It’s far too early to make such a declaration, given this show’s inconsistent history, but what the hell: The Scandal renaissance is upon us.
“Hardball” is the most fun Scandal has been since at least early season three and possibly longer. To talk about what this episode has going for it requires talking about what’s missing from it. Jake Ballard, who got two glimpses of screen time in the season premiere, is still off in his own world. He’s married, though I can’t imagine happily, and doing his plum job as the head of the NSA. That new gig gives him a logical path into each episode for a couple of brief scenes, but his volume has been turned way down. Eli Pope spends the entire episode on the bench, as does Elizabeth North, who has yet to appear this season. The sitting vice-president, easily the best component of season five, is also yet unaccounted for.
This is important to note because Scandal has had an overpopulation problem for years now, and there are still characters who can go missing for two episodes without consequence. (Sorry, Susan.) “Hardball” serves as a testament to how awesome this show can be when it’s pared down to its most essential elements, when it has the intimacy of a dysfunctional family rather than the impersonality of a broken bureaucracy. The episode has everything that made Scandal what it was at its peak: forbidden romance, horrifying betrayals, a killer cliffhanger, and more shade than an underwater cave. Most amazing of all is the fact that Shonda Rhimes and her team concocted this intoxicating new formula from ingredients already in the cupboard. On top of all that, Scandal still somehow manages to draw resonant parallels with real-world politics in a climate so unpredictable even South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone were left flat-footed.
Among the smart decisions in “Hardball,” perhaps the smartest, is sticking with the dual timeline structure. On a practical level, it makes me more patient about the elements that felt confusing in the season premiere, such as Marcus’s sudden proximity and access to the White House relative to Olivia. Apparently Marcus is now the White House press secretary, and the story of how he got that job hits on Scandal’s most durable themes, like the personal toll of political power and the ugly face of pragmatism. These characters have spent so much of their adult lives focused on results that they’ve almost lost the ability to consider the wisdom of their tactics.
For Olivia Pope, the desired result is to avert the Cyrus Beene presidency, even if it means overturning a 228-year-old apple cart. After openly declaring war on Cyrus, Olivia takes her admittedly thin case to Fitz, but his sole priorities are projecting stability to the world and facilitating the peaceful transfer of power. Just as Barack Obama was criticized for keeping mum on the reports of Russian hacking during the election, Fitz is taking criticism for handing the reins of power to Cyrus despite being all too familiar with the man’s brutal efficiency. Abby, as his chief of staff, is doing everything in her power to vault Cyrus into the Oval Office, hoping that executing the current president’s vision will bode well on her relationship with the incoming president. In Abby’s case, doing what must be done includes framing a man for assassinating the president-elect.
Jake makes his brief appearance in an unofficial capacity, not as the head of the NSA but as the human cure for pee shyness. Nelson McClintock, the designated patsy for Vargas’s murder, insists he had nothing to do with the assassination despite some incriminating comments on white nationalist Twitter. He only changes his mind when Jake, at Abby’s request, has a B-613-style conversation with him. It’s clear McClintock’s signature on the written confession was offered less than freely when he’s found in the interrogation room after Jake’s visit, quivering in a puddle of his own urine. Olivia confronts Abby about the coerced confession, and Abby makes an oblique reference to an earlier incident in which Olivia made a terrible choice to accomplish her goal. These people have done so many unconscionable things, they could have been talking about just any of them. (Olivia’s chair tantrum with Andrew Nichols comes to mind.)
Abby’s actually talking about Mellie and Marcus, whose relationship is finally laid out in charming flashbacks. Olivia saw the chemistry long before Mellie and Marcus had acknowledged it and tried to warn Mellie, lest she make the same potentially career-ending mistake with Marcus that Fitz made with Olivia. Naturally, the warning only made the sex that much hotter when M&M finally gave into the tension between them. Mellie confesses to Olivia because she simply can’t stop smiling, and the scene reveals a side of her we’ve never really seen. She admits she’s never been in love before and only now realizes what she was missing in her marriage to Fitz. Kerry Washington and Bellamy Young play the emotionally complex scene beautifully. But the gossip session turns sinister when Olivia plants seeds of doubt about Marcus’s true intentions. As a woman who spent years in a loveless marriage about to jumpstart her own political ambitions, Mellie doesn’t need much to be convinced that Marcus’s motives may not be pure.
Scandal has long excelled at contrasting the current chaos with simpler times, as in the classic episode “Happy Birthday Mr. President,” which juxtaposes the drama around a critically wounded Fitz and flashbacks from Fitz and Olivia’s love affair. The romance between Marcus and Mellie has the same dynamic, and is every bit as irresistible. The couple bonds through mutual admiration, shared goals, and the esprit de corps that grows naturally out of political campaigns. Marcus and Mellie both know a relationship between them is potentially disastrous, but they can’t help themselves. They’re not quite as shippable as Olivia and Fitz were in their prime, if only because they were written together well into the story rather than being originally conceived as an endgame couple. But man, they are too cute together and their pairing redeems both characters.
Mellie finds out the truth of Marcus’s new job at the White House, which was arranged with Abby’s help so Mellie would see him as a climber and end their relationship. Mellie plays right into Olivia’s hands, which she initially resents, but after getting a whiff of the Oval Office, she’s reminded of what she wants most of all. She doesn’t want a simple life with Marcus, whatever their version of “making jam in Vermont” would be. She certainly doesn’t want to play second fiddle to Cyrus, who tried to woo her into the vice-presidency. She wants to control the levers of power, no matter the consequences. Hopefully, spending more time with Olivia will help Mellie realize that there is such a thing as a price too great to pay for success.