A bomb and a dead child; a callous sex scene and some A+ screaming; vile machinations and a vengeance streak powerful enough to make an Old Testament God acknowledge that game recognize game. Scandal’s season finale certainly went whole hog — or should I say whole piggy-piggy? — but the episode summed up everything that was off about season three: all crescendo, no climax. Tension’s only tension when there’s an eventual release. Otherwise that’s not tension we’re building; it’s just unhappiness. I used to think of Scandal as a very tense show. Now I wonder if maybe it’s more of a miserable one.
A few episodes ago, Scandal killed off James, if not quite a central character certainly a very important one. For some shows, that would be the big thing of the season. Not so here; James’s death was one among many, one murder among several murders, one dead husband after another. This season’s body count is pretty damn high. Everyone’s a murderer. At this point, additional carnage does not raise the stakes. Did Harrison die at the end of this episode? Jeez, does it even matter? What would one more death mean at OPA? (Plus, Harrison’s been so worthless this season, would anyone even notice he was gone?) On a basic decency level, Fitz’s son Jerry Jr.’s murder is sad, but he’s a character that had been on a grand total of two other episodes. We already know Fitz to be full of personal anguish and a chronic wretchedness; watching him grieve over his child doesn’t feel more dramatic or meaningful or shocking than watching him just be a general miserable drunk. Jerry Jr.’s death doesn’t make Scandal deeper. It just makes Scandal louder.
For all the “shocks,” twists, double-crosses, murders, rapes, cover-ups, meningitises, wigs, fights, sexual encounters, and ominous manila envelopes, season three has landed us right back where we’ve been: Fitz is still the president, but only thanks to secret plotting from other people. (Remember when Defiance seemed like the biggest deal ever? Memories.) He’s staying with Mellie, this time out of a new layer of guilt — but guilt has been part of Fitz and Mellie’s balanced breakfast for years. Fitz already hated his father, and now he can just hate him more. Papa Pope is Command, and he’s gleefully looking down at someone in “the hole”; this time it’s not Huck or Jake but rather Mama Pope, who is again in a secret prison while everyone on the outside thinks she’s dead. Fitz’s grief-stricken breakdown in the Oval Office might have been more shocking had we not just seen Cyrus’s breakdown in the White House briefing room. Huck telling Quinn he never wants to talk to her again? Didn’t he tell her that a few weeks ago, too? Jake has asked Olivia to save him so many times now that it’s turning into a gospel song, and David Rosen’s had dirt on the Grant administration since forever ago. Olivia and her mother have both gotten on planes to head to new lives before — why would we have any expectation that this time Olivia would go through with it? This episode acted like something crazy was happening, but it was actually just the same old crazy Scandal’s been serving up all season.
I like that crazy for the most part, I really do. But I want those crazy things to matter. Back in November, “Everything’s Coming Up Mellie” revealed that the already loathsome Big Jerry had raped Mellie just before Fitz’s gubernatorial campaign. It was genuinely surprising, hauntingly portrayed — and most important, it mattered. It recontextualized some of Mellie’s behavior and some aspects of her relationship with Fitz, and helped drive home just how much Fitz has been the beneficiary of other people’s suffering. I don’t want to watch a show that’s wall-to-wall devastating rape stories, but if you’re gonna pull out the big guns — and on Scandal, we’re often talking about literal big guns — then make it worth it. It’s starting to feel like Daniel Douglas died in vain.
Scandal started out as a procedural, and not even a very good one. But about halfway through its first season, the show started finding more interesting angles, building higher emotional stakes for its characters, and creating more inventive and thrilling story lines. Season two continued on that trajectory, and suddenly the show’s “more-is-more” ethos seemed like a brilliant subversion of the slow-burn cable drama model. But in this second half of season three, more didn’t feel like more — it just felt like extra.
Cyrus briefly acknowledged to Olivia last night that he thinks he might be a monster. That’s a big offer, a big personal discovery for Cyrus, who is obviously a monster but has not regarded himself as such. Scandal needs to sit with that, to let us see how Cyrus’s monstrosity feels and how any real reflection or self-recrimination could destabilize Cyrus’s tightly crafted identity. Instead, the camera literally pulled back, pulled away from the intimacy, from the moment, from the growth and change, and moved farther down the hallway. Maybe in season four, the camera could linger.