Should this really be Scandal’s final season? I can’t imagine myself asking that question last year, when the show was mired in the last days of Fitzgerald Grant’s lame-duck presidency. Season six felt exhausted and exhausting, with undue attention given to Peus, Ruland, and Luna Vargas, a trio that went from being unstoppable, practically omnipotent supervillains to forgotten ciphers in the span of three or four episodes. But this first female president thing is really working out so far. The second Grant administration is breathing new life into the show, and “Pressing the Flesh” represents a version of Scandal that I’d watch for at least one more season.
Less is more with a high-concept show like Scandal, so an additional year would probably be a bad idea, despite the extreme White House makeover. But “Flesh” packs so many ideas, characters, and themes into one episode, it feels like ten pounds of plot in a five-pound bag. There’s nothing a true gladiator wants that this episode doesn’t have. Washington glamour? Check. Foiled assassination attempt? Yep. Clandestine sexual trysts? They’re in here. Stevie Wonder montages? For God’s sake, there are two of them. If all that weren’t enough, Mellie even gets one of her famous breathless monologues, this time comparing her vagina to a murder house.
Above all, the question Scandal seems most intent on answering in its final run is just how far Olivia Pope will go to get what she wants. In the season premiere, she blackmailed the Bashrani ambassador by threatening to assassinate his young child, so it’s hard to imagine how she could really top herself. Of course, that doesn’t stop her from trying. This time, Olivia’s target is Bashran’s President Rashad, who is Mellie’s guest of honor at a state dinner designed to mend relations with the unstable Bashrani government. Bashran is within a year of nuclear capability, so the ultimate goal is to get Rashad’s signature on a de-proliferation agreement. Mellie and Rashad’s prickly first conversation makes clear it won’t be easy to get him onboard.
Luckily, Olivia is always shopping for a new opportunity to hand an envelope full of dirty secrets to a stubborn foe. She assigns the task to Jake, who has taken up residence in an abandoned pool once used by Franklin D. Roosevelt. I have to admit at this point that I’m once again confused by what B613 is supposed to be, other than a well-disguised bailout for the manila-envelope industry. Jake manages to dig up what looks like some pretty filthy dirt on Rashad, namely his predilection for underage prostitutes. But if the strategic assassination Jake suggested in the season premiere isn’t what B613 is about now, then is he just a shady private investigator? Olivia’s professional relationship with Jake is basically identical to her relationship with Huck and Quinn. She says, “Dammit, get me something I can use!” Then she uses the information to blackmail someone. Why not just award a contract to Quinn Perkins and Associates?
Speaking of QPA, Abby manages to sweet talk David Rosen into getting the firm into the state dinner, hoping they can possible home in on some new business. But it isn’t long before the firm’s interests dovetail with Olivia’s. Jake digs a little deeper and figures out that the girl photographed with Rashad wasn’t a teenage prostitute — Olivia looks super bummed — but his niece. Olivia corners him and threatens to reveal that while he’s kowtowing to anti-Western fundamentalists, he thinks highly enough of America to smuggle his niece here to get an education. Rashad tells her he knows what she did to the ambassador, and he’s not going to bend to her pressure. Olivia is angry and defeated, perhaps wondering if she chose the wrong color-story for the envelope she filled with blackmail dirt. It’s all about the presentation.
“Flesh” pushes to Olivia closer to the edge before retreating. Ultimately, Olivia is going to be forced to make a choice even more treacherous than anything we’ve seen before, but so far she hasn’t had to face it. When she threatened to kill the ambassador’s kid, he caved and she didn’t have to follow through. This time, Olivia is out of options once Rashad rejects her bullying tactics. Would she really go so far as to expose Rashad to his country, which would risk his niece’s safety in addition to destabilizing an already politically fraught region? We may never know, because once you save someone from an assassination attempt, they basically have to let bygones be bygones.
Huck manages to figure out, as does Jake, that the decorated military officer mingling at the state dinner is actually a Bashrani assassin aligned with his country’s radical insurgency. And he would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for these speechifying political murder spies! Rashad is feeling lucky to be alive, so he’s ready to play nice with Mellie. Nothing like a near-death experience to get the heart racing, and when you throw in some vodka and a powerful woman radiating the thirstiest of thirsty vibes, anything can happen — even a face-to-face negotiation of a peace accord between Bashran and its hostile neighbors. Oh, and also sex at some point, I assume.
The rest of the episode is stuffed to the brim with romantic subplots. There’s Quinn and Charlie’s impromptu wedding (Charlie has so many feelings!) and David Rosen’s clumsy attempts to rekindle his relationship with Abby. But mostly it’s got the continued friends-with-bennies arrangement between Olivia and Curtis, a character I always forget exists until he appears onscreen. So much is going on in this episode, some of it gets condensed too much. The Olivia and Curtis arc was rushed, and I felt like I didn’t understand how they went from sparring at the state dinner to canoodling in the elevator. That said, while the path to the final scene is a bit rocky, the cliff-hanger is satisfying all the same. Olivia is about to have crazy hate-sex with Curtis, only to find the man who introduced her to crazy hate-sex standing in front of her apartment. Hello again, President Fitz.