The People v. Olivia Pope
Photo: Mitch Haaseth/ABC
There are three of Scandal’s standard funky music cues in “The People v. Olivia Pope,” and they’re all Janet Jackson songs. First, there’s the ebullient “When I Think of You” from Control, used to drive home the idea that Olivia and Fitz’s post-memorial hookup was more than a drunken, irrational act of grief. The title track from Rhythm Nation drops later, when Olivia is defiantly blowing off the handshake deal she made with the former members of her team, and “Black Cat” comes in when Olivia learns her obstinacy has cost her a cushy office in the West Wing and the faith of the president. Scandal has always leaned heavily on pop music to tell its stories, but “The People” is an unusually extreme case. If not for the tunes from Miss Jackson, there would be almost no connective tissue to link these characters and stories together.
Sure, in theory, “The People” is the product of everything that has led up to it. Olivia remains both the most powerful woman in America and a woman without a country, pitted against her ex-boyfriend and the former colleagues who can’t understand her role as Command and her shift toward bloody realpolitik. Olivia’s actions have pushed all of her cherished relationships to their breaking points, and her long-overdue reckoning was hastened by Quinn’s supposed death, which is apparently somehow Olivia’s fault for playing hardball with her father. But the result is far from the “intervention we’ve all been waiting for” promised by the typically histrionic promos.
The execution is clunky as hell, in part because of the confusing decision to transpose “Robin” and “Good People,” the latter of which presumably required a last-minute postproduction polish. So at the end of episode eight, Charlie is barreling his way into Eli’s house to locate a crying infant, and only now, in episode ten, does that cliff-hanger get its anticlimactic resolution. Charlie is all pissed at first because he thought his fiancée and unborn child were dead, but he’s relieved to find out he’s the latest target on Punk’d: National Security Edition. Charlie tries to bond with the family he thought he’d lost only to find out he’s been weirdly replaced by his former boss. (Had I made a list of the scenes I was least expecting to see in the final season of Scandal, it wouldn’t have been complete without Eli and Quinn singing an unaccompanied duet of Britney’s “… Baby One More Time.”) Ultimately, despite Charlie’s discomfort with Eli and Quinn’s cozy new relationship, he comes around to their argument that Eli’s house is the closest thing they’ll find to a peaceful maternity ward while Olivia is still on the warpath. Charlie insists he’ll just kill Olivia to eliminate the threat, but Quinn reminds him how wily and dangerous Olivia is. Surely he can’t mount an all-out attack and win.
Yet, at the very moment Quinn is making an argument for Olivia’s near-invincibility, Olivia is being held against her will at the infamous Vermont house. It’s just the latest example of Scandal trying to have it both ways with a plot point. Ever since B613 was first introduced, all anyone has been able to talk about is how well fortified the clandestine organization is, and how the person in charge of it is more or less bulletproof. At one point in the show’s history, “You can’t take Command” was running neck and neck with “gladiators in suits” for the title of Scandal’s most overused phrase. Now, here we are with Olivia as Command, completely in charge of the public face of the U.S. government as well as its ruthless shadow government. If it’s historically been true that facing off against Command is a suicide mission, it should certainly be true now, when the woman who has toppled B613 several times is now running it. And yet all it takes to disarm Olivia is the promise of a lazy sex weekend with Fitz in Vermont. (What if, all this time, Eli could have been lured into a trap with the promise of a behind-the-scenes tour of a natural history museum? Hindsight, I suppose.)
It’s hard enough to swallow that Olivia would go from urging Fitz to leave D.C. and leave her alone to having a drunken night of sex with him and then immediately going on a long weekend away from work at a crucial moment for Mellie’s White House. But “The People” goes even further than that, requiring the audience to believe that it would be this easy to pull off what is essentially the kidnapping of the White House chief of staff and the head of B613. It’s all out of love, you see, because Fitz has convened Huck, Abby, Marcus, and even David Rosen to try to appeal to Olivia’s better angels. She’s out of control, they argue, pointing to the assassination of President Rashad and the apparent elimination of Quinn required to cover her tracks. Their ultimatum is simple: Step away from the White House and B613, or else David Rosen will bring charges against Olivia for her myriad crimes. It’s a completely hollow threat, one that should become even more hollow as more time passes since anyone has seen or heard from the president’s chief of staff. Though somehow, after locking herself in a bedroom while her friends plead from the other side of the door, Olivia relents.
Scandal’s most powerful weapon is its ensemble, so there’s always potential in putting a bunch of the characters in a room together and watching them go at it. (Last season’s “Mercy” is a prime example of how confining the gladiators can yield interesting results even amid a season of diminishing returns.) This, after all, is no typical intervention. With perhaps the exception of Marcus, everyone in the room is personally responsible for at least one death, and who even knows how many people Huck has flayed alive at this point. Huck even yanked several of Quinn’s teeth out way back when, so he’s the last person in a position to lecture Olivia about turning on one of their own. This emergency family meeting is the equivalent of a drug intervention where everyone is snorting lines to psych themselves up to confront the cocaine addict. Olivia has every right to lash out at her captors, the last people who should be trying to speak from the moral high ground.
And as venues go, they don’t get much more interesting than a cavernous mansion, and director Kerry Washington would have had a lot to play with had the bulk of the episode focused on the intervention itself. Instead, the episode splits its focus between the Vermont house, Eli’s house, and the West Wing, where Mellie and Cyrus continue to occupy the offices of the president and vice-president while never appearing to perform the duties of either job. Despite a few fleeting moments of tension courtesy of an unhinged Jake, “The People” is yet another example of a final season that can’t seem to decide what its priorities are or what story it’s trying to tell. (Olivia even hooks up with Jake, sinking a knife into the hearts of Olitz shippers everywhere.) That said, ending with Olivia’s ouster from the White House bodes well for the next batch of episodes. If Olivia is so certain she can rule the world without any help, let’s see her try.