These days, the best way to watch Scandal is pretending it’s a scripted reality series with governance and gunplay — The Real Housewives of the Imperial Presidency. The show is a lot more fun that way, and honestly, that’s about the only way to make it track logically. This is not a group of characters with organically formed relationships and ample motivation to overlook one another’s shortcomings and slights. It’s a hilarious and bizarre tableau of people who, for the sake of manufactured drama, refuse to spend time with anybody except their worst enemies.
The parallel jumped out at me during the scene in “Trojan Horse” when Olivia goes to the Oval Office to beg Fitz not to make Rowan the fall guy for Frankie Vargas’s murder now that Cyrus has been exonerated. “I forgave Abby,” Olivia says, using her recent détente with the mole inside the White House to provide cover for her mustache-twirling father. She’s not convincing Fitz that shielding Rowan from prosecution is to his benefit, and she isn’t even flirting with him. She’s saying, “Let bygones be bygones.” We’re talking about the people who killed Fitz’s son, and Harrison, and Frankie Vargas, and almost Huck. Whatever. It’s in the past now.
Scandal, in a very Housewives way, has always been a whiplash machine that emphasizes nearly constant mixing and matching of its characters and a landscape of ever-shifting alliances. With “Trojan Horse,” it reaches for a higher level of drama by killing off a “major” character. The death of Elizabeth North is shocking, but only for anyone who missed “Thwack,” last season’s dud in which Olivia Pope caved in the head of a brain-damaged man in a wheelchair because he was making fun of her. That was Andrew Nichols, remember? Former vice-president to Fitz? He was sleeping with both Mellie and Elizabeth at one point? Had Olivia kidnapped or some such? Don’t beat yourself up if you’ve watched every episode but have only the vaguest memory of what I’m describing.
This time, Elizabeth North gets the “Nichols treatment” when the mysterious and sinister Ms. Ruland bludgeons her with a putter. It’s not quite as brutal as when Olivia did the head crushing. But in fairness to Ms. Ruland, Olivia utilized a really heavy metal chair, and Elizabeth still had about half a can of SpaghettiOs spilling out of her cranium when all was said and done. And most importantly, Ruland’s grotesque display had the desired effect of scaring Mellie back into line. Ruland pounces on the job opening she just created, installing herself as Mellie’s new chief of staff after she and Theodore Peus force her into office. As Peus explains, Mellie is the Über-cabal’s Trojan horse. They plan to put her in place to execute their agenda, and if she doesn’t, they’ll kill her children. (Seems like cutting off Mellie’s moonshine supply is a more potent threat, but I’ll leave the murder-conspiracy business to the professionals.)
As shocking as Elizabeth’s death is supposed to be, it doesn’t feel very shocking despite the crafty staging. To be clear, there’s a difference between a “major” character and a major star. Portia de Rossi has appeared in three episodes this season for a grand total of about nine minutes, because without Susan Ross as an active character, the writers never found a way to work Elizabeth back into the action. When she shows up these days, she does so out of nowhere, usually to execute some specific intermediary task before slinking back into the shadows. It’s nice in theory that by killing Elizabeth, Scandal has acknowledged that it has about four characters too many. But the more cheap and insignificant death becomes, the harder it is to care when it happens. So long, Lizzie Bear, but you’ve had it coming for a while, for reasons I don’t completely recall.
Of course, that’s the result of Scandal’s reality-show rhythms. I only remember the broad details of the relationships, no matter what seemingly irreparable damage the characters have done to each other, so the show can shuffle the deck to the point of incoherence. Why are Mellie and Elizabeth teaming up to begin with? Did Mellie ever find out they were sleeping with the same man? Are there no other political operatives in Washington who might like to work in the White House? This season is about forward momentum at any cost — the next drama, the next confrontation, the next threat, the next abrupt murder. Remember when the episodes used to start with the “Previously on Scandal” montage? Seems pretty standard for a serialized drama, but Scandal no longer benefits from reminding the audience of the finer points of the plot.
That’s what allows Scandal to get away with nonsense like reanimating its two most dysfunctional relationships in one fell swoop. Olivia is back to being a dutiful daughter to Rowan, presumably because she sees the threats from Peus as a mitigating factor. But this show always overplays its hand with the Olivia and Rowan relationship. This is the same dude who hired Jake to sleep with his daughter while he watched them on surveillance cameras. Honestly, that alone is enough for a restraining order with no expiration date, but Olivia still goes hard for her dad.
The same goes for Fitz, who is back in Olivia’s good graces now that he swooped in to spare Rowan from a death sentence. Olivia tells Fitz not to make her choose between him and her father, because he’ll lose. Only one significant male figure in her life gets to manipulate her at a time, thank you very much, and right now, Rowan’s holding the joystick. But Fitz reveals Rowan on a monitor, sitting comfortably in the Oval Office on Fitz’s orders. Now everyone’s on the same side and they can fight to take down Peus and Ruland together. I’m not one to shame another person for their kinks, but the Popes need to stop getting their sexual thrills from watching each other on surveillance cameras. Because once Olivia sees Rowan in Fitz’s custody, the only reasonable choice is to have sex with Fitz. Hope springs eternal.