Joshua Malina, Jasika Nicole, Guillermo Diaz

To the extent Scandal’s fourth season is succeeding, that’s not just a result of good writing, it’s the fact that the audience has been beaten into submission. Audiences develop unhealthy relationships with serialized television shows. A show makes an unfortunate turn somewhere, but viewers sit there praying things to turn around after a few episodes. A few episodes turns into the back-half of the season, then some people swear off the show. Those same people then say “I’ll just check out the season premiere out of morbid curiosity, because I have nothing better to do.” It’s hard to pull away.

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Television writers capitalize on that slavish devotion. If they can detect a bum note quickly enough, they can pivot during the grace period and recover before alienating too much of the audience. Scandal’s fourth season has been a fascinating case study in how this is done, and “The Testimony Of Diego Muñoz” reflects the unorthodox strategy for stabilizing the show. Often, when television shows get stuck in the mud with a terrible plot element, the writers’ goal is to extricate themselves quickly as possible, even if it means bumpy transitions, compressed arcs, or full-blown retcons. Characters move away, or die, or change careers, then immediately change back, and romantic relationships flame out within minutes.

Scandal hasn’t done any of this. Rowan and Maya Pope haven’t gone anywhere, and instead of getting tighter or fewer and farther between, Rowan’s infamous monologues have sprawled out. The B-613 nonsense is as prominent as ever. Added to this, Olivia’s kidnapping is still significantly shaping the story, just in time for the introduction of the Susan-Ross-for-vice-president plot. There’s no attempt to hide from or pave over what’s been written, no matter how exasperating or polarizing it is. It’s almost hubristic, but also kind of admirable. Shonda Rhimes are her team are simply trying to build the most satisfying project they can with the tools and materials they already have on hand.

Hence, “The Testimony Of Diego Munoz” is a mystifying, but satisfying episode of Scandal. Not only that, the most mystifying thing about it is that it is so satisfying. Scandal still excels at wringing riveting television out of profoundly ridiculous plot elements. “The Testimony Of Diego Munoz” is an example of how an episode can be fashioned into something great, even when it’s made up of the stuff that makes Scandal hard to stick with. It’s all B-613 and those stupid files, because this is apparently some kind of Bizarro Beltway in which no one’s ever heard of a paper shredder. It’s Huck playing house with Kim and Javi even though, by all rights, he should be confined to house arrest in a house made entirely out of restraining orders. It’s Olivia in sad-sack mode, crippled by flashbacks to her kidnapping ordeal, and the bumbling Susan Ross suddenly shoved into the second-in-command spotlight out of the clear blue.

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And yet, “Testimony” succeeds through the magic of storytelling fundamentals. It’s safe to call it magic, because the episode feels like it’s full of narrative sleight-of-hand. To illustrate, let’s go back to the story of Olivia’s kidnapping. There was poor Catherine Winslow locked up for a murder she didn’t commit. Then, there was Faith gulping down that key before Kubiak shot her, which led to the locker filled with photos of Olivia, then Olivia got snatched and the vice president revealed himself as the mastermind. It’s unbelievable how poorly that tracks if you think about it for 10 seconds. Think about dry swallowing a key. Actually, no. Think about dry swallowing a 500-milligram ibuprofen. Now, instead of a large pill specifically designed to be swallowed by a human, it’s one of those plump, plastic-set locker keys designed with comically large proportions so it’s harder to misplace. Faith choked down the key for what reason? To protect photos of Olivia? It’s an absolute mess at the ground level.

But Scandal clips along so frantically, there’s no time to go back and think critically about any of it. The only reason Faith sticks out in my mind is because I happen to be weirded out when I have to swallow a large pill, and that key thing seriously traumatized me. No recent points from the broader B-613 plot left that kind of impression. I don’t remember why, or honestly even when Huck gave Kim the B-613 files. And did Huck ever have the formal “So you saw Daddy commit homicide” talk with Javi? What makes it so important to protect the files now? Is B-613 still a danger even though it’s never completely clear the extent to which it’s even operational? The B-613 stuff is so convoluted, I can make neither heads nor tails of it.

Here’s what I do know: The most important thing to Huck is reuniting with his family. It’s important for him to protect them, and he’s deeply resentful over the time B-613 stole from him and the person it turned him into. Putting Huck in a position where he has to choose between giving up his family forever to save them, and testifying against B-613 even if it means putting Kim and Javi at risk is a fundamentally sound plot. The results are stellar, even though the plot contains so many of the words and ideas that I shudder to hear from this show. The testimony scene is terrific, and though I’ve been lamenting Scandal’s recent overuse of the monologue, Huck’s description of life in the hole is one of this show’s best monologues in ages. Guillermo Diaz, whose intensity often veers toward the irritating, plays the scene with a surprising degree of restraint, and really sells the moment. It helps that Jasika Nicole can be so affecting with so little to work with.

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Director Allison Liddi-Brown, one of Rhimes’ frequent collaborators, presses the camera against Diaz’s face and scans back and forth as Huck tells his harrowing story. Even David Rosen, after urging Huck to keep his mouth shut for reasons I’m still putting together, is so moved he comes around to Huck’s side. B-613 must be taken down, he decides. Jake, who has been trying to take down B-613 for ages, is no longer into it, nor is Quinn because of the “blow back” on Olivia. Maybe I need to revisit some past episodes because I don’t follow most of that. Still, there’s some kind of positive momentum and a well-told episodic story in the interim. Given that the characters in Scandal seem as confused about the scope and parameters of B-613 as the audience, who knows if that’s an element the show will ever do away with entirely. But if it can result in stories like this one, the particulars become less of a detraction.

Like many of Scandal’s recent episodes, with the obvious exception of “The Lawn Chair,” “Testimony” spends an atypically short amount of time with Olivia. Mostly, she sits looking exhausted and spooked while having flashbacks about the kidnapping ordeal. I was reminded of 24 yet again as I watched the Olivia scenes because, like Jack Bauer before her, Olivia has been framed as a tragically self-sacrificing character. There’s no amount of trauma that can fully suppress her compulsion to “serve” in some form or fashion, so she must be traumatized again and again, then redeem herself by finding untapped resolve and new reasons to climb back into the saddle.

When there’s an emergency requiring Olivia’s crisis-management expertise or her psychic testicle grip on Fitz, she has to be convinced with a “Just this once, Olivia” or a “There’s no one else who can do this, Olivia.” This time, Abby and Cyrus ply Olivia into helping contain the public-relations disaster stemming from Susan’s giggle fit while speaking before the press about the possibility of being a heartbeat away from the presidency. Olivia steps in and convinces Fitz to win Congressional support for Susan’s confirmation by apologizing for the West Angola debacle, and the pair have an intimate staring contest as if Abby and Cyrus aren’t in the room. There’s no reason the scene should work, but it’s elegant in its way.

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The scene leads to the conclusion of Susan’s confirmation, one of the three well-conceived episodic stories in the episode. The Susan the Veep story is goofy and extremely cynical, but Artemis Pebdani’s performance is winning. Pebdani crushes the episode, managing to make Susan seem likable, earnest, and well-intentioned, even as the plot threatens to become an on-the-nose Sarah Palin riff. The confirmation hearing following Olivia’s coaching is a treat. I’m even willing to accept the Abby and Leo relationship, as their conflict around the approach to prepping Susan made me mildly interested in that relationship for the first time.

But Olivia’s main client of the week isn’t actually a client, it’s Rose, the loyal companion of Lois, Olivia’s elderly neighbor who was murdered during the kidnapping. In order to explore Olivia’s mindset after the kidnapping, her survivor guilt has to play a big part in it. That guilt explains why she’s so furious with Fitz about going to war, and why she tasks Huck and Quinn to track down Lois’ body so Rose can get closure while fretting over whether or not to tell Rose the truth. There was a light touch to the way writer Mark Fish revealed the nature of Rose and Lois’ relationship, and Marla Gibbs played the material beautifully. The subtlety drains out of the plot as it progresses, ending with Olivia and Rose standing over Lois’ body while Olivia invents a sunny story about how Lois died from a painless aneurysm on a beautiful day. It’s an overt scene, but also an emotional, effective one.

Scandal still needs to prune many of its elements and characters, but in the meantime, “Testimony” is the type of episode that will make watching Scandal’s rebuilding season a pleasure instead of a chore.

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Stray observations:

  • It’s pretty cool to finally hear Huck’s real name.
  • Susan: “Who doesn’t love a gay wedding?” Leo: “You. You don’t.”
  • David Rosen wanted Huck to understand that he wasn’t being critical. No reason to start pulling folks’ teeth and stuff.
  • Quinn and Huck wax romantic about how they’d go about disposing of a body. Awww!
  • Jake kept saying “Diego Muñiz” instead of “Diego Muñoz.” I really wanted him to be like, “What the hell is the kid from Malcolm In The Middle doing with B-613 files in the first place?”
  • Next week’s Lena Dunham episode will BREAK THE INTERNET.

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