Scandal transformed into 24 so gradually, we barely noticed. Fox’s recently revived terrorism thriller was in its sixth season when a nuclear suitcase bomb was detonated, turning the city of Valencia, California, into a distant memory. For 24’s first five years, the mere threat of a nuclear weapon going off on American soil was enough to drive the action, but a show that relies on a breakneck pace and shocking twists must constantly up the ante. Every season has to represent more danger, a larger threat, and a wilier foe with more opaque motives.
In its sixth season, Scandal has gone full 24, with its still mysterious Big Bads positioning explosive drones over nine major American cities. Naturally, the threat itself isn’t enough: Theodore Peus calls Olivia Pope to humbly request the prompt release of his female colleague — who has like five different names now — as well as the “return” of Mellie Grant, who went rogue by naming Luna Vargas her vice-president. If she doesn’t comply with his demands, Peus says, he’ll detonate the drones one by one until she does. Olivia tries to call his bluff, defiantly telling Peus that not even a man of his seemingly inexhaustible resources would be able to pull off such a complicated scheme. Before she can even finish her sentence, the drone over Dallas explodes.
The thing about 24 is, it requires an enormous amount of faith and uncommon suspension of disbelief — and that’s just the price of admission. Once you’re on the ride, the show is usually paced so frantically in its real-time format that there’s no time to stop and think about how implausible it all is. “The Box” tries to achieve that same relentless pace, the energy that should comes naturally from a ragtag group of bureaucrats trying to avert a multicity terrorist attack. But Scandal isn’t told in real time, despite its best efforts this week and last to introduce some kind of ticking clock element. Instead of nonstop action, we get characters taking time to sip wine and give monologues while the country is waiting for the next bomb to go off.
With all the lulls in the action, there’s plenty of time to think about how unsustainably goofy all of this is. For example, let’s talk about how the events of “Mercy” and “The Box” all take place in the same day. To review: Olivia has Huck send a drone to the White House lawn to trigger a lockdown so the gang can convene a meeting about how to defeat Peus. Mellie calls Luna Vargas to offer her the vice-presidency, and Luna accepts. A press conference is called to announce the appointment. Peus’s associate is arrested and detained. Within hours, Peus has scrambled nine drones identical to the one Olivia used earlier in the day and is ready to detonate them from a remote, untraceable location. Imagine a season of 24 where the events of the first two episodes were stretched over ten episodes, then ten episodes of action were condensed into two episodes, and that’s about where we are with Scandal this season.
Scandal hasn’t felt quite this unmoored since the back half of season four, when Olivia was kidnapped and the show threw itself headlong into the narrative morass of B-613. I’m not sure what it’ll take for Scandal to figure out that the White House and Olivia Pope & Associates is where all the action needs to be. Give me illicit sex, give me double-, triple-, quadruple-crosses, give me palace intrigue. Don’t give me yet another mustache-twirling villain with no apparent motivation beyond creating chaos and trying to infiltrate a White House that Fitz and Mellie earned with a campaign of murder and voter disenfranchisement. Instead of just focusing on the predators at the top of the food chain, Scandal can never resist introducing some kind of super-predator.
That super-predator was once Rowan Pope, who now, according to Olivia “is being controlled for the first time.” Rowan refuses to cooperate with Olivia and Fitz as they try to gather any information that could lead them to Peus. But a break comes when David Rosen discovers that the fake super-PAC associated with Peus had been sending mysterious boxes to Rowan’s workspace in the weeks leading up to Frankie Vargas’s assassination. According to the shipping records, the boxes arrived at random intervals but always with the same weight of 11 pounds. From surveillance footage of Rowan’s space, Olivia and Huck notice that the boxes only contain bricks. What about those boxes was making Rowan so upset? What would drive him to do Peus’s bidding?
Rowan eventually reveals that Peus threatened to kill Olivia, promising that one day a box would arrive with Olivia’s head inside, then sending decoy boxes to remind him that any day could be the day. I could understand that as a motivator … if there was no such thing as a cell phone, a tool that allows you to contact people wherever they are and ensure their well-being. Seems like the smart thing to do, instead of continuing to open boxes and hoping his daughter’s head is not inside one of them, would be to just call and say, “Hey, it’s Dad, just calling to make sure no one has decapitated you. Wanna catch a movie this weekend?” Rather than figuring out another way to keep Olivia safe — surely there must be a way — Rowan agrees to Peus’s terms and basically admits defeat.
Or at least he feigns defeat. You can’t keep Rowan down, or trapped in a windowless cell, for long. He cons his way into a meeting with Marjorie/Samantha/Grace and escapes with her, using her as leverage to gain his freedom from Peus. Then, as a parting shot, he kills her. It’s another one of Rowan’s riffs on how he overcame all the obstacles against him to become one of the world’s most powerful men, beholden to absolutely no one. It’s also the most interesting material “The Box” has to offer, complete with a hammy Joe Morton monologue to drive home the significance of a black man fighting his way to the top of the heap. Unfortunately for Rowan, this is Scandal, so there’s always someone poised to push you off that heap, and sometimes you don’t even know their names.