TV recaps tend to get a bad rap among high-minded critic types — something I’ve never thought was entirely fair. Certainly, I have practical reasons to be biased in favor of the format, but it’s also difficult for me to understand what’s so terrible about coming together to discuss individual episodes of television, which is after all one of the few shared experiences left in American culture now that we all bowl alone and have invented enough apps that we never need to leave home.
Still, recaps have their drawbacks. The biggest of these, perhaps, is the impatience they breed. Instead of shrugging and waiting for next week when our favorite series air a mediocre episode or slow their pace or introduce a questionable storyline, we analyze said misfire to death and start fretting that the show has passed its prime. Sometimes subsequent episodes prove us right, but it’s still kind of an unfair way to judge serial storytelling, and it could conceivably result in writers taking fewer risks with season-long arcs.
Do you see where I’m going with all this? Yes, praise Shonda Rhimes, Season 4 of Scandal is finally happening. We all went pretty quickly to that “Scandal is over” place, didn’t we, after what was really only two bad episodes? And now we feel just a little bit embarrassed. It’s not that “Like Father, Like Daughter” justified all that time spent on stupid storylines, exactly — I doubt Mellie’s Killer Cliff Bride obsession will ever return to justify its awfulness. But maybe we did need to see Olivia Pope hesitate and gingerly dip toes into the pool of filth that is DC, after a few months in paradise/hiding, before we could appreciate what it looks like when she fully recommits.
This week’s central story was classic Scandal: a crisis comes out of nowhere, and not only does it force Olivia back into the White House, but it gets all of the show’s major characters agitated and emotional, casting new light on old themes and conflicts. It helps, too, that said crisis is really juicy one. Midway through what I feel OK classifying as a determinedly normcore dinner with Jake (more on that later), Liv gets an urgent phone call. The next thing we know, she and Quinn are busting into a college party in pursuit of a wasted girl… who happens to be President Fitzgerald Grant’s teenage daughter, Karen. They find her in a bedroom, woozy and puking, in her underwear. Huck handily cuts not only reception but power (is this even possible?) to all the cellphones in the place so no one can photograph the First Daughter as Liv and Quinn escort her into a helicopter.
On the way home, though, they realize that the damage has already been done. Karen’s risky activities at the party weren’t limited to drugs and alcohol; one of her multiple sex partners from the evening sends her what Olivia pronounces “the dirtiest sex tape I have ever seen.” (Think about that for a second: the dirtiest sex tape Washington’s top fixer has ever seen. It would probably make mere mortals like ourselves projectile vomit.) From there, she’s on the phone screaming to Cyrus (who’s with his RNC rent boy again; this silly plot’s on the back burner for now, which is exactly where it should be). Then she’s in the Oval Office with Cyrus and Fitz, who takes over screaming duties.
All of these confrontations allow for some of the great Scandal camp dialogue I’ve been missing so much this season. Karen — who, in an intriguing move for a show that tends to take its sexual politics right out of the mainstream-feminist playbook, insists she was not raped and even suggests that perhaps she was the one taking advantage of the boys in the video — informs us that she “shot up something awesome.” Liv draws our attention to the way she identifies with Karen, seeing as she too was once an “angry, grieving teenage girl” who acted out.
“Like Father, Like Daughter” also lights a short-fuse time bomb when Fitz both convinces Olivia — who, remember, he’s barely seen in months — to handle the sex-tape situation and makes the decision not to tell Crazy Mellie (who is sometimes also Smelly Mellie, we learn) about it. Of course, Mellie does find out what’s up, after encountering Liv in the White House hallway, getting full-on snubbed by her, and bursting into the Oval to harangue Fitz about her presence. And speaking of perfect camp dialogue, how about this Mellie gem re: Fitzlivia: “You made one of your masturbatory late-night phone calls.”
Karengate resolves itself beautifully, with OPA locating the parents of the charming young fella who shot the video and watching in horror as the extort the President of the United States for $2.5 million. After yet another confrontation with Fitz, which entails both a detour into his self-pitying narcissism (“I am failing as a father and a husband and a man,” he says, in a nice corrective to his downright evil accusations that Mellie is a shit mother) and a steamy-ish reunion make-out, she convinces him to pay up. (I can’t resist calling out another “oh no she didn’t” line: Karen, says Liv, “will be no better than a reality star — the lowest form of life” if the tape gets out.)
And then, in the kind of instant turn Scandal is so great at, the boy’s rich, gross parents try to extort an extra $500k and Olivia Pope burns the whole scheme down. Quickly, she snaps cellphone photos of the parents and the check and all the paperwork. Considering that Karen isn’t of age yet, this tape is child porn. And Liv explains to these two that if she goes to the press with the story of them capitalizing on the grieving First Family’s pain, they’ll be the most hated people in America. Because she’s the best in the world at what she does — manipulate public opinion — and she’s not afraid to let anyone know it.
Thrilling as this is, it can’t compare to the emotional beat of Mellie stepping up to take responsibility for her daughter. In a beautiful scene, she crawls into bed with Karen and tells her that if these sexual adventures were about pleasure and fulfillment, she would force herself to be supportive. But Mellie knows it’s about “feeling numb” after Jerry’s death, and that’s why it’s destructive behavior. “If you were a boy, they’d be giving you high-fives,” she tells Karen. As a girl, though, she’s going to be judged. It’s not fair, but it’s true, and Mellie is nothing if not pragmatic.
It’s worth stepping back for a moment here to admire the grace with which “Like Father, Like Daughter” writer Mark Fish handles such a delicate topic. Instead of reinforcing destructive cultural ideas about women’s sexuality, the episode — through Mellie’s empathy — both subverts them and acknowledges their devastating power. This is Scandal doing political subtext well, and it’s a sharp contrast to its heavy-handed treatment of gun control this season.
There was plenty going on outside of the Karen story, too: David Rosen, haunted by the judge’s suicide, returns the B613 files to Jake (after Jake chokes him and threatens his life). Abby confronts Quinn and Huck when they show up at the White House on a secret mission and is rebuffed by Cyrus, adding more fuel to her left-out fire. Most importantly, the B613 stuff gets going: Rowan-via-Tom tried to blow up Jake’s car. Tom’s involvement in Jerry’s death (finally) comes to light, and in a terrifying twist, Fitz calls in Rowan to question him about it. Backed into a corner, Tom, who doesn’t seem very smart, says he was following an order from Jake. The suits snatch up Jake and cuff Tom. And it looks like we’re getting into the big, ongoing story of Season 4.
This was a great episode of Scandal, and the impressive thing is, Rhimes and co. accomplished it without even putting too much emphasis on Fitzlivia or the last-act twist explosions that have powered previous seasons. I’m promising right here and now to never underestimate this show again. With more episodes like this one, it shouldn’t be too difficult.