Fates Worse Than Death
Kerry Washington as Olivia.
Is there such a concept as “sour grapes” when the fate of the world hangs in the balance? That’s the question underlying our contentious political moment, with Donald Trump’s most fired-up supporters arguing that “liberal snowflakes” can’t handle the reality and legitimacy of Trump’s November upset. It’s not that Democrats are legitimately concerned about Trump’s temperament and policies, they argue, it’s just that they can’t stand to lose.
Cyrus Beene makes the same argument about Olivia in “Fates Worse Than Death,” after Fitz offers him a shot at clemency for the murder of Frankie Vargas in exchange for withdrawing from the presidential race. Cyrus offers to withdraw if Mellie does the same, knowing Olivia will never agree to it. “She’s not interested in justice or truth,” says Cyrus. “She’s not interested in doing what’s best for the country. She just wants to win.” It’s a fair point, given Olivia’s history. She helped Fitz steal an election, and until recently, had no compunction about siccing Huck and his power tools on anyone who got in her way. (Also, if someone at a party says, “Never have I ever pulped a guy’s head with an aluminum chair,” Olivia better take a huge gulp of vintage wine.)
But Cyrus’s broadside against Olivia isn’t only based on her distant past. It’s also about the current state of their very odd friendship. In a flashback, Cyrus is seen making quick, messy work of his opponent Jake Ballard at the vice-presidential debate. Olivia makes an awkward attempt at congratulating Cyrus for his win, only to unwittingly reignite their professional rivalry. Their clumsy exchange of pleasantries runs aground when Olivia refers to how Cyrus “put himself” on the Democratic ticket with Vargas, and Cyrus is furious. After all the time he spent as the man behind the curtain, he resents Olivia for doubting his ability to step out of the shadows and grab some of the fame and respect for himself. He didn’t put himself anywhere, Cyrus says, he earned his place on the ticket alongside a once-in-a-lifetime, paradigm-shifting politician. Instead of backing down, Olivia bares her teeth and threatens to devote her time to exposing whatever dirty trick he employed to secure the VP slot.
It’s that last move that works to acquit Cyrus, at least as far as his assertion that Olivia’s sole motivation is to catapult Mellie into office. There’s nothing Olivia can accuse Cyrus of that doesn’t apply to her, or Fitz, or Mellie, or Jake, or basically any character on Scandal ever. Olivia is well aware of all the blood on Jake’s hands, but that certainly didn’t stop her from backing him for the same job Cyrus wanted. We’re now at the point where white hats and standing in the sun are pretty abstract concepts, as is redemption itself. If a moral high ground still exists in the world of Scandal, none of these characters could get to it — not even if Tibetan Sherpas handled the navigation and carried their overstuffed Louis Vuitton bags.
Compared to Olivia, Cyrus has a better grasp on who he is and how porous his boundaries are when it comes to getting what he wants. Still, politics is largely about optics and public opinion, and Cyrus still can’t stand to be thought of as a murderer. The accusation is especially hurtful when it’s about Vargas, a man Cyrus truly admired, believed in, and loved. Again and again, Cyrus sidesteps any conversations about what actually happened to Vargas and his involvement therein. He wants people to know that while he’s done a lot of horrible things, he wouldn’t do this particular horrible thing. And the ambiguity about Cyrus’s guilt is one of the coolest things about Scandal’s sixth season. Rather than tease a major twist with a goofy hashtag like it used to do, the show is ratcheting up the intrigue simply by letting unanswered questions linger longer than usual.
“Fates” does address one big question surrounding Jennifer Fields, the pretty young videographer whom Cyrus fears will derail Vargas’s candidacy. The few minutes of the unearthed video footage, in which Vargas vows to put Cyrus in jail as his first official act, certainly look damning. (It’s not quite as awful as it seems, though it’s pretty close.) If there was ever any doubt that Cyrus is a man without shame, that doubt has been vanquished. He doesn’t hesitate to call Tom Larsen, his former lover and hatchet man, and pretends he doesn’t want Jennifer “taken care of,” all the while knowing Tom can tell the difference between “I don’t want you to do it” and “I don’t want you to tell me you did it.” When Vargas confronted Cyrus, he did so after a severely beaten Jennifer showed up at his office to retrieve her camera, desperate to escape the Vargas-Beene campaign with her life.
Even with Cyrus safely behind bars, after Tom insists he assassinated Vargas at Cyrus’s command, there are still lots of titillating questions to be answered. Why didn’t Tom explicitly confess to the shooting when he and Cyrus were talking privately? If he didn’t actually shoot Vargas, who did? And why is Charlie hanging around OPA all the time, being irksomely affectionate with Quinn? For the first time in a long time, Scandal is earning its mysteries.