Katie Lowes, Guillermo Diaz, Scott Foley

“Where’s The Black Lady?” represents Scandal’s latest transition into a show about weighty ideas and mythological themes, which is fantastic, because that’s the best kind of Scandal. Big-Ideas Scandal is still soapy, naughty, even a little silly around the edges, but is rooted in provocative, interesting stuff. The best example is the Defiance arc, which works as a playful, twisty thriller and as a devastating meditation on human failures. Defiance is about masculinity, zealotry, the culture of winning, and the burden of ego, but the show never feels like a lecture. It’s so entertaining, it takes a while for it to register that Scandal—often the top-rated show among African-Americans—is about a black woman who helps a white Republican president get elected through voter disenfranchisement. Seriously, let that marinate for a minute.

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“Black Lady” is generally composed of the same stuff, with a race against the clock, Olivia in peril, and Fitz, Jake, Huck, and Quinn helpless to save her. But it’s also playing with themes of patriotism, the emptiness of war, and the relative value of human lives. Oh, and bonkers identity politics. Consider that within the same episode, Olivia, a black woman, convinces a white man who has very recently threatened her with rape to auction her to the highest bidder, while Elizabeth, a white woman, is horrifying the First Lady with the image of her flayed back. Big-Ideas Scandal: you’re soaking in it.

However, while it has the same silhouette as the Defiance arc, Olivia’s disappearance isn’t working on as high as level as that story did. For one thing, while there are a lot of fascinating ideas at play here, they don’t feel fully-formed or totally intentional. There’s a frivolity reminiscent of Ryan Murphy’s work, though to a far less degree. Scandal is usually good about presenting its ideas articulately, but this feels more like indiscriminate firebombing.

Unfortunately, the thriller component is equally flawed. Rowan’s exit in “Where The Sun Don’t Shine” felt like a temporary victory against the story elements that have resulted in Scandal’s most dissatisfying episodes. Nature abhors a vacuum, so maybe this shouldn’t have come as such a surprise, but “Black Lady” essentially trades one barely defined, ultra powerful cabal for an even less defined, ultra powerful cabal. The point of getting rid of B-613, it seemed, was to bring the stakes down to a manageable level such that it’s fundamentally clear who is doing what, and to what end. Scandal may not be calling its latest shadowy plot sledge hammer B-613, but make no mistake, we just got tossed back in the hole.

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The episode begins with Fitz being told Olivia would die if he tried to contact the authorities about Olivia’s kidnapping and Nichols’ involvement in it. Fitz receives this information from a member of the Super Secret Service, one among the throngs of turncoats who have apparently permeated Fitz’s White House and who work around him every day. Without any way to call for back-up, Fitz has to decide on his own whether to acquiesce to Nichols’ demands—to order troops into West Angola—or let Olivia die. After briefly considering letting Olivia die, Fitz changes course and deploys the military in order to serve some kind of broader goal Nichols has. I’m not clear what it’s supposed to communicate about Fitz that he gave into Nichols. He loves Olivia deeply, but it’s hard to believe anyone would make the choice Fitz makes. It’s shocking that Fitz wouldn’t at least try to test Nichols’ will.

I saw some meme humor last week comparing Olivia in “Run” to 24’s Jack Bauer, and I didn’t totally get the comparison, but I certainly get it now. Scandal, at least in this episode, is 24 with Olivia and Huck as Jack’s yin and yang. The president is being punked by the conspirators within a shadow government? Jack Bauer butters his grits with shadow governments. 24 requires an enormous suspension of disbelief, but once that’s granted, the show keeps up such a frantic pace, there’s no time to consider any of the insanity too deeply. Scandal has some of 24’s sense of urgency, but what it lacks is the essentially standalone storylines that allowed that show to avoid cross-contamination between the elements the audience can take seriously and the ones they can’t.

Olivia’s kidnapping is the only story being told right now, and so everything is interconnected—the scary stuff, the stupid stuff, the exciting stuff, and the dull stuff are all of a piece. Olivia’s incredibly visceral terror and despair relate too closely to that cold open, in which it is revealed that the White House turned into a sinister cult compound within the course of like 20 minutes. Mellie’s monologue shouldn’t occur so close to Tom’s monologue, which was pretty terrible. I don’t necessarily mind this new direction for Scandal, but the writers have to take great care to ensure the show doesn’t become one in which a bad scene is the price of admission for every good one.

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It’s hard to write “Black Lady” off because it does have some terrific scenes, namely Mellie’s confession to Fitz, which was gut-wrenching to watch. Mellie and Fitz kill it throughout the episode, including the intimate briefing on the balcony. Olivia’s scenes with Ian are a bit more hit-or-miss. I’d be willing to bet everyone who watched the episode would be fine losing two of those exchanges entirely, but no one would be able to agree on which two to cut. But Kerry Washington deserves extra credit for that final moment on the jet, where Olivia flashes a giddy little half-smile. Is it just relief? Does she have a plan? It’s a cool acting choice.

I vowed to focus on the moment when watching this show, rather than taking a broader view of it, and there are times when I succeed at that. But it’s tough to resist imagining the bigger picture when the individual pieces start looking fundamentally different than the ones preceding it. “Run” was a departure, but now it doesn’t seem as much like a departure, that episode feels like the new normal. Right now, Scandal is a show about an internal war between the president and vice president, with a black woman is being used as currency and in exchange for currency. That’s horrifying and juicy, which is Scandal’s sweet spot, but it needs to be better than this. Most importantly, Scandal needs to break-up with this rebound cabal as quickly as possible.

Stray observations:

  • Another thing to chew on: Mellie had knock-out sex with Nichols’ to swipe his cell phones—much as Olivia did to Jake in “The Fluffer”—to help rescue Olivia.
  • Yo, Huck makes me uncomfortable.
  • Cyrus and Michael are really making a spiteful, hate-sex-filled go of this crazy little thing called love.
  • Really fun guest appearance from Marla Gibbs. If someone has a recent photo of Gibbs with director Debbie Allen and hasn’t sent it to me yet, I’m considering that an act of war.
  • I saw a lot of complaints last week about Scandal’s “tell, don’t show” problem, which was on display again tonight with the note in the report for Cyrus.
  • I just have to say again how irritated I am with this abstract institutional evil mumbo-jumbo this show loves to do now. When a character speaks the iconic line “You don’t wanna know how high up this thing goes,” the implication is that there’s a top level but you’d prefer not to know what happens at it. I have no idea of the parameters of Scandal’s power structure, and therefore zero concept of where these characters rank on the food chain. In the short term, that’s not a problem, but without a better understanding of the dynamics, Scandal becomes a show in which a lot of stuff happens but all of it is of no consequence even though the characters repeatedly say it is.
  • If whoever is in league with Nichols is its own thing distinct from B-613, I’d love for it to be revealed that both are independent subsidiaries of a larger entity, a multi-level sales company specializing in high-end vitamin supplements and environmentally-friendly household products.

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