‘Scandal’ Season 4 Episode 3 Recap: “Inside the Bubble”

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For fuck’s sake, Scandal. After a decent premiere that, at the time, felt refreshingly restrained, I was willing to accept last week’s even lower-drama episode as a necessary bit of scene-setting. Three episodes in, though, and I’m becoming distraught. Where are the stakes? Where is the intrigue? Where is the pathos? Hell, it’s even been tough to find a really good Olivia Pope black-and-white outfit this season!

Let’s go over last night’s straight-up soporific plot points:

We’ve got Cyrus and his rent boy, who’s really an RNC operative. After Michael convinces Cy that he’s paying for discretion, not sex, they seal the deal. And Michael calls the President’s Chief of Staff “thirsty,” which isn’t exactly witty banter, but we’ll take what we can get this season.

Fitz is trying to get gun control passed, which means David Rosen clocks plenty of quality time in the Oval, where Cy observes his delight at being “in the bubble” — which is contrasted, with painful obviousness, to Abby’s frustration at not being in the bubble. But when David’s aboveboard attempts fail, he digs up those trusty B613 files and blackmails a judge into switching his position. Then that judge kills himself. With a gun. I don’t know. It seems like this entire plot exists to facilitate Fitz’s ranting about “these gun people” and wackos who buy AK-47s and shoot up schools. Which, hey, I agree! But remember when Scandal used to wrap its political statements in storylines you could actually get emotionally invested in?

Jake’s quest to nail Rowan continues, as he abducts Charlie and attempts to pump him for information. But, of course, what Charlie really wants is Quinn, so Jake lures her over too and throws them in a room together for a whole night of mind games. Charlie tells Quinn, “Nobody else wants you.” Quinn tells Charlie, “I don’t get lonely because I have people… I’m not like you.” Eventually, inevitably, they start making out, although they don’t get far before Jake opens the door. When Quinn returns to the OPA offices, she’s livid that Huck and Liv haven’t even noticed her 24-hour absence.

In the end, Jake gets the information he needs, and takes it with him to one of Liv and Rowan’s creepily tranquil father-daughter dinners, where Papa Pope wears a purple sweater and pretends not to be a monster. Of course, as soon as Liv is out of the room, Jake’s all over Rowan about killing Harrison and having Little Jerry infected with meningitis. Various death threats are made. “I’ll be the one standing over you when you die,” Rowan says to Jake, and I’m fairly convinced he’s right.

In perhaps the silliest, most pointless storyline in Scandal history, Mellie becomes obsessed with the story of a woman the tabloids have dubbed the “Killer Cliff Bride” — a newlywed caught on tape appearing to push her husband off a cliff. She enlists poor, exasperated Abby to assemble a team of high-ranking government officials, who she charges with proving the Killer Cliff Bride’s innocence… only to find, midway through a meeting in which she behaves like some sad, hysterical parody of herself, that the woman has already been vindicated. Fitz rewards Abby for her patience with some quality time in the Oval, where he pours her the second-best Scotch in the world and (sigh) gives her the third degree about what Liv’s up to.

And finally, Killer Cliff Bride gets some competition in the senseless ridiculousness department from “In the Bubble’s” Client of the Week: Catherine Winslow, Liv and Abby’s old friend from law school. These days, Catherine is the bored, rich wife of a high-powered lawyer and the mother of Caitlin, a teenage girl who’s gone missing. OPA easily tracks Caitlin to a hotel, where Catherine rushes off to meet her.

But wait! There’s a tape of Catherine having sex with Caitlin’s boyfriend! Everyone realizes there’s more to this mother-daughter relationship than meets the eye! They call the hotel, and sure enough, the police are there and Caitlin is dead and though Catherine is the prime suspect, she swears she didn’t do it. “I screwed a kid, and it was wrong and dirty. And you know what? It felt frickin’ great,” Catherine tells Olivia, in some of the worst dialogue I have ever heard on Scandal. I imagine we’ll learn what really happened next week, and that it will bring Abby — who’s notably out of the loop on this, too — and Liv back on the same side. Not that I have actually been persuaded to care or anything, but my guess is, the (literally) motherfucking boyfriend’s to blame.

So, that’s it. That’s what Scandal has become in Season 4. The dialogue isn’t tense and audacious so much as cringe-worthy and pedantic. The political subtext isn’t smuggled into episodes so much as scaffolded by a handful of inane storylines. The relationships aren’t sexy and complicated and ambivalent so much as angsty and repetitive and obligatory. The heart-pounding last act of each episode, where everything changes and the drama gets ramped up to a weekly cliffhanger, is dead.

Where are Shonda Rhimes and co. doing in Season 4, and where can they go from here? Bringing back what made Scandal so compelling, especially in the second and third seasons — Maya Pope, Fitzlivia, B613 — would just be treading old ground. Still, I have a sneaking suspicion that the season’s low energy level is meant to mimic Liv’s state of mind, which would explain one of the only decent moments from “In the Bubble”: Rowan’s speech about “reentry,” which “feels like something is missing, but everything is missing.”

To put it in terms Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans will understand, Season 4 of Scandal has been like Season 6 of that show, after Buffy dies and is resurrected with a brand-new, nihilistic view of life on Earth. Now, Buffy got its act together by forcing its heroine into her most self-destructive relationship yet. I predict Scandal will do the same, which means we’re bound to see Olivia Pope and Fitzgerald Grant in the same room eventually. I can’t believe I’m saying this, bored as I was by that relationship last season, but I sure hope it happens soon.