Taken together, Scandal‘s Season 2 finale and Season 3 premiere (both written by Shonda Rhimes) were two of the most action-packed hours in TV history. The fake-outs and hairpin turns just kept coming, to the delight of Twitter, but at the price of things like character development and exposition. Last night, thankfully, the show took some time to catch its breath, filling in the history of Olivia’s relationship with her father and reminding us of how little we actually know about the woman at the center of this show.
Through a series of flashbacks set five years in the past, we learn that Olivia and Rowan were estranged, and that he lured her back into his life sometime after her mother’s death by offering to repay her law-school loans. Of course, there’s a catch: she has to meet him every Sunday night for dinner, where he wears a professorial sweater and regales her with some cozy lies about his bogus job at the Smithsonian.
Although she’s icy at first, Olivia is just beginning to warm up to her dad when Huck — in his elaborately bearded Union Station hobo incarnation — saves her from being mugged on the subway platform. Witnessing how effectively her friendly neighborhood homeless guy takes out her attackers, she asks him where he learned to fight like that, and he mumbles something about being a government assassin in a secret program called “B613.”
Of course, Rowan is less than thrilled when Olivia repeats the story to him and he hears the code name of the nightmarish program he runs. (I would be remiss not to add, here, that this occurs in the same flashback where we learn that she never liked wine before her father introduced her to the good stuff: it’s Olivia’s wine origin story!) She asks him to look into it — from, you know, his national security-relevant perch at a publicly owned museum — and Rowan comes back with a pile of lies about Huck being mentally ill and arrested.
Obviously, Papa Pope is behind the disappearance; Olivia has her suspicions after a young David Rosen (whose job at this point appears to mostly involve advising central-casting prostitutes) runs Huck’s fingerprints and finds no arrest record. But it all really comes together in a moment straight out of The Usual Suspects, when an Acme Ltd. pen and a Wonderland street sign reveal to Olivia — whose genius, let’s remember, is beyond the comprehension of mere mortals — that her dad knows far more about B613 than he’s letting on.
There’s a tense confrontation at a restaurant. Rowan responds to his daughter’s accusations by commanding her to forget all about it and swallow his weekly lies like a good kid. She walks out, but shows up at his house the next Sunday with Edison — he proposed, and she said yes! — and pulls Rowan aside to demand that he release Huck. In the next flashback, Huck has returned to Union Station, visibly worse for the time he spent in The Hole. But then her dad calls to say that Edison’s been a bad accident that, clearly, he has caused. Apparently not even a senator is good enough for his little girl. Olivia cuts ties with Rowan in person, and his response is chilling: “We are family, Sweetie. We are never done.”
If this all sounds a bit bonkers, well, what else could we expect? Not only does Scandal demand high drama from even its backstories, but Olivia Pope is such an extraordinary human being that she pretty much had to come from such bizarre beginnings. Now we know why she’s obsessed with “wearing the white hat” and why her relationship with Edison has never quite added up. We also now know that it’s taken her less than five years to become one of the most powerful women in America. I’m sure we’ll get more on Olivia’s rise as the season progresses. It makes sense that Rhimes is choosing this moment to slow down and fill out the character: at the beginning of last season, Scandal wasn’t nearly the phenomenon it’s become, and she had to spend its second year getting us addicted. (To put it mildly, these efforts succeeded.) But now that the show’s future is secure, it’s time to do the character work that will lay the foundation for many seasons to come.
Back in the present, we realize that Rowan’s prophecy has already come true. In the wake of the false revelation that he’s having an affair with Jeannine Locke, Fitz calls up Olivia: “Something happens and you’re the one I want to talk to,” he says. She tells him she’s going to represent Jeannine — she has to! It’s a wearing-the-white-hat requirement! — and instead of getting angry, he falls just a bit deeper in love with her. There’s a sad moment where they fantasize about a life together that they’ll never have: they live in Vermont with four kids. He’s the mayor. She makes jam. It’s sweet, I guess, but we know that these two people in particular are too ambitious and too wrapped up in their own hero complexes to genuinely want a life like that — a realization that spelled out in a callback to this moment at the end of the episode. This is the central tragedy of Olivia and Fitz: they really are in love, but neither can fully justify making love the center of their life.
Meanwhile, at the White House, Mellie and Cyrus have teamed up to bully Fitz into making the false confession that he slept with Jeannine. But he refuses to ruin an innocent woman’s life and — suddenly remembering that he’s the leader of the free world — orders them to keep denying it.
After Olivia holds a press conference with Jeannine in front of the White House, Rowan shows up at her office — prompting Quinn to exclaim, “He’s so normal!” and then start digging in her boss’ email to get at the true nature of their relationship. It turns out Dad has arrived to make Olivia choose between defending Jeannine and saving Jake’s life, although he also won’t confirm for her that Jake is not already dead. At this point, she calls in the big guns — Fitz — to demand Jake’s release, but a conversation between him and Cyrus reveals that B613 doesn’t answer to the president.
The Jeannine story eventually kicks into Scandal motion-blur mode. Without Fitz’s cooperation, Mellie is forced to “prove” the affair by fabricating evidence that the two of them spent several nights alone in the West Wing. The Gladiators counter by manipulating a White House geek into handing over chat records that show other staffers were there with Jeannine. But then Mellie swoops in — while Olivia’s out at the morgue, obviously, making sure that each new body that comes in isn’t Jake — to offer the girl $2 million to admit the affair and then go away. Jeannine accepts because, hey, her good name is already ruined.
Before she gets a chance to air her televised confession, though, Fitz preempts her interview with a press conference of his own. With Jake’s life hanging in the balance, he tells Cyrus he’ll throw Jeannine under the bus if B613 releases his old army buddy (more on their time together and that secret file Rowan showed Cyrus will follow, I’m sure). Otherwise, he’s coming clean to the nation about his relationship with Olivia.
Well, whether it’s Fitz’s decision to play along with the Jeannine lie or Olivia’s offer to resume Sunday dinners with Rowan (as a call from him suggests), Jake is out of The Hole at the end of the episode. He appears at Olivia’s door, looking quite a bit worse for the wear (seriously, B613 won’t let a captive shower and shave before releasing him back into the wild?), and suddenly a whole new world of possibilities open for Season 3. We’ll learn more about what Jake and Fitz did in the military, sure, but now that Olivia knows what Jake risked for her, I’m also expecting the love triangle to heat up again.
And then there’s the other conflict this episode leaves open: Quinn’s email hacking has revealed that Olivia hid her father’s involvement with B613 from Huck. He chokes her, and makes her admit everything. In the past, his gratefulness to Olivia has blinded him to her flaws. Well, not anymore. We’ve seen disappointingly little of the Gladiators so far this season, so I’m hoping that whatever conflict ensues between these two, it will also bring us back into the lives of Abby and Quinn and Harrison.