The ShondaLand empire operates on a central principle: If you’re an actor, and Shonda Rhimes digs you as a person, she will go to great lengths to keep you employed. She has admitted as much in interviews and in her memoir, and her shows bear it out. Ellen Pompeo has been on Grey’s Anatomy for so long, had she been appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court rather than installed as the chief moxie officer at Seattle Grace, she would technically have seniority over Chief Justice John Roberts. Meanwhile, McDreamy was unceremoniously mowed down in the street because Patrick Dempsey reportedly got beside himself, and there’s now an urban legend among showrunners about what happens if you say the name “Katherine Heigl” three times in front of the mirror.
Scandal has followed a similar pattern, where the story is bent around the group of actors Rhimes most wants to work with, rather than focusing on the characters and story elements that work best. Columbus Short got canned after season two, following some admittedly alarming behavior that suggested Harrison Wright shouldn’t be his biggest focus at the moment. And yet, Harrison was one of Scandal’s best characters, an Olivia Pope loyalist with an uncommon talent for calling Olivia on her bullshit and an intriguingly thin backstory. Short’s personal issues notwithstanding, there was plenty of story to tell with Harrison Wright.
Rhimes’s loyalty and insistence on maintaining a troupe of performers she likes is relatable and endearing in a “Celebrities … they’re just like us!” kind of way. But as a practical matter, the Rhimes approach to character longevity has had a destructive impact on her most popular shows. Grey’s Anatomy fans threatened to revolt over the McDreamy nightmare, but that show has still reached its 13th season because it’s designed to withstand constant cast churn. Scandal isn’t a workplace drama with episodic stories and built-in stakes. It’s a much more precise recipe than Grey’s, and it’s packed with whiplash twists and plotlines designed to shock without alienating.
Which brings us to “Extinction,” an episode conceived as though Scandal were a completely different kind of show, the kind of show that could stay on for 13 seasons by ignoring large chunks of each character’s history. Remember when Sally Langston used to be the vice president? Seems like a million years ago, but she was second-in-command under Fitz. She murdered her secretly gay husband in a fit of righteous rage — yada yada yada — now she’s a darling of conservative cable news and Scandal’s preferred vessel for exposition dumps. Jake has seemed like a dead man walking for several seasons, with little connection to the characters that matter and such baggage as murdering Cyrus’s husband for some reason I can’t even begin to remember at this point. Now he’s maybe the vice president, but definitely an assassin and probably still a spy of some kind, I suppose.
Keeping many of Scandal’s central characters requiring constantly conceiving and reconceiving them, and “Extinction” brings the same treatment to Eli Pope, who for reasons I still don’t quite understand, was made a regular cast member at the end of season four. Eli is the very definition of an ingredient best used sparingly. Granted, Joe Morton is a treasure, and once was one of Scandal’s power players. Morton commits fully to whatever goofy nonsense is put in front of him, and there’s no combination of words he can’t transform into Euripides through sheer will. But the character spent so much time as a mustache twirling supervillain, there’s no other way to utilize him without throwing the entire show out of whack.
Notice how the flashback format that’s worked so effectively for the rest of the season suddenly doesn’t when it’s a flashback about Eli Pope, who is either a doting daddy, a soulless operator, or a paleontology geek depending on what each scene calls for. Apparently, he’s mostly a paleontology geek, an interest that has kept his attention since he retired from B613 or however that whole thing went down. He gets sucked deeper into his hobby upon the reappearance of Sandra, one of his former love interests who shares his passion for microscopes and dinosaur bones. She approaches him with the opportunity to study fossils as part of a research program, and Eli accepts, if only because it offers him the chance to wax nostalgic about a more romantic, less bloody time in his life.
But old instincts die hard, so it’s not long before Eli discovers a hidden surveillance camera in the research facility and realizes his old flame is trying to burn him. Eli, ever the cynic, corners Sandra in a closet, points a gun at her jugular, and finds out everything she knows, which isn’t much. A shadowy group of evil movers and shakers threatened to kill her unless she seduced Eli with sweet nothings and Brontosaurus mandibles. She didn’t want to do it, but had no other choice. When Eli confronts the cabal — which includes the still unnamed Zoe Perry character — they make their demand: They want Eli to ensure, by any means necessary, that Mellie Grant becomes the next president.
The thing is, wasn’t Eli already working on that? Last season’s Jake-centric mystery was around why he wanted to marry Vanessa, which was all about gaining access to Vanessa’s family fortune by killing her father, then installing Jake as the head of the NSA. Jake’s addition to Mellie’s ticket was framed as the ideal set of circumstances for Eli, whose endgame remained unclear. But according to “Extinction,” Eli’s plan to get Jake into the West Wing wasn’t because of whatever opaque plan he was already brewing up, but because Scandal’s latest illuminati suddenly decided to threaten an old romantic interest who was completely unknown until this episode. No. Just no. It’s a completely unnecessary layer of the story.
Nevertheless, Eli commits to rigging election machines and doing whatever other skullduggery will ensure a Mellie Grant victory — and when Mellie loses the election anyway, he does the wet work himself. What once looked like an attack from a sniper posted miles away was actually from Eli himself, who positioned himself under the stage during Vargas’s acceptance speech. Eli was the shooter, and framing Cyrus for the murder was part of the plan from its outset. The whole plotline essentially swaps out one B613 for another, and Scandal is at its worst when the biggest threat comes from some all-powerful, ill-defined group of corporate baddies.
The biggest twist of all comes when Eli’s new supervisors tell him they have more jobs for him, as if murdering the president-elect isn’t enough. Eli lashes out in rage, and they tell him as long as they know he cares about Sandra, they’ll be able to operate him like a puppet. Eli shoots Sandra in the middle of the forehead, which is bittersweet, since it at least it ensures no more post-coital Eli shots. But ultimately, all “Extinction” does is make me wish Scandal had the same killer instinct. Eli nearly ruined this show, but instead of sidelining him, Rhimes promoted him, and he’s been a drag ever since. Now, because Eli is apparently a nonnegotiable part of this show, we’re stuck with the storytelling that nearly destroyed Scandal. There’s still a solid show somewhere within this mess, but instead of helping to excavate it, Eli does nothing but dump more dirt on top of it.