“I am the hell and the high water.” Yup, Scandal is back, after a positively bananas Season 2 finale that left fans wondering how we could possibly wait four months to find out what happened after Olivia Pope was beset by reporters as she left her apartment for a run, then dragged into a limo, where she sat face-to-face with Rowan. Looking at him in disbelief, she utters the show’s final line of the season: “Dad!”
If you didn’t realize the Season 3 premiere would be just as insane as the episode that preceded it, then you haven’t been paying enough attention to Shonda Rhimes. Last night’s episode picked up right where the we left off in May, with Olivia and Rowan in that limo. What followed was so “twisty-turny” (as ABC itself has taken to describing Scandal in the promos) that I thought about writing this recap as a series of turn-by-turn driving directions.
The first revelation is a bit of a relief, if not the biggest surprise: Rowan was trying to have Jake killed, not Olivia. He may be the founder of B613, but he isn’t cold-hearted enough to unceremoniously bump off his own daughter (yet). Of course, we don’t get much information about Jake’s whereabouts, either. All Rowan will say is that Jake defied orders — but considering that we know Scott Foley has joined the main cast for this season, unless we’ve got a year’s worth of brutal flashbacks in store, it seems more than likely that he’s still alive.
More than anything, what we learn from Olivia’s involuntary visit with her dad is that Rowan is fucking nuts. He’s a chilling, bombastic orator in high Rhimes style, and apparently a bit of misogynist, too, dispensing lines like, “You raised your skirt and opened your knees and gave it away to someone with too much power. You’re not rare, you’re not special, your story’s no different than a thousand stories in this town” and the aforementioned “I am the hell and the high water.” We learn that he wants Olivia to get out of DC, spend eight months off the grid while the news of her affair with the president blows over, and then make a new life for herself anywhere but the US. He also mentions that he’s disappointed she didn’t aim her ambitions a bit higher than being the first lady and reminds her of what he’s always taught her, that she has to be “twice as good as them to get half of what they have.” It’s a moment loaded with significance about “them” (and also “us”) that goes a long way towards explain how Olivia Pope became Olivia Pope.
It’s devastating to watch her get on that plane, ceding every bit of control over her life to a father figure who, as she alludes to more than once, hasn’t exactly been a great influence in the past. Of course, she never makes it off the runway, after a call with Cyrus — another one of those famous father figures for whom she has a well-established weakness — in which he begs her to get off the plane, pointing out that President Fitz will think he’s had her killed if she disappears and promising lots of help in exchange. “I’m a monster, but honey, I’m your monster,” he says. And hey, maybe he means it for a while.
When Olivia gets off the plane and back into the limo, and demands to be driven to her office, she seems free of her father’s influence in a new and reassuring way (although, as we find out later, that’s not the last we’ll see of him this season). But it’s chaos from the moment she steps out of the car, surrounded by reporters before being whisked upstairs by Harrison and Huck. The Gladiators — who we see far too little of in this episode — vow to rally around Olivia, because of course they will, despite the fact that her scandal is causing them to hemorrhage clients.
Speaking of chaos, the Oval Office is a circus, too, with Cyrus trying to strong-arm VP Sally into taking over Fitz’s public appearances while the White House comes up with a strategy. That doesn’t go so well; soon enough, she’s harping on his “godless homosexual lifestyle.” Thankfully, Fitz steps in with his dumb charm, taking Sally aside and offering her some Scotch — because he’s not sexist! — and explaining that he needs some time to repair his family. It’s confusing that she’s won over so quickly, but she’ll reap the benefits of this generosity later in the episode, when (after some bizarre girl talk about how her husband is “fun” now because she’s “the most powerful woman in the free world” or something) new bestie Fitz urges her to throw him under the bus and seize her rightful place as the party’s moral center when his affair with Olivia is revealed.
Meanwhile, as Cyrus and Mellie attempt to hunt down the leak and David shows up at Olivia’s office to offer his help (and remind us that things are still rocky between him and Abby), there’s a new development in the presidential sex scandal. Video footage surfaces of Fitz leaving Olivia’s apartment. And just like that, Cyrus isn’t her monster anymore. “Start a kill folder on Olivia Pope,” he commands. Apparently, they’ll be playing the “ambitious slut card,” a dark commentary on how quickly a brilliant, powerful woman can be painted as just another bimbo.
It’s starting to look like Olivia should have listened to her dear old dad and fallen off the face of the earth, so when she shows up back at the airplane hangar (I guess that’s where he likes to hang out), that seems to be what’s about to happen. “You’re running out of options,” he tells her. “I’m never out of options,” she counters. In case it wasn’t abundantly clear the first time around, Olivia Pope will not be getting on that plane, thank you very much.
But it is time for her to hit the panic button. In a series of actions so fast and complicated that they’re still a motion blur in my mind, Olivia gains access to Fitz’s bunker, where the president of the United States of America looks like nothing more than a naughty child who’s been sent to his room to think about what he’s done. She demands that they make a plan — and then, as if those words themselves conjured her, there’s Mellie to get in on the scheming and call Olivia hurtful names. That’s when Liv goes into logistical-genius mode, muttering things about rose gardens and light-colored suits, and comes to the conclusion that “It works. The truth works.”
It doesn’t quite work for Mellie, though, who bargains her husband and his mistress’ trysts down to two. What’s fascinating to watch, as always, is how these two ambitious, strategic superwomen work together to shape the president’s fate, as he contributes nothing but generally unheeded protestations. But that doesn’t mean he’s entirely powerless over Olivia: when they’re done scheming and Mellie has left, Fitz embraces her. She says “Don’t,” and ends up crying in his arms anyway.
The plan to come clean about Fitz’s affair with Olivia would have put the show in a pretty difficult place, plot-wise, so it’s not much of a surprise that the confession never happens. In one corner we’ve got Harrison with a DVD; in another, there’s Mellie approaching Cyrus to suggest an alternate plan. Before the end of the episode, we’ve got video of Jeannine Locke talking about how hot the president is, along with some emails of the same nature. Not exactly conclusive evidence, but the media bites, because: media, right?
Olivia’s off the hook for now, and that’s not even one of this season premiere’s many kickers. First we see Fitz declare war on Mellie, revealing that he’s the one responsible for leaking his affair with Liv to the press. (Can I just interject that the tipsy gossip columnist in these flashbacks is pure gold?) “Now she’s free,” he tells his wife. Then, we see that Olivia’s got a new client: Jeannine, of course. She’s got to prove to herself that she wears the white hat, and that means clearing this innocent girl’s name. And finally, Cyrus returns home to find Charlie there with a gun pointed at him and poor James in a drug-induced sleep at his side. He’s whisked off to — who else? — Papa Rowan, who thinks the president’s out-of-the-loop chief of staff might be interested to know what Fitz and Jake got up to in the military.
By all appearances, that last moment is what will set up Scandal‘s major Season 3 arc. I have to admit that I’m not particularly excited about the dark-army-secrets angle, but it’s too soon to doubt Shonda Rhimes’ uncanny ability to make me care about that, too. It was a wildly fun, if whiplash-inducing, season premiere. Next week, I’m hoping the show slows down for long enough to take us back into Olivia’s office and the lives of the Gladiators.