“Where in the world is Olivia Pope?”
That’s the question that’s been on Scandal obsessives’ minds all summer, since we watched Kerry Washington’s fabulous fixer board a plane with sort-of-paramour Jake Ballard (Scott Foley) and jet off to god knows where, leaving all her problems (and lordy there are a lot of them) behind.
But after Thursday night’s astonishingly raunchy, proudly feminist, strangely hairy, and all-in-all brilliant fourth season premiere of Scandal, it appears there is a new question to ponder: “Has Olivia Pope lost her damn mind?”
You see, we open with Olivia lounging with her white hat and a copy of Gone Girl on the beach. Jake and his abs walk up. They kiss. They do more than kiss in an explicit kind of way that makes you forget that this is airing at 9 p.m. on ABC. Where in the world is Olivia Pope? She is 100 miles off the coast of Zanzibar on an island that doesn’t even exist on a map, YOLO-ing like a boss.
She also isn’t Olivia Pope anymore. She has changed her name to Julia Baker—an insanely classy reference to Diahann Carroll's character on Julia, the first TV drama to star a black actress until Washington fronted Scandal. And Julia Baker has mail. Sad mail. Mail that tells her that Harrison, who was played by fired actor Columbus Short, has been killed.
And faster than you can solve a complicated murder case during a montage set to a classic Motown song, Olivia and Jake are back in D.C. so Olivia can plan Harrison’s funeral. It’s only for “a few days, in and out,” Olivia says, which we all know is a biggest lie she’s ever told. (And she once lied to America about who won the presidential election.)
So, yes, Olivia has lost her damn mind. Just minutes after receiving a shipment of fresh fruit and what is apparently really fancy red wine and getting fingered on the beach by the hot guy from Felicity, she decides to leave paradise to return to the chaos stress tornado that is her life in the nation’s capital. Lost. Her. Damn. Mind.
So what has everyone in that tornado been up to?
Quinn has apparently been buying every slim-fitting piece of leather clothing in Washington, D.C., and searching for Olivia in her spare time. Huck has been working at a tech support counter, and refuses to even look or talk to Olivia when she stops by to say, “Hey! Sorry for completely abandoning you at your time of crisis.” Abby has been made Press Secretary at the White House, but more importantly she’s got a new haircut. It is flowing and feminine and luxurious and looks GREAT.
(Portia de Rossi also makes her debut as the RNC chair in this episode, sporting some sky-high power hair, while she spars against Jeff Perry’s Cyrus, who is sporting some sky-high toupee hair. It’s a big episode for surprising hair!)
The episode quickly becomes a Scandal meets The Big Chill mash-up, as the reuniting of these old friends and frenemies surfaces all kinds of feelings—betrayal, resentment, longing, heartbreak—that have to be fought out before Harrison can properly be buried.
A scene between Kerry Washington and Darby Stanchfield, who plays Abby, in a park was particularly brutal, and an exemplary case for how Rhimes writes people’s relationships so well. Both parties were selfish. Both were vulnerable. Both came off as negative, terrible people as they bickered, and it was still impossible not to empathize with both of them. That’s a hard skill to master. All hail St. Shonda.
Abby doesn’t get all the Olivia drama, however. In the next scene, she meets her father for a glass of expensive red wine. (Think of all the shocking government secrets this woman has locked up in her head, and think of how easily she’d give them up if you just force her to drink shitty boxed wine.) They catch up for lost time and she asks him if he had her friend murdered. As you fathers and daughters do. He didn’t kill Harrison. He did kill Olivia’s mom, though. So it's really a take-what-you-can-get kind of situation with him.
But just when you think that there was going to be no batshit insanity in this episode, the kind of bold, out-of-its-mind storytelling that the show subsists on—that it was just going to be an hour of all the characters working out their feelings—by the grace of god there’s a murder to solve. Well, an almost-murder. And just like that Olivia’s back to sweeping bad deeds under the rug and fixin’ problems. The more things change—haircuts, Mellie’s sanity, the ever-absurd heir of Olivia’s wine-glass stems—the more they stay the same.
Olivia comes to the epiphany that she needs to stay to solve the case in the middle of what might be the most quotable scene this show has ever done. Jake is attempting to perform oral sex on her, and she just can’t stop thinking about how unfair the case she’s considering giving up going back to the island for is: A woman pushes away a congressman who is harassing her, he falls off a balcony and nearly dies, but because he survives he is canonized and the mistreatment of the woman is buried.
Jake is sympathetic, of course, because he is TV’s perfect man. But he’s also going to whine about not going back to his and Olivia’s sex island, and being pushed aside for her work. “I am the one you like to ride,” he says (!). “I’m the one who makes you moan,” he continues (!!). “I’m the one who reaches you in places he can’t touch.” (!!!) Jake, I believe, just told Olivia that he knows Fitz has a tiny penis.
But those two things—Jake's horny speech and Olivia’s impassioned monologue—are important when presented together.
Think about it. What lures Olivia back into the work force? Women sticking up for themselves in cases of domestic violence. This is a show that let its lead get fingered on a beach, date a guy who gets annoyed that she won’t concentrate while he goes down on her, and then gives her an amazing storyline and series of speeches about rape culture, sexual harassment, and the injustice of he-said/she-said domestic cases.
Is Olivia Pope an “Angry Black Woman,” as one asinine TV critic suggests? No. She might be the most progressive lead we’ve ever seen on broadcast television.
As is the case with this show, it’s already the third act and time for Harrison’s funeral. All the Gladiators show up. They’re the only ones there. Now, I never liked Harrison and he was such a boring character that most of the time I couldn’t even remember his name, but I have a heart and dammit this scene killed me.
“He didn’t have people,” Olivia says. “Just us.” That’s why she stays. And that’s the beauty of Shondaland. Rhimes has this uncanny ability to build families out of people who should never be together, and capture an emotional bond between them that makes you root for them when they treat others despicably, stomp on each other’s hearts, and hang each other out to dry. It’s why—and this is crucial in a soap opera-thriller as wild as Scandal—you never question it when they get back in each other’s good graces.
There are a few more short scenes to speed through—an Olivia Pope press conference, a Mellie line that has an entire nation collectively imagining what Bellamy Young’s pubic hair looks like all at the same time—before the episode’s grand finale: the reunion between Olivia and Fitz. Well, it’s less of a reunion that a walking-past-each-other. Well, it’s less of a walking-past-each-other than it is some sort of palpable air-sex situation, because the two of them have a look in their eyes like they just took about four consecutive rolls in the hay after they simply strut past each other.
Going down that rabbit hole again? Olivia Pope, you’ve lost your damn mind.