Here’s an easy way to tell whether you’re going to get a fun Scandal episode or an excruciating one: figure out which supporting character is going to get more screen time, Mellie or Huck. If it’s the FLOTUS, congratulations! You can settle in for some hard-drinking, quip-spitting, scheming good times. But if it’s Huck, a once-great character whose B613-inflicted psychological damage has made him into a one-dimensional torture robot… well, you’re going to get an episode like “YOLO.”
I’m not sure what has given Shonda Rhimes and co. the idea that Scandal viewers are clamoring for gore, and yet the past few episodes have brought some of the show’s bloodiest, hardest-to-watch moments. First there was Olivia’s mom, Maya, chewing open her wrists in lockup. And this week, we open on Huck prying Quinn’s mouth open with some dental device and threaten to remove her teeth, one by one. This is what happens when he catches someone betraying Liv, the person to whom he has transferred his endlessly creepy, laser-focused loyalty post-B613. Now, Scandal is a show meant to thrill and titillate with its plot twists and love affairs, and these scenes between Huck and Quinn — two people who get off on inflicting pain — are clearly supposed to elicit a frisson of some kind. Mostly, I found them boring and disruptive, not to mention that everything we didn’t see made it easy to predict Quinn’s double-cross at the end of the episode. I don’t even want to talk about her is-it-or-isn’t-it-a-sham romance with Charlie, a relationship totally undercut by their lack of chemistry.
Thankfully, “YOLO” gets a bit better than what’s happening amid the duct tape and plastic sheeting in Quinn’s apartment. Those of us who could sit through the torture porn were rewarded with the long-awaited meeting of Olivia and Maya. Let’s not dwell on the logistics of how Mom managed to track down her daughter on the street, because the episode hits the ground running, with the Gladiators scrambling to get Maya out of the country before Rowan can stop her. First, Mama Pope tells her side of the story: she had figured out what her husband really did for a living and was flying out to meet a reporter and expose him. Then, there’s yet another mystifyingly bloody shot of Jake and Huck removing the tracking device Rowan has had planted in her.
As plans take shape to deliver Maya to a safe house in Hong Kong, we’re allowed a single scene of mother and daughter struggling to catch up after 22 years apart. And it’s a good one. When Maya asks to hear more about her, Liv gives an abrupt, unsatisfying answer: “I work. I have a life.” Seemingly unimpressed by her daughter’s high-powered career — and especially her similarity to Rowan — Maya explains that she had dreamed up a fictional life for Olivia over the years: a dentist husband named Ray, a son, family dinners every night with lots of laughter. It’s a vision that echoes the making-jam-in-Vermont fantasy Liv shares with Fitz, and yet another reminder that she’s chosen a hard and lonely road for herself.
Speaking of Olivia Pope’s love life, “YOLO” also brought a new chapter in the Fitz vs. Jake love triangle. Meeting in the Oval Office, the suitors make plain what we’ve known for a while: compared with wanting to help, save, and impress Liv, things like justice and national security aren’t terribly important to them. Oh, and also, Jake blames Fitz for abandoning him to life controlled by B613. Which, well, duh.
Finally, we get to the fun part: Cyrus and James and Daniel and Sally! Tensions are high at the beginning of the episode, with James constantly making references to his night with David that he hopes will make his husband crack. Eventually, he graduates from double to single entendres: “Could’ve been a threesome.” When Cy finally flips out, James counters with his — really rather understandable — horror at being pimped out by his own spouse and demands a divorce. Unfortunately for him, Cy still has the pictures of his night with Daniel, and if James leaves, he’ll make them public and ensure that Cy retains custody of their child.
Meanwhile, in the Sally camp, she’s sold her soul to the centrists, pledging to embrace a pro-choice stance once she’s got the party’s nomination. (This is more political wishful thinking from the Scandal writing staff, I think; these days, you don’t have to support abortion to get elected. You just have to be less stupid about it than any number of right-wing candidates.) Thus empowered, she marches into Fitz’s office to inform him of her candidacy. He tells Sally she’s going to ruin both of them. Fitz declares war — which is pretty much what any presidential campaign is, so, again: duh.
This puts an already-desperate Cyrus in an impossible spot. He’s under pressure to use the photos he has of James and Daniel, but he’s suddenly developed a soul and doesn’t want to hurt his husband that way. Mellie gives him an ice queen-to-ice queen pep talk: “It hurts until it doesn’t,” she says. “Numb and fine are the same.” So he shows up at Sally’s office with the pictures, and she calls his bluff — although it’s still kind of mysterious why anyone who knows Cy would be so confident that he’s not willing to hurt his own family. Yet for some reason having more to do with plot needs than character consistency, Sally may be right. Cyrus breaks down and calls James to apologize.
From there, we’re into Scandal‘s trademark Final Act of Shock and Awe:
- Liv and the Gladiators have brought Maya to board her plane to Hong Kong. After witnessing their stiff farewell, Abby demands that her boss give her mother a hug. She does. Maya takes off. And Liv’s brain chooses that moment to restore her memory of a phone call she received just after her mother left to catch that fateful flight. The person calling asked for a Marie — and Marie is the name Rowan used to get Maya on the no-fly list. It suddenly dawns on Olivia that her dad isn’t “the monster” — her mom is! Whoops.
- Quinn’s double-cross is revealed. She makes a meeting with Rowan, ostensibly to get back the tape of her killing the security guard. Instead, she’s got a syringe with the B613 leader’s name on it. Too bad there’s finally some doubt as to whether he’s the one who needs to be killed. We’ll find out whether she goes through with it next week.
- Finally, the craziest moment of all: Sally calls Cyrus. “I’ve committed a sin,” she says. And there’s Daniel, crumpled on the floor, bloody and dead.
Of course, this leaves us with no shortage of questions: Maya/Marie may be a terrorist of some sort, but does that actually make Rowan/Eli a hero? What in the hell kind of spy vs. spy marriage were they in, anyway? And does it make any sense that, after killing her husband, Sally calls her mortal enemy first? We’ll find out in next week’s midseason finale, which is sure to be even more over-the-top than “YOLO” — and, if we’re lucky, won’t feature quite so much Huck.