“Survival of the Fittest” had to do more than act as a refresher for those who, understandably, might have forgotten the finer details of Scandal’s fifth season, which now feels like a distant, sepia-toned memory. The season premiere had to reset the entire chessboard, not to mention lay down the ground rules for a narrative world that now bears even less resemblance to real-life politics.
Let’s not forget, Scandal already told the story of Hollis Doyle, the counterfeit Donald Trump whose presidential bid was undone last season when he admitted to manipulating his supporters’ worst impulses. President Trump himself has admitted that his campaign-trail threats to jail his opponent were just chunks of red meat thrown to the werewolves of London, Ohio, so it’s painfully clear that Scandal may not even be able to stick to the basics of the real political climate.
That’s actually a good thing, because Scandal has shown time and again that it’s a better television show when it’s about politicians, but not really about politics. Politicians make amazing characters in a nighttime soap, because they’re only beholden to their own ambition and will gladly vanquish anything blocking their path to what they want. Season five was admirable for its efforts to mimic real-world events, but for a left-leaning political soap opera, now is probably the time for more escapist nonsense than topical commentary. Sure enough, there’s a massive explosion and an assassination of a president-elect within the first third of this season premiere. Scandal’s back, y’all! And to think I was worried I wouldn’t get to mark the “romantic gesture while holding a charred body part” square on my Scandal bingo card.
The charred body part is a souvenir from Huck and Quinn’s trip to the woods, where they attempt to locate a Democratic staffer who has mysteriously dropped off the grid. Shonda Rhimes’s script drops in on the Sam and Diane of torture-for-hire before flashing back to the previous night, when Mellie loses the election to Frankie Vargas. It’s a complete shocker to Team Mellie — or, as a cable news anchor puts it, “After one of the greatest setbacks in political history, Frankie Vargas, the comeback king, has done the unthinkable.” Okay, on second thought, there’s a little bit of topical commentary.
Bellamy Young is Scandal’s unsung hero, and she starts out the season with a killer performance as Mellie tries to make the hardest phone call of her life. The concession call is one of the most fascinating aspects of election night, and “Survival” fleshes it out in an interesting way, with a nearly catatonic Mellie going through the motions as Olivia does her best impression of “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” After initially pledging to fight Vargas to the end, Mellie concedes, then winds up drinking a bottle of champagne in the bathtub. Of course, the night is just getting started: After a scene in the White House situation room offers murky details about a “shooter,” we learn that Vargas was hit multiple times by a sniper. The president-elect is dead. Given the events of the past few hours, it’s no surprise Mellie struggles to put on her game face after Olivia delivers the bombshell news to her. “I’m done running for president,” Mellie says. “Well, I’m not!” Olivia spits back.
For Olivia, it’s no longer about the election returning her to the nexus of power. It’s a simple matter of right versus wrong, and as someone who inhabits an all-gray world, Olivia will always jump at a chance to wear the white hat, if only for a moment. Hell hath no fury like Olivia with a bone, and Cyrus has thrown her the equivalent of a giraffe femur. Cyrus is always in the midst of some needlessly complex, morally repugnant scheme, so it only makes sense to suspect he’s the one most likely to take out the man standing between him and the presidency. Of course, Eli is also one of the usual suspects, but he makes clear to Olivia that, while he could have killed Vargas (and considered doing so), he thought better of it. Speaking of Eli, I’m starting to think the retirement life is wearing him down and he needs a new focus. Olivia’s right to choose trumps all else, but I can’t help but wonder if Eli’s evil would’ve been neutralized by giving the dude a grandkid to dote after.
Once Olivia has become convinced of Cyrus’s involvement in the assassination plot, she goes on the warpath, because she can’t stand to idle. She certainly can’t stand to leave the decision solely to Fitz, who is too close to all parties involved to make a reasonable decision. Olivia tries to sway her ex-boyfriend, but he defies her wishes and entrusts the presidency to Cyrus after making him promise he won’t be all super-evil. Good luck with that!
Without any proof of Cyrus’s involvement in Vargas’s death, Fitz concludes that it makes sense to honor the succession plan that would have been followed had Vargas not been assassinated. Of course, it’s also a boon to Fitz’s long game to win Olivia back if he keeps her as far away from the White House as possible. (At least as far away as Vermont.) After initially being swayed by Cyrus’s performance as a shell-shocked trauma victim, however, the OPA team uncovers a missing voicemail that had been deleted from the assassination tipline — and it came from that missing Democratic staffer. “It was Cyrus Beene,” the whistleblower says, without elaborating. Olivia races over to the White House to deliver a scathing whisper-threat to Cyrus: She knows he’s involved and is ready to prove it. Then she walks away, her hair bouncy as ever.
“President Beene” doesn’t sound any less weird the more times you say it, and it might take a while to get used to this storyline. But casting Cyrus as Scandal’s new Über-villain is a fun and clever idea that puts the show back on solid footing after several seasons lost in the weeds with B613. It also gives the narrative a sense of focus that got lost with all the attention on Fitz and Olivia’s relationship. Scandal suddenly feels like its old self again, so grab your best red wine and worst buttered popcorn. It’s time to party Olivia Pope-style.