Scandal has always leaned on old-school funk, soul, and disco for its needle drops, and Mellie’s celebratory dance to the tune of En Vogue’s “Free Your Mind” in “The Belt” is about the closest to musical modernity the show has gotten. But I wish the show had abandoned the rule, just this once, to set a dense, lengthy montage to Fat Joe and Remy Ma’s “All the Way Up,” because, man alive, this conspiracy goes up to the highest rungs of power we know about and climbs onto some brand-new ones. Nothing can stop this conspiracy. It goes all the way up.
Apparently even all-seeing, all-knowing paternal puppet master Eli Pope has a boss, and OMG you guys, she’s like, super mean. All along Eli has been the Miranda Priestley, and now suddenly he’s the Andy Sachs, stammering through his responses to a superior so savage she might be just as happy literally chewing his head off. Eli’s mean boss, whose name I’m unsure of, is played by Zoe Perry, the daughter of none other than Cyrus Beene himself, Jeff Perry. When Zoe joined Scandal in a recurring role, the Hollywood trades had no details about who the character was or if she was in any way connected to Cyrus. Even now, the role isn’t listed on Zoe’s IMDB page, all the better for concealing the fact that Eli Pope is ultimately a long-winded middle manager.
“They All Bow Down” is full of the wacky rug-pulls Scandal is famous for, and it makes for an interesting case study in the difference between a good twist and a bad twist. The introduction of Eli’s boss is a bad twist because it relies on information the audience didn’t know it was supposed to have, let alone care about. It’s a classic political-thriller trope, the moment when the true shot-caller steps out of the shadows. But Scandal does that so often, it has become an examination of power that doesn’t ever define what passes for power within its narrative universe. Not only does Eli have a super-mean boss lady, she’s an intermediary between Eli and some other mysterious evil people.
Basically it’s as if the fabled B-613 was acquired by a larger cabal of mustache-twirling villains, and that’s just boring as hell. Maybe I’m wrong and there is something interesting to be mined from this new vaguely threatening prime foe, but it hews too closely to the days of B-613, when Scandal let its spy flag fly, to disastrous results. The revelation of a broad conspiracy of bad actors takes the show back to its worst period, back when it had become a weird, inferior imitation of Alias. That show also had a bad habit of playing a shell game with its antagonist, but Scandal has become even more abstract than that show. How about just tell me who Olivia is supposed to be fighting against so I can figure out whether she’s winning?
The only character Olivia is battling with directly is Vanessa, Jake’s briefly suffering wife, who’s now played by Jessalyn Gilsig, formerly of Glee. Vanessa is a bee in Olivia’s white suede bonnet because she won’t stop asking obvious and reasonable questions about Jake’s past, such as “What’s the weird dynamic between you and Eli?” and “Am I wrong in thinking that Olivia is your sister in a House Lannister kind of way?” So Olivia jumps in her face and says Vanessa’s not going to “come for her” today, a moment in Zahir McGhee’s script that sounds plucked right out of a Real Housewives reunion. Even though Vanessa is completely correct in all of her assumptions about her new husband and his weird “family,” Olivia has the upper hand on account of Vanessa’s recent embarrassment. Vanessa turned up on the side of the road after wrecking her car while accompanied by a gigolo named Kevin Weisman. (Coincidentally, Alias’s tech specialist Marshall Flinkman was played by … Kevin Weisman.)
But Vanessa’s marital agony is not all for naught, as her anxiety about her husband’s emotional distance leads her to reveal a tantalizing clue. Jake has gone missing for long stretches, chunks of time Vanessa assumed was spent in a motel room with his “sister” Olivia. Of course, Olivia wasn’t with Jake during these unaccounted-for periods in Jake’s schedule, one of which occurred around the time Francisco Vargas was shot. As it turns out, Jake was the one who blew up Jennifer Fields’s cabin in the woods just as Huck and Quinn were arriving to question her about her allegations against Cyrus. Which … y’know, doesn’t make an ounce of sense.
In fairness, Jake is the first to admit he has no earthly idea why he would be asked to murder the suspected mistress of his political rival. But he wasn’t kept down in that B-613 conditioning hole to create a bureaucrat or a vice-presidential candidate. He was kept down there to produce a soulless, ruthless hit man, and being activated made him feel like he was serving his purpose in the world. Jake’s explanation was surprisingly sound from a character perspective, which made it all the more weird to then immediately reveal that he didn’t end up doing the thing Eli tasked him to do. Instead of killing Jennifer Fields, he rigged the cabin to explode, then sent Jennifer into hiding. It’s a good thing Jennifer’s here to sort all of this out, because this plot to assassinate Frankie Vargas is convoluted, even by Scandal standards.
But that gets us back to the example of a good plot twist, one that expands in surprising ways on facts the audience thought it understood. There was no reason to doubt that Jennifer was dead, and introducing her now is perfect, just as the mystery surrounding Vargas’s death and Cyrus’s involvement was beginning to curdle. It’s the kind of twist that makes me want to know what’s really going on rather than washing my hands of the whole mess out of sheer exhaustion. That’s the tightrope Scandal is walking these days, and hopefully Jennifer’s return will give the show the balance it so desperately needs.