie, Andrew and Kubiak in one fell swoop made for an enormous chunk of data. But that’s also what makes it feel so promising. To its credit, Scandal has left behind its old habit of focusing its energy on one hashtagged mini-arc and has begun fumbling around in the dark. With so much narrative furniture in the room, odds are it’ll bump into something worthwhile.
- Between Scandal and How To Get Away With Murder, Shonda Rhimes may be remembered most for her efforts to bring gay sex to network primetime. That’s not a dig; I’ll go blind if I see another fictional gay couple with the sexual chemistry of a mop and bucket. But I still clutched my pearls when “The Last Supper” featured not only gay sex, but gay grudge sex. Equality!
- With Kubiak and Jeremy Winslow dead, we’re maybe two more deaths away from never knowing who took those blasted photos.
- The stuff with the West Angolan terrorists has to take a backseat on a show with this much going on, but there’s a conspicuous lack of anxiety about serial car bombings, one of which nearly kills the potential successor to the presidency.
- Olivia doesn’t want Jake to talk to her about standing in the sun with another man. I don’t want anybody to talk about standing in the sun anymore with anybody for any reason.
- At this point, I’m actively rooting against Huck’s budding relationship with Javi. Why would you bring a kid to a stakeout?
- Cyrus’s explanation for his relationship with Michael (“It was fun and weird and not real”) was spot-on, and bonus points for his realization that his talent at weaponizing his enemies’ foibles doesn’t immunize him against the same human weakness.
- What did we think of Rowan’s speech about how he “damaged” Olivia by sending her away? The show has always implied Olivia’s dating history is tied to her daddy issues, but I was caught off-guard when Rowan echoed that idea.
- Speaking of Olivia’s fake-out, I was slightly disappointed that her tearful speech was merely a ploy to lure Rowan into the open. I was glad to see Olivia finally grasp that Fitz and Jake have turned her into a football, and I can only hope there was some emotional truth to that speech despite its specific goal.
- A big thanks to Les Chappell for covering last week. Baby did not make a mess.