A series finale is never the best representation of what a television show was actually like, and “Over a Cliff,” the frantic and mostly satisfying Scandal finale, is no different.
Scandal established early on that none of its characters were purely good or evil, and that the people with the most respectable public personas are often guilty of the dirtiest deeds. Olivia Pope will go down as one of the most challenging characters in television history, and Kerry Washington has often talked about how Olivia’s moral ambiguity is what made the role such an exciting challenge. Despite all of her heinous choices – she just ordered the execution of a teenager like, five minutes ago — Olivia isn’t even the most morally compromised character in the show. Not by a long shot.
But in paring down its story and themes as it approached its conclusion, Shonda Rhimes and her team apparently decided that the best way to bring Scandal to a proper conclusion was to strip out its grey areas and essentially divide the characters into white hats and black hats. (Complicating matters further, the show only decided who the actual bad guys were roughly four episodes ago.) In fact, as Quinn is celebrating the neat and tidy resolution that allows Olivia and the gang to detonate B613 while serving no jail time for their own crimes, she actually says aloud, “The good guys won.” It’s a weird sentiment, considering her new husband Charlie is one of Scandal’s early antagonists, and it’s indicative of how the tone of “Over a Cliff” feels peculiar in the way series finales tend to. Maybe it’s asking too much of a broadcast drama, but a Scandal finale that truly held Olivia and her cronies responsible for their actions would have been super interesting to watch.
That said, by the standards of typical series finales, “Over a Cliff” is pretty darn successful, moving briskly and offering a satisfying mix of resolutions, comeuppances, surprises, and pure fan service. Rhimes, who wrote the script, makes the wise decision to mostly sideline the Olivia and Fitz romance until the final moments, save for one last love scene following an impassioned speech. Actually, most of the romantic subplots are pushed into the background, which comes as a surprise given how much time Scandal spends on its twisted love stories. But the final season has had enough romantic resolutions sprinkled through it that the finale doesn’t have to do much heavy lifting. Everyone knows Olitz is end game, so why belabor the point? There’s plenty of happily-ever-after to go around, with Quinn and Charlie’s jailhouse wedding and Marcus’s apparent new role of Mellie’s First Bae.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is that “Over a Cliff” is a showcase for – of all characters — David Freaking Rosen. Let’s be honest, even the most dedicated Scandal fan would admit to occasionally forgetting that David Rosen is a person who exists on this show until he shuffles in and says something like, “I may just be a modest public servant, but I know treason when I see it.” And yet, here is David, getting the complete and thorough character arc he’s been without basically since the show began, and just in time for his tragic death.
For a show that features so much bloodshed, Scandal has always been curiously gun shy about killing off major characters. The most this show will do is an unconvincing off-camera death that winds up being a false alarm. For a moment, David looks like he’ll be yet another Scandal regular to narrowly escape death, when Jake tracks him down and threatens to kill him in order to derail the B613 investigation now proceeding on Capitol Hill. As he defies Jake while staring down the barrel of Jake’s gun, David even gets to toss off a classic, silly-serious ShondaLand monologue in which he says, “I am the bitch of the United States of America” as if he’s reciting Euripides. So it’s all the more surprising, a few scenes later, when Cyrus lures David with the promise of a plea negotiation, only to poison David and smother him with a pillow to speed things up. Without David in place, the B613 investigation screeches to a halt. That is, until Rowan Pope comes forward as a surprise witness, confirming all the claims made with an overwrought monologue of his own.
When the dust settles, Rowan’s intervention has vindicated Mellie, freed Charlie, and even somehow absolved the whole wicked lot of Olivia Pope and Associates of all their misdeeds. This is utter nonsense, of course. No dramatic reversal of fortune can erase all the damage done by Olivia and her crew, who were discreetly disposing of dead bodies and slut-shaming political side pieces for paying clients long before Olivia’s spy-daddy issues came to the fore. But again, if the game is to make cops and robbers out of this motley crew of fixers, tramps, and thieves, certain events just have to be considered water under the bridge. At least, that’s the explanation that allows me to make peace with what ultimately becomes of Scandal’s “bad guys,” the aspect of the finale most likely to be a point of controversy among fans.
Cyrus and Jake have only been officially designated the final bosses within the past few episodes, so it’s tough to envision what a proper punishment for their bad behavior looks like. But Jake, for all his crimes, has never been more than a hatchet man. In the words of … well, nearly every character at this point, Jake is always “somebody’s bitch.” Based on the last three seasons alone, Cyrus is more deserving of an extreme punishment. Instead, Jake takes the fall for B613, the Bashrani assassination, and the hijacking of Air Force Two, and gets sentenced to life in a supermax, where his only solace is memories of his time on the beach with Olivia. Cyrus, meanwhile, gets dismissed from his position as vice-president and has to slink into ignominy. Reversing those roles would feel more appropriate, but putting Jake in prison puts a bolder period on the Jake-Olivia-Fitz love-triangle saga.
The most surprising resolution is the one reserved for Rowan, who manages to escape any punishment for his decades-long service for B613 by pinning everything on Jake. Not only does he escape a prison sentence, he even manages to keep a solid relationship with Olivia, who he’s tormented for the majority of the show. The final shot of Olivia and Rowan together, enjoying one of their boozy dinners, is one of those off-tone moments: So much trauma and betrayal has gone on between Olivia and her father that to resolve their story with neither legal punishment for Rowan nor any apparent damage to his relationship with Olivia feels weird.
Perhaps that’s the whole point, though: For people to build a functioning society and effectively govern themselves, they have to learn how to put past conflicts aside and hammer out practical solutions, preferably over wine. That interpretation would be a stretch if not for the fact that even in its final moments, Scandal is still nakedly political in the most jarring ways. In the first minutes of the episode, Olivia meets in secret with Lonnie Mencken, who agrees to back her play to topple Cyrus and Jake, but only if she promises to make gun control the focus of Mellie’s agenda. She keeps her promise, and Mellie signs comprehensive gun control into law. The white hat is ultimately restored because Olivia is willing to put aside her personal animus to do what’s best for the country.
“Over a Cliff” is clear-cut happy ending for a character loved for her moral ambiguity. But more than that, Olivia has come to symbolize the country itself, and the hopeful, conciliatory tone feels like a balm in the current real-life political climate. Had Hillary Clinton won the White House, Scandal would have probably had an ending as dark and cynical as it has always been. Alas, there would be no need for Olivia Pope if things always went to plan. Vermont will be lucky to have her.