No TV drama beats Scandal when it comes to sheer volume of insane plot twists, but it’s not every week that the show manages to funnel them into an episode that resonates on a thematic level. That’s what made “Mama Said Knock You Out” such a refreshing hour of television: it slowed down the story long enough to explore the impact of nearly three seasons’ worth of constant upheaval on Scandal‘s characters. The episode centered around family, both literal blood relations and the bonds of love and trust isolated people build with kindred spirits.
The family that’s front and center is, of course, the Grants. Teenaged Jerry and Karen have been whisked home for an apparently quite rare visit (I keep forgetting that Fitz and Mellie have any children besides the baby) — not because their narcissistic parents actually want to see them, but to appear alongside POTUS and FLOTUS in a primetime, primary-season interview.
It’s clear this won’t go well when we see Mellie briefing her husband on the children’s activities, as though they’re some obscure political lobby, just a few more constituents to shake hands with and impress with a factoid he’s absorbed about their lives. When the kids — who are even less excited to see their dad than he is to see them — seem somewhere between apathetic and apprehensive about the interview, Olivia decides to do some digging into their lives. Sure enough, the Gladiators find out that Jerry runs a parody Twitter account whose big joke is comparing his father to Hitler. And then Liv witnesses Karen, who has been urging Mellie to leave her cheating husband, walking in on her mom in a compromising position with Andrew. All of this is a welcome reminder that the Grants are anything but a normal family, and of the impact that not just the presidency but also the adversarial relationship between two incredibly self-involved parents can have on the kids unfortunate enough to be their offspring.
Now, you might have figured Fitzgerald Grant for a reasonable enough guy not to begrudge his wife finding love; he has Olivia, after all. And yet! When Karen shares with the whole family what she saw Mommy doing with Uncle Andrew, Fitz barges into a meeting and punches his running mate in the face. Then, he confronts Mellie for ruining their marriage all those years ago, when she closed herself off after she became a mother and claimed she was no longer a sexual person. He wouldn’t have cheated, Fitz says, if she hadn’t effectively put an end to their marriage. “You killed us!” he tells her. Mellie reminds her husband of how much she’s sacrificed to make him who he is, but he calls bullshit. He doesn’t think she’s given up everything.
This is when I assumed it would all come out: the rape, the suicide attempt, everything she’s kept quiet to maintain Fitz’s blissful ignorance over the years. But it doesn’t, and I think that’s a good thing. Scandal is a show whose restraint rarely merits praise; in this case, though, it seems wise to plant the seed for a bigger reveal and let the couple’s tension grow a bit more. Meanwhile, Mellie only proves that, below the icy veneer, she’s still protecting Fitz. This echoes an odd moment between Fitz and Cyrus, a bit earlier in the episode. Cy has just lunged at Jake for killing James, and he’s briefly able to impress upon Fitz the enormous responsibility the people around him take for maintaining the President’s safety and reputation. Now, by my count, Fitz has gotten plenty of these wake-up calls — especially throughout the season. Each time, he seems to have a little epiphany and then quickly forget it. Will this be the one that makes him remember? (I mean, probably not.)
By the end of the episode, Olivia has succeeded in getting the Grants to pretend they love each other in front of the camera — but not without a major crisis of her own. When she barges in on Fitz and Mellie’s mega-fight, he screams in her face, “I AM TALKING TO MY WIFE.” Let that be a lesson to all the adulterers in the audience: this is not the way to speak to your girlfriend, the woman you dream of making jam with in Vermont. And it’s bad timing, too. As Liv is rushing around the White House trying to make the interview happen, she’s obviously haunted by a recent phone conversation with her mother the terrorist, in which Maya said, “You think you’re family, but you’re nothing but the help.” This is the sad truth Cyrus referred to in the Oval Office with Fitz, and in a moment of crisis, Liv asks Cy if this is true. It is, he tells her, they are both the help. But they’re the help with the power to comfort the country by fixing the Grant family. (Never mind that “the help” has different connotations for a black woman who’s both employed by and sleeping with the President.)
Meanwhile, Liv’s own epically dysfunctional nuclear family is also very much on her mind. Their problems are, of course, several times darker than the Grants’. And while Mama and Papa Pope rarely have much in common these days, their daughter feels their abandonment of her especially acutely in this episode. First, Rowan warns Liv away from her quest to take down B-613. She begs her father to help drag them all into the light with her, but he just says goodbye and hangs up the phone. And then there’s the speech she gets from Maya about how being a terrorist is better than being a glorified White House maid, just before she formally cuts any ties between them. Thankfully, because my poor heart couldn’t take seeing Olivia Pope any more isolated than she already is, Rowan comes around and reveals to her the source of B-613’s funding. (They take a little bit from all of the government agencies — because of course they do.) “We’re families,” he tells her. “They stick together.” What’s unspoken, obviously, is that Rowan’s change of heart appears to have a lot to do with Jake showing up to threaten his life.
Which brings us — briefly — to subplots. The Huck/Quinn/Charlie love triangle only got weirder this week; when Jake sends Quinn to find out what Huck, he tells her that he wants her out of B-613. And then they kiss. And then Quinn shoves him. And then Charlie moves in with Quinn to keep an eye on her. One of these characters will be dead by the end of the season, I’m fairly sure. If it were up to me, I’d kill them all off. Yesterday.
We’ll end with Maya and Adnan and the terrorists, a story that finally heated up this week. The political implications of all this are too sketchy and confusing to spend much time thinking about, but at least it’s doing some interesting things to shake up characters from every corner of the show. Adnan, once again, uses her sexual power over Harrison to fake out the Gladiators and copy Liv’s hard drive for Maya. The White House and B-613, meanwhile, are in conflict over who has dibs on the captured terrorist, and that turns into one more dick-measuring contest between Jake (who’s getting more frightening by the day) and Fitz. It provides an entirely gratuitous torture-porn moment for Quinn and Charlie, who are having an adorable domestic squabble as take a drill to Dmitri. And this week’s cliffhanger ending, in which we see that Jake has eyes on Adnan and Maya, ensures that this storyline will really come to the fore in the final three episodes of the season. “Let’s see how this plays out,” Jake says — and, of course, we will.