Of the many things that make Scandal addictive, one that’s rarely discussed is its uniquely combustible blend of fantasy and reality. At one extreme, it’s a political drama that isn’t afraid to go deep into the nasty expediencies and ruthless optics-doctoring that most of us assume are essential to our federal government’s daily operations; at the other, it’s a utopian hallucination of a Republican administration that cares about issues like equal pay and gun control, where an ethnically diverse, largely female group of fixers can go head-to-head with not only POTUS but also the shadowy, top-secret assassin agency charged with protecting the nation’s security at any cost. The show is at its best when it brings its optimism and pessimism into direct conflict through individual relationships, as it did on last night’s “An Innocent Man.”
The question in this episode, as Fitz, Rowan, and Jake himself fight for control of Jake’s fate, is what role Olivia plays in that struggle. Last week, it was Rowan attempting to manipulate his daughter into believing that her boyfriend ordered Harrison’s and Jerry’s murders. This week, Fitz — who actually believes Rowan’s lies — and his Secret Service backup dancers show up at Liv’s door with the same goal.
Of course, Olivia Pope is too smart for all this. All she wants to do is see Jake, know that he’s all right, and help him clear his name. Perhaps unexpectedly, it’s Rowan who ultimately talks Fitz into taking her to see Jake. “Give her what she wants,” Rowan says, over some apparently quite impressive scotch in the Oval, playing POTUS like the flag-pin-wearing fiddle we all know he is. His reasoning is that keeping Liv from Jake will only make him more of hot, sexy martyr in her mind — and meanwhile, she’ll continue to see the two of them as villains.
A funny thing happens, though, when Fitz takes his (former?) mistress to see her (current?) boyfriend in Pentagon lockup. While last week he was fighting, this week he’s resigned to his execution. Instead of trying to convince her of his innocence, he gives her the info on his offshore bank account and instructs her to get the money for his mother. He also says something vital: “We both know that in the end, you’re not going to choose me… Not choosing me is OK.” There’s a romantic poignancy to this — it’s a great moment. What’s really notable, though, is that he loves Liv enough to not only set her free but also allow her to make her own choices. Which, of course, she’s going to do anyway, as much as any father or lover wants to believe he can control her.
That is, in fact, how we leave things with our heroine’s personal-is-really-fucking-political life in “An Innocent Man” — with Olivia Pope back on top. Sure, Rowan bro-ed down with Fitz and momentarily won his fickle allegiance (“True power hides in plain sight,” he tells Jake at the beginning of an epically boastful lecture), but when it comes to manipulating the President, Liv’s always got the trump card. When she learns that Jake’s been moved out of DOJ custody and into her father’s hands, she confronts Fitz. And since all of this is really about their relationship, her promise that there will still be hope for the two of them making jam in Vermont if Fitz saves Jake from Rowan’s Torture Palace has the intended effect. By the end of the episode, Jake is moved to a supermax prison, and Liv’s the one boasting: “I have weapons at my disposal — weapons you can’t possibly possess,” she tells Rowan.
It’s a moment that contains all of Scandal‘s extreme, contradictory optimism and pessimism. On the one hand, Olivia Pope has beaten the two most powerful men in the world at their own game; on the other, she relied heavily on her own sex appeal — or at least romantic desirability — to do so. She’s in control, but only because she’s using resources that have little to do with her own intelligence or political influence. It’s what courtesans and female spies have done for centuries. Surely this can’t be what progress looks like?!
The theme of how women get power, and how men see powerful women, comes up in a few other places throughout the episode: First, there’s the wonderful moment where Liv calls out Fitz on referring to Abby as a bitch. “The words used to describe women!” she exclaims. “If she was a man, you’d say she was formidable.” These little feminist asides are pedantic, I know, but I can’t help also finding them a bit thrilling.
Then there’s Mellie’s great side plot, which teams her with newly widowed former First Lady Bitsy Cooper. While her husband is painted as a Ronald Reagan type, an ’80s president credited with changing the course of the GOP, tiny firecracker Bitsy is all Eleanor Roosevelt. “I did all of it,” she says — by which she means, she ran the country while her husband fucked his secretary and any other woman within reach. At first, she’s talking down to Mellie. Eventually, though, she takes Mellie under her wing and shows her how to seize the power she craves. And it works: when the two FLOTUSes walk out in front of the cameras together, Mellie takes the opportunity to deny “rumors” that Fitz is shutting down military bases — thereby closing the book on one big piece of policy.
Those are the stories that really caught my eye this week, but there was so much else going on, too! Briefly:
Huck is secretly playing video games with his son on the Internet. I wonder where he stands on #Gamergate!
Cyrus’ rent boy, Michael, took his side job as an RNC spy to a new level, snooping in his sugar daddy’s email and delivering the military base shutdown rumor to Liz. The b-school student managed to prolong his employment… but his days (with Cy, if not on earth) are clearly numbered, now that Abby has figured out that he’s the source of the leak.
OPA’s client of the week is Francis Carnahan, the man who attempted to assassinate President Cooper back in the ’80s. He summons Liv to visit him in prison and convinces her that he didn’t do it — and an autopsy of Cooper will reveal that the bullet didn’t come from his gun. For some reason, Liv believes him and realizes that the only way to get an autopsy is to link Cooper’s death three decades later to the bullet still lodged in his brain, and have Carnahan charged with murder. OPA goes into full social media manipulation mode to get the White House to prosecute her client, and it works — bringing Liv and David into conflict once again. But guess what? Score one for David Rosen, because this time Olivia is the dupe. Carnahan didn’t want to prove his innocence; he wanted credit for assassinating Cooper. It was a silly little side plot, but one that was just engaging and lightweight enough to work.
What isn’t working so well is this ongoing business about Kubiak. There’s only time for a few minutes of it per episode, and this time we learn that the key inside Faith’s stomach goes to a locker… that contains a ton of surveillance photos of Olivia Pope. I mean, I realize she’s the center of the universe, but, um… is there really any chance this will pay off after so many weeks of frequently confusing setup? I suppose we’ll find out eventually, although I may have already stopped caring.