There’s something weird about the phrase “Scandal’s alternate-universe episode.” Scandal is already a bizarro world unto itself: In the Scandal timeline, the Barack Obama presidency never happened and Fitzgerald Grant is the 44th U.S. president. Grant’s vice-president stabbed her husband to death for having an affair with a man. Now she’s the Scandalverse’s answer to Bill O’Reilly, and meanwhile the show’s Donald Trump analog was shamed out of the public eye. It’s sort of odd to do an alternate-universe episode of a show that’s decidedly untethered from reality as it is.
That said, I mostly enjoyed watching “The Decision,” but I have a feeling I’d better enjoy hearing the writers room conversation about doing the episode. Because honestly, the arguments against doing an episode like this easily outnumber the sole argument for it, which is, “Well, an hour of television ain’t gonna fill itself.”
The story is weirdly old-fashioned, and I can’t remember the last time I saw this device outside of a late-’80s multicamera sitcom. This is not the typical use of a dream state in dramatic storytelling, in which the audience doesn’t find out the character is dreaming until or slightly before the character does. In this setup, we know from the outset that Olivia is dreaming because, as she, Fitz, and Jake argue about what to do about the newly exposed conspiracy, Olivia thinks back to Defiance, Ohio. Jake thinks there’s no real difference between rigging one presidential election and rigging two, and wants to let Mellie sail into the White House.
Olivia resists, then makes her decision while reflecting on her role in the rigged election that put Fitz in the most powerful office in the world. So from the outset, the audience knows nothing they’re about to see is real. I’m pretty sure that the last time I saw a full-length fantasy sequence in a television show, it was in an episode of Webster where Ma’am and George told Webster not to eat junk food before bed and he did it anyway. There might have been singing dental cavities, but I’m sketchy on the details and might be making the entire thing up.
To be fair, “The Decision” has just as much whimsy as any Webster episode. It’s almost like the dramatic equivalent of The Office’s “Threat Level Midnight.” Like that episode, “The Decision” is pure, wacky fan service that pisses you off by existing, then beats you into submission with winking references and unconscionable yet hilarious character pairings. Just when you think “The Decision” has gone as topsy-turvy as it possibly can, there’s another weird, gross hook-up waiting around the bend.
In the alternaverse, Olivia refuses to enter the blood pact with the rest of Fitz’s handlers, so the election goes to Fitz’s opponent. Olivia is heartbroken, but more about the election than the implicit end of her affair with Fitz. She heads back to D.C. for her next project, a criminal-justice reform bill with an up-and-coming community activist by the name of Marcus Walker. But Fitz isn’t ready to give up on their relationship, so he separates from Mellie and immediately asks Olivia to marry him. Kerry Washington and Tony Goldwyn have screen chemistry so phenomenal, Shonda Rhimes tilted the entire show in their direction. To see them taking another run at the early days of Liv and Fitz is to be reminded why Scandal became The Olitz Show to begin with.
But, as Ashton Kutcher taught us all in The Butterfly Effect (but not in its many straight-to-DVD sequels), every choice creates a ripple effect with unforeseeable consequences. In this case, the consequence is being forced to watch Mellie and Cyrus kiss. A forlorn Mellie shows up to the church where Fitz and Olivia are getting married, and Cyrus spots her and takes her to drink her sorrows away. As they drink, he gives her the perfunctory “Mr. Right is out there” pep talk, but does such a good job of selling it, she decides maybe Cyrus is the right man for her. And I guess that, from Mellie’s perspective, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. If Fitz can run off with a campaign official, so can she.
Fitz and Olivia’s relationship hits the skids, albeit for reasons different from the ones that doomed their relationship when Olivia was dating President Fitz. Alterna-Fitz becomes the new darling of primetime cable news and slowly dies inside as he becomes a corporate sock puppet. In fact, to goose The Grant Report’s flagging ratings, Fitz is forced to interview Lindsay Dwyer, better known as Lindsay D. from The Prince, a Bachelor-style reality dating competition. (Lest we forget, without Defiance there is no Quinn Perkins.) Liv considers divorcing Fitz — not because he didn’t win the presidency, but because losing the presidency sapped his passion. The power is sexy, but the passion and drive it takes to get to the Oval Office are still sexy even if you never get there.
Alterna-Liv comes to her senses after Fitz tells her he knows he’s let her down and wants to be better for her. And back in the realish world, Olivia realizes that, for her, all roads will always lead back to Fitz. At least that’s what it seems like she realized. It’s hard to guess the lasting significance of an episode in which Rowan goes around introducing himself as Damascus Bainbridge and Quinn gives Fitz oral sex in a dressing room. But the camera pulled back to show Liv and Fitz framed by the White House’s columns, as it always does when it’s time for those two crazy kids to get horizontal again. If that’s the case, I predict Fitz will develop his own complicated relationship with the intelligence community.
If there’s a time to try something goofy like this, the 100th episode seems like a reasonable place to do it. My biggest concern going in was that the episode would make me long for old-school Scandal, and it did. The Defiance storyline remains Scandal’s high-water mark, and it was fun to revisit that period and watch a new aftermath unfold, even if it was all make-believe. Plus, the episode proves that different isn’t always better — I never, ever want to see Cyrus and Mellie kiss again.