Guillermo Diaz, Kerry Washington and Katie Lowes
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Scandal is frequently compared to House Of Cards because they share many of the same ingredients: the political milieu, the vicious double-crosses, the meditations on the corrosive effects of power. When House Of Cards debuted, it was the sober one of the pair, focusing on the nuts and bolts of K Street maneuvering rather than simply using the White House as a sexy backdrop. But then, in its second season, House Of Cards got pretty wacky, revealing the pulpy heart underneath its starched exterior. As unexpected as that shift was, Scandal’s new direction is even more jarring. Scandal—the breathless, bananas nighttime soap in which a woman chewed through her own wrist—wants to slow down and have conversations about policy.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with a more earthbound Scandal, one with a tighter focus on the lives of its core characters and essential themes, and injecting some real world issues seems like a reasonable strategy for making that show. But what “The State Of The Union” is missing is a sense of purpose, a sense that any of the conversations about gun rights or equal pay have personal stakes for the characters. If the lack of purpose or urgency turns out to be confined to “The State Of The Union,” the episode will go down as part of Scandal’s awkward phase as it sets its new agenda. But it feels like this might be a larger problem following the whiplash-inducing third season. Maya Pope and B-613 made for a sloppy season-long arc, but the absence of those elements makes the show feel hollow, and it isn’t clear what’s going to fill the space.

Surely this season can’t be about whether or not Fitz can execute on his second-term goals. The run up to an election has built-in momentum, but there’s nothing exciting about watching Fitz shore up his presidential legacy. The season also can’t be about Olivia and Fitz. With Fitz struggling to maintain his composure while attending to the spiraling Mellie’s needs, to have them reignite their affair anytime soon would be to set fire to the audience’s remaining goodwill toward that relationship. The season can’t be about OPA, which at this point only technically exists with Abby in the White House and Harrison on an autopsy slab. This week’s OPA scenes are arrhythmic with only Olivia, Quinn, and Huck to lay out the strategy, and with Quinn and Huck relegated to babysitters, it’s not entirely clear what they do or why Olivia needs them at all.

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But there’s no argument I could make for Scandal’s craggy path forward that “The State Of The Union” doesn’t make better. It doesn’t work on a basic story level, with the entire episode hanging on Fitz’s preparation for the titular speech and whether Olivia can convince James and Lisa Elliott to attend in support of Fitz’s call for gun reform. Besides the thinness of the plot, the Elliotts are a supremely irritating creation, and their scenes have an unsettling comic tone but never manage to be funny. And they aren’t a challenge for Olivia. Had the task seemed impossible, Olivia working through it would be classic Scandal, but this is not an impossible task. This is convincing a married couple to smile and pretend to like each other on camera, a task Olivia must know by rote after training Fitz and Mellie to do the same for all these years.

The migration back to episodic storytelling is a promising sign for Scandal’s rebuilding year; OPA is at its best when it has a new fire to extinguish each week. But the Elliotts don’t cut it, which leaves nothing but time to question the show’s choices. For example, what happened to Kelen Coleman and the rapist senator? It had all the makings of the strong arc needed to kick off the season, but there’s no mention of it here. And what’s the significance of Harrison’s death? Why is Jake the only one who seems to remember it happened? “The State Of The Union” completely ignores some of the more promising threads laid out in the premiere.

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But there was plenty more from Lizzie Bear, who appears to be occupying the “intraparty nemesis” role recently vacated by Sally Langston. There’s something appealing about Portia de Rossi’s steely performance, but Lizzie isn’t much of a threat yet because she only poses a threat to Fitz’s political agenda, which doesn’t feel important. The audience is invested in Fitz’s goals as long as they’re also Olivia’s goals, but with Olivia so far outside the circle that Cyrus has to blackmail her to get her to run his errand, Olivia and Fitz are no longer aligned. Being so far removed from Olivia and OPA’s interests renders Lizzie toothless as a Big Bad, even if she is using an escort to destroy Cyrus.

When Scandal wobbles on plot, it generally recovers by nailing the emotional underpinnings. But what little emotional gravity Scandal has now, it gets from Mellie, who seems content to let her grief do whatever it wants with her. The sight of Mellie reclining on her son’s grave isn’t any less heartbreaking in this episode than in the last, and Bellamy Young is doing great work tapping into new facets of Mellie’s vulnerability. How Mellie rebuilds herself and finds peace in a public position that offers no latitude is a strong story for Scandal to tell, but it’s problematic for Mellie to be the character whose story has the most integrity.

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The issues presented by “The State Of The Union” don’t come as a total surprise, nor does the episode’s ungainliness. This is a pretty dramatic reboot, and with a show as heavily serialized as Scandal, the writers can’t turn on a dime. It’ll take some time to put the show on a promising course, and it’s perfectly possible “The State Of The Union” will be remembered as a necessary part of accomplishing that. But if it represents the new Scandal, this could be a very long season.

Stray observations:

  • The Cy and Olivia blackmail scene was downright icky. I’d have preferred a more noble way to lure Olivia back into the fold.
  • Jake is apparently investigating Harrison and Adnan’s deaths, so that’s what he has going on this season. Oh, and being Olivia’s FWB.
  • The growing Abby-Olivia rivalry is an interesting element with untapped potential.
  • David Rosen is now a shoo-in for confirmation after blackmailing an opponent. He’s learning how to play the game, it seems. And how surprising was the invocation of the faked domestic-abuse incident? That’s a plot point best forgotten.
  • Huck and Quinn almost had gross sex again. I’ve never been more relieved to see someone stabbed with a corkscrew.
  • “The First Lady would like her chips, sir.”

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