Kerry Washington

Yo… the feelings I’m having right now. My God, the feelings. “Where The Sun Don’t Shine” is absolutely revelatory. It’s not only revelatory about the gestating mysteries and grand designs driving Scandal’s fourth season, it’s revelatory about Scandal itself.

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Once upon a time, mostly during its Defiance phase, Scandal had a shot at being classically great. Now it’s only got a shot at a different type of greatness. That isn’t meant to say Scandal was once poised to reach a pinnacle of universal television quality and now has to settle for something inferior. We may still be in something of a golden age of television, but that doesn’t mean every show is supposed to have the gravity of a Mad Men or be as meticulous as Breaking Bad. Scandal deserves to be mentioned in any discussion about the exciting things happening in the television medium because of how well it executes what it’s trying to do.

The issue with the beginning of this season is that it hasn’t always been clear what it was Scandal was trying to do, continuing the sense of aimless velocity that has been with the show since season three, not long after it started drawing the contours of Rowan and B-613. But there’s absolutely no doubt in “Where The Sun Don’t Shine” as to what Scandal is trying to be, and equally little doubt about the crazy-high level on which it’s doing exactly that. Sure, Scandal may lurch into policy discussions that sound both preposterous and also like earnest people talking about how to fix the country, but then it’ll be a story of star-crossed lovers and the lengths to which they’ll go to avoid admitting they’re cursed together, and then it’ll be an episodic caper, then a spy showdown, then a political allegory about how imbalanced power dynamics shape relationships.

The answer to the question “What is Scandal doing?” is that it’s doing all of these things, all of them, all the time. The word “messy” was thrown around a lot to describe season three, but season four is equally messy, but in a method-to-the-madness kind of way, and a way that portends Scandal’s future. Those fits, starts and patches of boredom that characterized the beginning of the season? Those are probably here to stay. It’s impossible to do what Scandal is trying to do at a consistent level; it’ll always be prone to extreme peaks and troughs, and the same qualities that make it maddening will just as often make it brilliant. A Rowan monologue will be dazzling one minute and tiresome the next. Quinn will be a badass, then she’ll be leaden. Olivia’s relationships will seem insane, then seem genuine. The target will always move.

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But “Where The Sun Don’t Shine” justifies the patience it takes it get to it. It’s an hour of television that succeeds, again and again, in spite of itself, generating enough pathos to spackle over its narrative gaps. It’s scene after scene of goofy nonsense that, through sheer force of will, manages not to be goofy nonsense. It’s purely entertaining, even when it’s pointing a Klieg light at Scandal’s biggest story problems. To stick with Scandal for the long haul will mean accepting that an episode like “Where The Sun Don’t Shine” is the reward for riding out the weeks in which it feels like the show is actively trying to alienate you.

This episode is the clear frontrunner for Kerry Washington’s Emmy submission, if only because of how many different emotions Olivia goes through, all of which Washington credibly sells. Olivia’s in control with Maya, out of control with Rowan, magnanimous with Abby, a dispenser of tough love with Cyrus and a flirty party girl with Jake. And by the masterful cliffhanger, she’s missing, leaving behind only a spilled glass of her most beloved red wine. It’s quite the spectrum of scenes, and indicative of just how hard this episode mashes the gas pedal.

If nothing else, “Where The Sun Don’t Shine” neutralizes Rowan Pope, at least temporarily. Olivia’s aim was to kill him, but given what an outsized presence Joe Morton has become on the show, I’m not surprised by the writers’ decision to leave Rowan in the wind instead. The important thing now is that Rowan is nowhere to be found, and B-613 is nothing more than an empty paper company and a few decks of the world’s creepiest playing cards. But Morton gets one hell of a send off, appearing in Olivia’s apartment to intimidate her into loving him one last time, this time using Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key Of Life to force her into sharing one of his charming memories of fatherhood. But it’s Olivia’s turn to set the agenda, and though Rowan uses his unloaded gun to trick Olivia into a loyalty test, her choice to pull the trigger still communicates how she feels about him in a way she’s never been able to. It would have been an ideal moment to kill Rowan off, given that as impregnable as he seemed by the end of “The Last Supper,” it’s still believable that Olivia would remain Rowan’s weak spot, and the only person capable of getting the jump on him. For now, the stinging rebuke will suffice.

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For once, a Scandal episode wasn’t all about the Rowan monologues, it was about the Olivia monologues. The most significant of them—hence the #WhoAreYouCy hashtag—is the speech in which Olivia lights a fire under a defeated Cyrus, whose pride won’t allow him to save his career by literally getting into bed with Michael. Olivia’s halftime pep talk isn’t without its problematic beats—particularly the schoolyard repartee about Cyrus proving he’s not a “bitch baby.” But Cyrus’ navigation through his sex scandal ends on a note of triumph, with Cyrus, Fitz and Abby celebrating the victory as Olivia chooses not to join them, a shrewd decision to quell negative feelings about her diminished role in Fitz’s day-to-day life by focusing on how happy Abby is in her place.

The Cyrus plot exemplifies what makes “Sun Don’t Shine” such an impressive outing. The facts of it are as disappointing and sad as one can imagine, but somehow Scandal creates satisfying television out of a man’s choice to enter into a convenience wedding to silence the prostitute who colluded to ruin his life. So much of the episode works when it shouldn’t. Fitz reluctantly allows Cyrus to resign in a scene more emotionally rich than it should be considering both men are basically monsters. Even Quinn is in top form, and while the Charlie sex is irritating, it leads to them beating the crap out of each other while “Endless Love” plays, a near-replica of the scene in “The Key” in which Fitz pummels Jake to the tune of “Lovely Day,” except this scene mostly works and that one mostly doesn’t. Even the Huck stuff feels better than usual, with the B-613 files available to at least prove what he’s been through, if not win back his family.

The central mystery involving Kubiak, North and Nichols is tied together in a relatively deft manner. If I rewatch these episodes, will it make sense to me that what began as an illicit, treasonous relationship between the vice president and African terrorists led to a teenage girl dry-swallowing a locker key, an innocent woman in jail, and the president begging mercy from his second-in-command? I’d imagine no. But the episode ended up in an interesting place despite the route it took, and it’ll certainly bring Scandal’s fans back in January to find out where Olivia is. That’s a feat I wouldn’t have been confident the show could achieve when the season began, but “Where The Sun Don’t Shine” proves that when it’s firing on all cylinders, Scandal still does fun-crazy better than any other show. It just might always be a show that feels as if its lurching from one six-episode order to the next, never clear on when the network will pull the plug. That will have to be enough.

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Stray observations:

  • I gotta say, that much Maya and Rowan in one episode was too much for me. There’s a lot that puts me off about the combination of the two, but the main issue is when Olivia is on screen she feels like flesh and blood, and when Maya and Rowan are on screen, they feel like random collections of villainous traits and psychiatric maladies. As impassioned as Rowan’s speech was, neither he nor Maya have been fleshed out enough to seem like they are the people who conceived Olivia. It also feels like overkill for both of Liv’s parents to be this supremely fucked up. Is it unreasonable to want Olivia to have one half-normal formative relationship?
  • That said: “Girl, you need to move on.” As soon as Khandi Alexander spoke those words, the GIF appeared ex nihilo like the videotape in The Ring. Hell, it might be on your phone without your memory of putting it there. You should check.
  • David Rosen has gone back to being a non-entity again, but it was hard not to feel for the guy as he deposed his girlfriend about her infidelity.
  • “I’m not choosing. I’m not choosing Jake. I’m not choosing Fitz. I choose me. I’m choosing Olivia. And right now, Olivia is dancing … Now you can dance with me, or you can get off my dance floor. I’m fine dancing alone.” You most certainly are, Olivia Pope.
  • With that tight shot on Jake near the end, I thought it was his time to go. I still think it was his time, but the cliffhanger worked, so that’s another story problem for another time.
  • A quibble: I groaned super hard when Charlie spoke again about “switching the B-613 files for blanks.” That didn’t mean anything the first time and doesn’t mean anything now. What agency would be so paranoid as to want all its former agents murdered to tie up loose ends, but think the best treatment for its incriminating files is assigning an underling to move them someplace else?
  • Mellie’s back!

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