“My mother blew up the church that almost cost you the presidency.”
Guys, this show. This exhausting, out-of-its-mind, gloriously brave show, which dares to serve up lines like that with a straight face, like it’s not off its damn rocker. Lines that should cause us to do a spit-take they are so blessedly insane, but instead actually almost move us to tears. It takes nerve to put dialogue like that on air, or plots like the ones that assaulted us all during Scandal's season three finale Thursday night—an episode featuring a bombing, two murders, dozens of betrayals, and enough sordid family drama to make the Lannisters over in Westeros whisper to each other, “Those guys have issues…”
But high risk comes with the promise of high reward. Episodes of network dramas don’t get much riskier than the tornado of crazy that just spun across our television sets, and the reward was what might be the best episode of Scandal yet.
The episode picked up right where last week left off, with a bomb set by Olivia’s mother about to go off at a funeral that was supposed to be attended by both President “Fitz” Grant (Tony Goldwyn) and Sally Langston (Kate Burton), but which only Langston, who is challenging Fitz’s presidency at the upcoming election, attended. While West Wing puppet master Cyrus (Jeff Perry) gets his strings all tangled debating whether or not to just let Langston blow up and guarantee a Fitz win by default, the valiant Jake Ballard (Scott Foley) has the church evacuated just in the nick of time.
Sally immediately politicizes the tragedy and begins tending to the victims as camera crews film. “Be Jesus,” her campaign adviser tells her. Nothing wins an election quite like the power of Jesus, and Sally surges in the polls and basically wins the election.
Folks, this all happens in just, like, the first 12 minutes of the show. This would be an entire season of a normal series, but on Scandal, it’s a plot point so backlogged in the sequence of twists and turns that you nearly forget that the bombing even happened by the time the episode ends.
But before the majority of those twists and turns come careening down the pike, the episode takes an interlude down that long, aggravating, and increasingly disinteresting highway that is the romance between Fitz and Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington). These star-crossed lovers have just about exhausted all goodwill toward their intermittent pairing, to the point that when they start cooing to each other about moving to Vermont and making jam and having babies for what seems like the 400th time since this show started, you’ve just about had enough.
How did we get to be TV viewers who embrace these characters, who root for them? They’re awful people. Does that make us awful, too?
Because, reliably, not two minutes pass after the whispering of those sweet nothings when a meteor shower of obstacles start blasting these star-crossed lovers in opposite directions again. Olivia tells Fitz that Mellie was raped by his father and his son might actually be his father’s son, and she can therefore never be with him, because how could she be with a guy who leaves his wife after learning that she was raped by his own father? (That sentence. Seriously. God bless this deranged show.)
But just when you're about to groan at yet another bait-and-switch in the labored love of Olivia and Fitz, you remember why you just can’t quit the idea of these two. The sprinting episode suddenly slows to a calm jog. Music starts playing. Lighting softens. Then, the longing in the eyes starts. Oh, that longing. Kerry Washington and Tony Goldwyn can, with one intense gaze, erase the frustration you feel about their nonsensical, immoral relationship and have you on board with the pairing once again.
The quiet moment is one to savor, though, because the rest of the episode is a fireworks show, with one plot shocker set off after another in a dazzling spectacle; a grand Scandal finale. First Lady Mellie (Bellamy Young) and Fitz reconcile—because of the whole rape thing—and we learn the son is actually his. But then that son is killed. Murdered. He is assassinated while standing on stage behind his father as he gives a presidential address. Uh, what!?
It’s wrenching. As a TV moment, it takes your breath away. And you barely have enough to catch it, or to properly weep while watching the characters mourn the death of a child, when Olivia brings us all back down to earth. “We’re going to win the election now,” she says.
She’s right. Sympathy for the First Family causes them to win the election. But holy cow, can you believe that’s her reaction to the tragedy? She’s disgusted with herself, too, that such a thing is her first thought. And she tells Cyrus as much. “A child is dead and that's the first thing that popped into my head,” she says. “I was going to let the church blow up with everyone in it,” Cyrus responds.
Olivia then says it best: “How did we get like this?” No, Olivia, how did we get like this? How did we get to be TV viewers who embrace these characters, who root for them? They're awful people. Does that make us awful, too?
You know what? A little bit! That’s kind of the greatness of Scandal though—how it is unafraid to reflect our own ugliness back at us. That this all takes place in the West Wing makes the way these people are behaving seem far removed from us and our own impulses. But on a smaller scale, with the imperfections, the impure motivations, and the constant vacillation between good and evil that makes them neither extreme, but merely human, we are like these people.
These are characters who view death as political opportunity and who carry on affairs in front of the people who love them and who deceive the American people on a regular basis, but who, thanks to strong writers and fiercely talented actors, reveal enough humanity at the root of every action to make them sympathetic and, against all odds, relatable. And if the rampant tweeting and impassioned debating that takes place about these characters each week are any indication, we really are invested in and rooting for this people. These horrible people.
Scandal, then, is basically Shakespeare in the age of Twitter. And in typical Shakespearean fashion, the episode was still not done with everything.
The final act was one that needs to be seen to be believed. And even then you can’t believe it.
Olivia is dismayed at everything that's happening and decides to get on a plane and run away with Jake. We learn that Olivia’s father, Rowan Pope, is the one who ordered Fitz’s son murdered. We learn that Rowan framed Olivia’s mother, Maya, for the murder. And then he staged her death. (But she’s still alive.) The web of secrets and lies behind those revelations is probably still being untangled in most viewers’ minds.
As all of it comes to a head, “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” plays in the background, like all of this heartbreak and blackmail and lying and horror was all some sort of groovy party. The truth is, though, that’s what Shonda Rhimes and her merry band of brilliantly demented writers do so well. They somehow convince us to RSVP for this party of frenzied mayhem and make it so much fun that we guiltily stay to revel in the immoral insanity of it all. Dancing the night away.
Putting the button on a fierce self-analyzing monologue explaining why she needs to skip town and escape the drama, Olivia shouts near the end of the episode, “I’m the scandal.”
Yes. Yes, you are, Olivia. And God bless you for it.