For better and for worse, “Air Force Two” is a perfect representation of what watching Scandal has been like ever since season four, when Olivia Pope got kidnapped and the show’s side hustle as a fanciful, sugar-rush spy thriller became its full-time job. I previously talked about Scandal’s gradual 24-ification following “The Box,” the uncommonly histrionic season-six episode in which the mysterious Big Bads tried to take out several major cities using exploding drones. Here we are again in “Air Force Two,” with an overdramatic cyber threat, a literal ticking clock, and a bunch of people trying to avert disaster by typing with the speed and intensity of the ticket agent in Meet the Parents.
As the title suggests, the death threat du jour and subsequent nail-biting happens on the plane designated for Vice-President Cyrus Beene, who hasn’t had much to do since agreeing to play second fiddle to Mellie. Cyrus is as aware of his diminished role as anybody, so he’s all the more offended when Mellie insists Jake, her new chief of staff, accompany her to the Al Smith Dinner while Cyrus is diverted to a digital piracy summit in Portugal. Apparently the Al Smith Dinner is a far bigger deal in the Scandal-verse than in the real world, but honestly, it doesn’t take much these days to put Cyrus in a bad mood. He’s done every terrible deed imaginable to get to the Oval Office and is still pretty far away. His husband and daughter are long gone and his rich boyfriend dumped him. For a deputy head of state, he’s a man without a country.
Fortunately Cyrus has some company in David Rosen, a character I frequently forget is a regular on this show. As David is trying to help Cyrus put a positive spin on a bad situation, things take a considerable turn for the worse. The crew informs Cyrus and David that their airplane is flying off course, and it’s no thanks to anyone in the cockpit. Air Force Two has been hacked! (A great alternate title for the episode could have been “Nonsense at 20,000 Feet.”) It’s quickly determined that the virus in control of the plane had to have come aboard with someone’s help, and the guilty party is Cyrus’s assistant Hannah, who lost her laptop and failed to alert anyone when it mysteriously turned back up and appeared undisturbed. With two high-ranking White House officials and a gaggle of embedded reporters headed for what looks like their certain demise, it’s a terror attack that makes the Rashad assassination look unambitious by comparison.
Mellie is torn about how to handle the situation, between the equally disturbing options of scrambling fighter jets to neutralize the plane or allowing the plane to nosedive into a population-dense area. And she’s rightfully suspicious of Jake’s enthusiasm for the military option given his contentious history with Cyrus (and to a lesser degree, David). Mellie presses Jake to determine his true motives, but it’s never totally clear why this one thing crosses the line for her. She’s fully aware of Jake’s role in Rashad’s assassination — he slut-shamed her, as I recall — but she still made the inscrutable decision to promote Jake while firing Olivia for the exact same incident. I can’t work out the nuances of why Mellie gave Jake this job, or why this current round of enmity represents a new low for Jake and Cyrus.
The problem with Scandal trying to be 24 is that because of its reliance on romantic and interpersonal character stories, it has to achieve a certain emotional logic that a show like 24 aimed for. That logic simply isn’t there in “Air Force Two,” in which Olivia is somehow the only person able to figure out that Cyrus was the mastermind behind the hijacked plane all along. Anybody who’s been watching this show recently knows Cyrus isn’t opposed to a plan as evil as it is convoluted. It wasn’t long ago that Cyrus was faking a hostage situation to get Francisco Vargas a couple of positive news cycles. To hijack his own plane with a drone and use the situation to improve his stead politically is exactly the sort of thing Cyrus would do. It’s hard to believe that only Olivia would have the sense to figure out who was behind the whole thing, considering most of the audience saw it coming even before Cyrus gave his long, rousing speech.
Why is Cyrus being repositioned as the villain this far into the final season? Is Rowan not a thing anymore? It’s hard to make heads or tails of most of this, including the sudden return of Mama Maya. It’s as if the writers are checking off boxes on a final-season checklist, and that list wouldn’t be complete without one final visit from Olivia’s sinister egg donor. Olivia shows up with French carryout to celebrate what she thinks is Maya’s birthday, but really just to seek the maternal comfort anyone would need after losing all their friends and being kicked out of their powerful White House job. Naturally, the role of the soothing mama bear is not Maya’s forte, so Maya uses the opportunity to taunt and needle her daughter as only she can. It’s for the last time, though. Olivia apparently still has the resources to spring her mother from the gilded cage with a one-way flight to Paris and access to a Swiss account with enough money to keep her comfortable indefinitely. Maya is emotionally crushed by Olivia’s change of heart. She’s surprised by it too, as she should be in a world where everyone seems to constantly forget what everyone else is capable of.