Scandal is at its most obnoxious when the biggest threat on the horizon is a mysterious group of evildoers trying to usurp the power of the presidency. But that’s also the way this show has always galvanized its characters, going all the way back to season one, when Billy Chambers was revealed as the mole inside the White House. (Remember the days when an overambitious mole was the most Olivia had to handle?)
With all the power plays, double-dealing, and botched assassination attempts going on between the main characters, it takes a pure force of evil like Theodore Peus and Associates to get all the Super Friends to unite against a larger enemy. There will be plenty of time for Olivia, Jake, and Fitz to drip water onto their dehydrated love triangle, but for now, Peus is job No. 1.
I hate basically everything about this “Peus the Puppet Master” plot, but I do like when Scandal finds an excuse to take characters, many of whom never share screen time anymore, and force them into the same room. “Mercy” does that almost immediately: Peus shows up to introduce himself to Olivia, and demands that she ask Jake to step down as Mellie’s vice-president so he can assume the role.
As a plot point, that’s absolutely insane, because as we’ve seen again and again in Scandal, the presidency is both the most powerful position on the planet and a glorified middle-manager role to be infiltrated and manipulated by anybody with an excess of money and malice. If the point is to manipulate Mellie from the shadows, why put Peus in the public eye, a heartbeat away from the presidency? If the point is to eventually get Peus the presidency, couldn’t all the murder and blackmail used to put Mellie in the White House have been used to elect Peus fair and square? I’m not familiar with the culture within the shadow-government industry, but I assume you get ahead by coming up with the most convoluted plans possible.
In keeping with that theme, Olivia hatches a scheme to buy the gang some time to figure out what the next move should be, but everyone agrees that installing Peus as vice-president is a nonstarter. A drone, piloted by Huck and Quinn, hovers over the South Lawn carrying an unidentified payload, prompting the White House to go into its lockdown protocol. I’m sure most of Fitz’s staff assumed it was an Amazon Prime Air delivery for Olivia, who hadn’t left the night before and could have wanted a crisp, new pantsuit for her walk of shame. But in an abundance of caution, the Secret Service — which apparently hasn’t been compromised by Peus and his cronies — puts Fitz and Mellie and their authorized personnel in a secure location, while Abby and Marjorie Ruland are taken elsewhere.
“Mercy” introduces something akin to a ticking clock, but without the urgency. It’ll only take the authorities an hour or so to investigate the drone and end the lockdown, so that’s all the time Olivia’s war council has to come up with a plan to thwart Peus. Eight characters, some of whom haven’t shared a frame in a very long time, are suddenly trapped in a room together and forced to put their differences aside. That’s a tall order, given all that’s transpired between Olivia, Fitz, Mellie, Rowan, Marcus, Abby, Cyrus, and Jake — including murders of husbands, murders of children, attempted murders of parents, kidnappings, and presidential assassinations. It’s a lot to air out in an hour, all while plotting to take down a chess master shrewd enough to keep his foot on the neck of the incoming president.
Still, the idea of these eight characters in one location is really fun, and the episode has a great time pairing them off for a series of duets. Rowan and Cyrus sneak off to a private wine cellar, where they lament having gone from the height of power (or in Rowan’s case, somewhere above that) to lackeys and prisoners hoping to avoid jail time. Marcus and Mellie have a heart-to-heart, in which he promises to do more to protect her than he’s probably capable. Olivia and Jake snipe at each other about her latest dalliance with Fitz. Some of the pairings work better than others, and no one seems to have the slightest sense of urgency. But in slowing down to account for the near-real-time pace, “Mercy” allows for some interesting character work that feels vital, even as it seems ridiculous for these characters to be waxing poetically while the White House is under siege.
The conversation that doesn’t take place as quickly or thoroughly as it should is the one where someone asks, “Can’t we just kill Peus and Ruland and be done with it?” This is, after all, a group of people that commands the most powerful military force in the world. Hell, one of the reasons these power-thirsty characters talk about “the Oval” the way I talk about a plate of chicken and waffles is because presidents have the ability to destroy anybody who crosses them. Now, for reasons I don’t understand, these violent weirdos have developed a pacifistic streak, just in time for Peus’s arrival. Instead of using force, which seems like the obvious course of action, Mellie appoints Luna Vargas as her vice-president, and Olivia has Marjorie arrested for her crimes.
This does represent some kind of progress, though the moment Olivia “takes down” Ruland is just as anticlimactic as when she had her father arrested several seasons ago. After seeing what Ruland did to Elizabeth North, a professional arrest doesn’t exactly feel like justice. But at least these characters are starting to remember that they’re supposed to be the ones in control, the ones pulling the levers of power. If only they’d figure out how to act like it.