So this is what Tom Larsen meant when he told Cyrus that there are fates worse than death. At the time, it seemed like a bit of a cop out, a way for the show to swerve at the last minute rather than kill off a foundational character. But seeing what Cyrus goes through, at least at the beginning of “The Belt,” makes clear what Scandal’s ride-or-die bottom scorned had in mind for his silver-fox Svengali.
Granted, it’s not unusual for a TV show to overdo the traumatic prison intake scene, complete with hard-charging guards and dehumanizing, cavity checks. But given Cyrus’s attraction to power — specifically the comfort and decadence it enables — it’s awfully tough to watch him bounced down from the presumptive president to just another mentally deteriorating inmate.
Unfortunately, “The Belt,” which is easily the weakest episode of the new season, feels a little too much like being trapped behind bars with him. Not much of anything happens, character motivations are unclear, and valuable time is dumped into scenes that don’t feel worth the investment. Cyrus’s cage-based exercise regimen becomes its own metaphor for the experience of watching the episode, which feels much like walking around in circles for an hour, getting ever dizzier but never seeing anything new.
Once Cyrus is processed and settled into his new home, he meets his across-the-hall neighbor, a bargain-brand Hannibal Lecter who ate his mother and sister, but spared the family dog. I don’t know if Cyrus’s long-distance cellie was supposed to be scary, but he cracked me up. Scandal is a show all about quiet menace, how the most horrific agendas are hidden behind bright smiles and fine linens. Cyrus is far more terrifying than some corny dude who acts like he immigrated to this narrative universe after fleeing a Dexter webisode circa 2010. At least he’s good for information, telling Cyrus that while he can’t get the paper and pen he desperately wants, he can get him a belt to hang himself with. (That’s not prison-speak equivalent of “delete your account” — he’s quite serious.)
The paper and pen are meant for a love letter to Tom, which Cyrus hopes will convince him to come clean and admit Cyrus wasn’t involved in the murder of Frankie Vargas. It’s an awfully stupid plan, and what’s most irritating about “The Belt” is how the mechanics of the plot resemble Scandal at its worst. Characters become purely functional and are forced to move the story from point A to point B with little insight into what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. Abby, for unclear reasons and against the president’s wishes, demands David Rosen and FBI Director Rebound Chick take the death penalty off the table for Cyrus’s prosecution. Then Abby asks Elizabeth to deliver the news in person, because I guess this prison doesn’t have phones, and Elizabeth agrees to deliver his mushy mea culpa letter to Tom once he can get it drafted.
So yeah, most of the episode consists of Cyrus trying to obtain office supplies and walking around in circles. Meanwhile, the happy warriors of Olivia Pope and Associates are trying to nail down Tom’s involvement in Vargas’s murder, lest Mellie (who has taken up celebratory twerking) be disappointed yet again. On one hand, I understand why Olivia or anybody else would react to the sight of Mellie twerking by immediately doing everything within their power to prolong said twerking. But when she uses Dancing Mellie to rally the troops, it’s a pretty desperate attempt to insert urgency into an episode that completely lacks it. When the final moments come, and Scandal cuts between simultaneous reveals, one of those reveals is the image of Tom going through a fast-food drive-through. Okay, so Tom is innocent, but was a surveillance shot of him at Cook Out the best way to represent that visually?
The other scene in the final montage is a bizarre prison hit on Tom featuring Cyrus, his murderous new prison pal, and a shady guard. In the lead-up to the scene, Cyrus finally gets his office supplies and writes a love letter of the ages, which I assume is akin to Richard Burton’s letters to Elizabeth Taylor — if those were cryptic, vaguely threatening, and heavily redacted. Instead of carrying the message to Tom, she gives the letters to Cyrus’s husband, who is understandably pissed over Cyrus’s fickle ways. He tries to call Olivia, having finally found the phones in the prison, but she won’t speak to him, and won’t believe he’s innocent. Defeated, Cyrus catches a break when he’s offered some much needed fresh air, but it’s an ambush. He gets beaten to a pulp by a mob of inmates who either want bragging rights or don’t take indirect voter disenfranchisement lightly.
Cyrus disappears into a dream sequence that is brutally long and not the least bit believable. I’d have loved more time with Abby, or more than a check-in with Fitz and FBI Director New Bae. Instead, there’s a fantasy sequence of Cyrus waking up in the hospital and being told that the presidency is his reward for getting whooped on in prison. It would have been a ridiculous direction for the story, so at least it was a dream, but what a ridiculous way to pace an episode. The tantalizing flashback structure from the first three episodes was so strong, it might’ve suggested an overall sturdiness that the show doesn’t have. Without two timelines, there’s a lot of time to fill and “The Belt” feels padded.
Scandal’s off the calendar for three weeks, and I can’t help thinking ABC’s publicity department didn’t do the show any favors. There’s not much of a cliffhanger here, and all the crowing about how this episode would feature a shocking twist made it super disappointing when no such twist turned up. The only twist, if you can even call it that, is the confirmation that Cyrus is actually innocent. Not just that he didn’t pull the trigger, but that he genuinely didn’t want Tom to assassinate Vargas and was tortured by the idea that he might have tacitly ordered the hit. How nice for Cyrus to have that one thing off his conscience.