Why is it so important for Olivia Pope to regain the moral compass that purportedly exists under all those layers of white angora wool? The question comes up in “People Like Me” as Olivia tries to sweet-talk Cyrus into aborting his latest mission to wrest control of the Oval Office away from its rightful occupant. The only other alternative is Mellie’s plan to just kill Cyrus, which is an admittedly interesting strategy for dealing with the false accusation that she’s trying to kill Cyrus. But Olivia doesn’t want to do that because after almost losing all of her friends, she’s more certain than ever that murder and blackmail are tools of the immoral.
And yet, there’s a moment during the negotiation when Olivia’s hands caress the frame of a reinforced aluminum chair not unlike the one she used to turn another vice-president’s cranium into homemade jam. The shot suggests that Olivia is struggling with the decision, doing everything in her power to avoid taking the most efficient path out of her current predicament. That’s a good thing, inasmuch as we want to see Olivia complete her journey back to white-hat status. But I couldn’t help thinking how awesome it would have been if Olivia had said, “On second thought, I’ll start my murder diet tomorrow,” and chair-walloped the smug look right off Cyrus’s face for old times’ sake.
The B613 version of Olivia Pope was a terrible friend and an irresponsible citizen, but dammit, she made things happen. As recently as the beginning of this season, “thwart treasonous coup” would have landed at No. 6 on Olivia’s to-do list. You can see her saying to herself, “I really need to take care of this coup situation before my afternoon meetings, so apparently I’m eating lunch at my desk again.” The newly baptized Olivia spends an entire episode flinching at precisely the moment she should be flexing. Beating a vice-president to death with office furniture is messy, literally and figuratively, but makes for better television than Olivia’s diplomatic efforts.
That said, the final episodes of Scandal seem focused on redeeming the idea of America itself, with Olivia Pope as the symbol of our nation’s better angels. Mellie immediately wants to spill blood, but Olivia is committed to a diplomatic approach even in dealing with an unstable, unpredictable madman. It’s another example of how Scandal is, in its own fun-house mirror way, trying to find parallels with the current political climate. Hollis Doyle hasn’t resurfaced since Olivia set fire to his ethno-populist public persona, but Scandal is still taking fragments of Donald Trump’s White House drama and folding them into the show.
Weirdly enough, considering Shonda Rhimes’s vocal support of Hillary Clinton, Scandal is telling another story about the kind of nefarious, deep-state conspiracies that fuel Trump’s nuttiest narratives. In this version of D.C., a special counsel has been assigned to investigate potentially presidency-ending allegations, but said prosecutor was compromised from the beginning and is cooperating in a scheme to subvert our democracy by framing the president with an imaginary crime. Sound at all familiar? Mellie wants to snuff out the brewing coup before it can hit its peak, but Olivia insists there’s a better way than leaving a trail of blood and blackmail folders in their wake.
To use the struggle between Mellie and Cyrus as a symbol for our democracy’s current struggles is ambitious enough. But Scandal goes even further, continuing to fold in bits of female empowerment during a time when it’s hard to tell a story about politics any other way. Olivia enrolled Abby in the effort to take down Cyrus as an effort to dismantle the patriarchy, and here she is convincing Mellie that they should follow the least-efficient course of action because it’s the ladylike thing to do. The problem all along has apparently been Olivia’s adherence to the playbook of warmongering men, and now she’s teaming up with Mellie (her former romantic rival, let’s not forget) to write a new playbook. (Mellie actually says, “Time’s up!” as Jake watches her on surveillance monitors, in case it’s not on-the-nose enough.)
These are interesting ideas, but Scandal cooks the nutritional value out of them with its usual refusal to apply basic logic to its storytelling. It’s still unclear why everyone is so afraid Cyrus will be able to prove Mellie tried to crash a plane full of people just to kill her subordinate. And the power struggle between Cyrus and Jake feels meaningless, even when it culminates in the bloody death of Jake’s long-suffering wife. The version of Vanessa that pushes Jake to murder her in a fit of rage is unlike any version of the character we’ve ever seen, and she exists solely to give Jake a reason to kill her. What now? Is Cyrus supposed to be scared of Jake or something? Who even knows?
But it says so much about this show that when it comes time to kill a familiar character, with minutes left on the game clock, they don’t go with one of the dozen mostly underutilized series regulars. They kill off Vanessa Ballard, who has spent all of 11 minutes onscreen and basically ceases to exist when she’s not in a scene. It feels weird and abrupt to use what is essentially a domestic-violence homicide as a metaphor for toxic masculinity at this late stage. When it’s all finished, Vanessa will be looked back on as one of Scandal’s unfortunate casualties in the war on evil men who have spent too long in power.