'Scandal' recap - Olivia tries to defuse a situation in 'Mrs. Smith Goes To Washington'
A strong but imperfect hour shows some cracks in the show's seams
Hey everyone, this is Ryan McGee filling in for Liane tonight. She’s off doing some deep investigative work about Operation Remington, and I’m holding down the fort in her absence…
I’ve of two minds about tonight’s episode of “Scandal,” and the beauty of reviewing the installment instantly in the aftermath of it airing is that I can work out how to balance those two views in real time while I type. “Mrs. Smith Goes To Washington” was in many ways vintage “Scandal”: breathless pacing, plenty of twists and turns, and had progression on the latest serialized arc. On top of that, it featured at least two scenes that can go into the show’s all-time pantheon. So what’s preventing this episode from being an unfettered classic?
The problem areas stem from the episode’s procedural aspects, which in the best of times augment the ongoing narrative on at least a thematic level. But tonight, the amount of time spent on the mother of a CIA agent falsely accused of being a terrorist felt more like padding than necessary storytelling. To be sure, the plot in and of itself was well-done. But it also existed inside the total world of “Scandal”, and as such stole oxygen from several ongoing storylines that got comparatively short shrift. It’s one thing to acknowledge that the Eli Pope/Jake Ballard material has at least a half season to play out. But given the way last week’s episode ended, it’s odd to make those storylines relative afterthoughts this time around.
Again: it’s not a HUGE problem overall, but one that had me staring at my watch every time FBI Agent Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson, of “Ghostbusters” fame) negotiated terms with Olivia Pope and her newest client. It’s not that the negotiations were unrealistic that made them problematic, but rather that they were uninteresting. The problem with procedural storylines such as this is that they ask the audience to make a great emotional leap with characters over a short amount of time. On occasion, given the actor in question or the quality of the material, a one-time character can elicit just as much emotion as any regular participant in a show’s world. But neither was quite solid enough to warrant much emotional involvement. And when you’re not emotionally involved in “Scandal”, the histrionics embedded in the show’s DNA are suddenly slightly unpleasant.
Luckily, there was a ton of strong material on the periphery of this plot line. Even if things inside Representative Jim Struthers’ office were sometimes less-than-stellar, the situation did lead to some great scenes outside those confines. After all, a procedural storyline inside a serialized show can force recurring players to make hard choices in difficult circumstances. Those choices inform character, and help shape our understanding of their morals and motivations. In the case of David Rosen, we got a crackerjack scene in which he faces off with Cyrus Beene. Cy assumed that David would be a quiet lapdog in the aftermath of being rehired. But while David still fundamentally not on Olivia’s side, he hates the thought of being bullied into action (or inaction) even more. Josh Malina and James Perry haven’t gotten a lot of screentime together during the show’s short run, but their pairing tonight suggests that should change henceforth.
But the emotional highlight of the show had to be a hooched-up Mellie Grant, speaking truth to power as she verbally undressed her husband for what feels like the fifteenth time since the middle of the Defiance arc. It was boozy, brilliant stuff spoken by a woman with nothing to lose and actress who grows in strength and confidence with each episode. Yet these torrential streams of insults never feel repetitive. Instead, they feel refined. Depending on what point in the show’s run you are, the dynamics between the primary players in the show can be wildly different. However, a force not unlike gravity holds them all together. But instead of the sun keeping these people in orbit, it’s a cocktail of jealousy, misery, rage, lust, compassion, disgust, loyalty, patriotism, and egotism than manipulated the relative position of these less-than-noble stars with such speed that at best they can do is hold onto something solid and pray they don’t get sent off into the cold, dark reaches of space.
Or, to bring things back to things more familiar in the world of “Scandal,” the cold, dark hole of a B613 prison cell.
Eli Pope (I’m going with the name on Olivia’s cell here) is way too powerful an adversary to take seriously at this point, but that’s primarily a function of our time in the overall serialization. The trouble with looking at shows on a weekly basis can be that you don’t get to see the full story play out. What looks like overwhelming omnipotence now eventually appear as a necessary phase to make Olivia’s later victory seem that much sweeter. So that’s fine. What’s less fine is bracketing his storyline with Operation Remington, Huck, and Jake off at a time when “Scandal” had perfectly set up a deep dive into this particular part of the world. The show has been so good for long at balancing proper pacing with rigorous season-long structure that it’s strange to see this slight misstep this week.
It’s a misstep for three reasons. One, we didn’t really learn a meaningful thing about Operation Remington. We did learn that there are people who are being paid to keep quiet about something Fitz did overseas. But we could already surmise that. Second, it instantly sidelined Jake after dramatically reintroducing him last week. Third, Huck’s inability to kill Eli felt like the show taking the easy way out, rather than something organic to Huck’s character. “Scandal” is obsessed with the idea that people are under the sway of certain others, and that sway is so powerful that normally rational people do irrational things because sometimes that’s just how the world works. That makes sense for the show to deploy on a micro level: Fitz and Olivia bring out the best/worst in each other, and that’s a fair representation of the kind of gravitational energy described above. But if half the show is in hopeless sway to one guy we barely know anything about, then such operatic emotion turned into white noise rather than glorious song. On top of that, it frees Olivia from some responsibility: sure, maybe Eli helped train Huck to be a killer. But she rereleased that demon back in season one, allowed it to infect Quinn, and now can’t control two of her employees. The show wants to make Eli the puppetmaster, but there is more than one person pulling the strings on this show. Putting all the sins on him absolves those who are far from innocents themselves. The white hat can function as a representation. But it’s far more fascinating as a disguise.
A few odds and ends…
· Given the show’s tenuous relationship with our reality on this side of the television, it was jarring to hear the show reference the Boston Marathon bombings.
· As cheesy as some of the bombing scenes were, seeing Olivia Pope open the curtains to have a half-dozen sniper rifle lasers trained on her was pretty boss.
· “Baby Huck’s choking.” There’s still way, way, way too little Harrison/Abby/Quinn stuff at this point. But that was hysterical, and also makes me hope that “Scandal Babies” will debut as a half-hour sitcom after ABC cancels “The Neighbors”.
· I’d give David Rosen’s speech to Abby concerning Olivia being her own worst enemy more weight if I thought the show actually believed it. But it’s unclear just how ironic the white hat she wears on this show truly is.
What did everyone else think about this episode? Sound off below!