It may have taken you a minute, last night, to realize you were watching the Scandal Season 4 premiere and not an ad for an all-inclusive resort vacation. White sand, clear blue-green water, a happy couple in bathing suits, a copy of Gone Girl… As much as shippers may have longed for a full hour of Olivia Pope — sorry, Julia Baker! — and Jake Ballard making out on an island “a hundred miles off the coast of Zanzibar,” it surely came as a surprise to no one when a mysterious envelope delivered alongside their weekly boatload of wine catalyzed their return to civilization. I mean, this isn’t Lost (thank god).
Although anyone could have guessed it, not so much when the character ended Season 3 with a gun in his face as when Columbus Short was fired from Scandal amid domestic violence charges, Harrison’s death is the first of the episode’s many twists. The envelope, which Jake urges Liv not to open, contains anonymously sent newspaper clipping that confirms it. Of course, this means Olivia Pope has to go back to the island — sorry, sorry, back to Washington — to mourn the fallen Gladiator (where she apparently visits her stylist immediately for an emergency hair straightening).
With Liv gone, all of DC has obviously gone to shit. The Gladiators have scattered to the winds. Abby is the new White House Press Secretary (but Fitz and Cyrus call her “Red” because no one has bothered to learn her name); she’s gone ice-cold and blames Liv for Harrison’s death. Huck has become the low-rent version of an Apple Genius, and fails to even acknowledge the existence of his former colleagues. So Quinn is the only one left to hold down the fort at OPA’s offices. She’s there when Liv returns, because she’s the one who tracked down Liv in the first place — by following the wine. But by the time our heroine is shopping online for caskets, she’s even alienated Quinn.
Meanwhile, the White House isn’t doing much better. In perhaps the greatest development of the season premiere, Portia de Rossi debuts on Scandal as the head of the RNC — although Cy prefers to call her character “Lizzybear.” The two face off over the Grant administration’s plans to nominate a Democratic Attorney General, who of course turns out to be David Rosen. This may well have something to do with those B-613 files Jake left the US Attorney at the end of Season 3, although they’re currently sitting in storage, as we learn when Jake confronts David about the, and Abby swears to her ex that she hasn’t said anything about them to her bosses. (Side note: shouldn’t Jake be just a bit more afraid of returning to DC than he seems?)
But the big, campy spectacle at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is Mellie Grant, who had a breakdown after her son’s death. When we first see her, she’s slouching into the Oval like a college kid during finals week, eating cereal out of the box in mismatched pajamas. She gets an excellent speech towards the end of the episode, after Cy has broken the news to Fitz that Liv is back. Claiming she’s too exhausted for her husband’s games, Mellie’s refrain is, “When you see her, you’ll tell me.” Also revealed in this exchange: that Fitz tried to kill himself following Jerry’s death and Liv’s departure; that Mellie’s vacation from hygiene extends to her nether regions. “It’s 1976 down there,” in case you were wondering.
Amid all the scene-setting and monologuing, Shonda Rhimes — who wrote this episode — even manages to get in a case of the week. And it’s a feminist-y one! As the dream Republicans of the Grant White House attempt to champion bipartisan politics and push through an equal pay bill, we meet Senator Vaughn (Jessica Tuck, who True Blood fans may remember as steely Vampire Authority leader Nan Flanagan). Her aide shows up at Liv’s door (for a second we think it might be Fitz; this is much better) pleading for help because her boss may have killed Senator Sterling. Suddenly, Olivia Pope is back on the job. When she gets to the scene of the crime, she realizes that despite all the blood and broken glass, Sterling’s still alive.
What follows is a somewhat brilliant mess of competing retrograde strategies and feminist agendas. Vaughn claims she was defending herself against Sterling’s unwanted sexual advances. We realize (in what is becoming something of a trope on Scandal — Liv figures out that her client is covering for someone more vulnerable) that it’s the aide who actually put him in the hospital. There’s an additional twist when it becomes clear that Sterling had a “type” of woman he liked to assault, and Vaughn sent her aide to him as a sort of offering, in hopes it would sway him in favor of the equal pay legislation. This is the sort of deceptively profound political commentary Rhimes excels at folding into a featherweight hour of television, and it’s what makes her shows more fun and cathartic to watch than your average addictive soap.
Another feminist highlight is Liv’s rant, in bed with Jake, before she takes the Vaughn case back from another fixer. She’s angry that coming out as a sexual assault victim can ruin a powerful woman’s career. It certainly kills the mood of “Jake’s turn,” a time where talking is apparently prohibited. But it does give him a chance to go off on her about Washington and how it’s always actually Fitz’s turn, even though Jake is the one who makes her moan. (Am I the only one who thought Scandal fully leveled-up in terms of dirty talk last night? Not mad at it, obviously, just noting.)
By the end of the hour, Julia Baker is dead and Olivia Pope is Olivia Pope again. For this premiere, which accomplished so much without ever going over the rails, Rhimes wisely avoided packing 15 shocking revelations into the last five minutes. In fact, she showed some restraint! Whatever is going on with Papa Pope, who’s already lying about Harrison’s death and the fact that Maya is still alive, is relegated to the background. And the final scene of “Randy, Red, Superfreak, and Julia” has Liv and Fitz walking right by each other without saying a word. Surely they’ll be entangled again soon, but I’m happy to wait another week before it happens.