Welcome back, Gladiators. Before we check in with Olivia Pope, a confession: I was not looking forward to Scandal‘s return last night. Although nothing in particular had happened in the midseason finale to put me off the show, I was growing weary — weary of the Fitz-Liv-Jake love triangle, weary of Papa Pope’s pontificating, weary of wounded psycho-puppy Huck, weary even of my favorite character, Mellie. Character arcs were spinning into character circles; relationships were gridlocked. Scandal needed nothing more than to rip itself up and start again — and that’s exactly what last night’s winter premiere accomplished. Even better, Shonda Rhimes (who wrote the episode) did it with a riveting 45-minute action movie that put the average big-screen blockbuster to shame.
From that first shot — a flash-forward of Olivia running, wild-haired and disheveled, with a gun — “Run” felt different from the typical Scandal episode. In place of the Gladiator-power funk and disco the show tends to favor, the soundtrack was all noisy electronic music. And though the story picked up exactly where it left off two months ago, going so far as to retrace its steps through Liv’s “I choose me” monologue, sex-on-the-piano-with-Jake plan, and sudden disappearance, Rhimes’ decision to re-play her kidnapping from multiple perspectives and at varying speeds immediately signaled that the show was trying something different. (I don’t imagine many viewers complained about the extended scene of Jake chasing a car in his boxer-briefs, either.)
By not only keeping a tight focus on Olivia, but also removing her from her typical OPA office-White House-drinking wine at home circuit, the episode was able to escape all the once-thrilling aspects of Scandal that have now become boring and predictable. Instead of back-loading eight shocking revelations into the last five minutes, Rhimes scattered small twists throughout “Run” before delivering a giant one at the end of the hour. First we learn that Liv’s captors dragged her not out of the apartment building but merely across the hall — which brings a great moment of tense frustration when she sees on a monitor that he’s only a few feet away from her and she can’t reach him because her mouth is taped. Then there’s her pseudo-cellmate “Ian’s” confession that his old roommate never got to go home, despite having his ransom paid. We get Liv’s foiled bra-wire bathroom escape plan.
With pithy dialogue and epic speechifying kept to a minimum (save for Abby’s well-placed “You have to rescue yourself” dream monologue), just about all of the drama and suspense in “Run” plays out through action sequences. But the final one — in which Liv grabs a pipe from the bathroom (thanks, Dream Abby), knocks out one guard, steals his gun, shoots the second guard, and unlocks the door to what she believes will be freedom — ends with a reveal that is both genuinely shocking and entirely appropriate. Olivia Pope finds herself standing in what is basically an enormous film studio. The sights and sounds that made her think she’d been taken to a Muslim country were just projections on a screen. And the man she thought was her cellmate turns out to be the ringleader she’s spent the entire episode demanding to see.
Forgive me for going this deep into Scandal, but… wow. There are actually a lot of layers here! Let’s do a rundown, starting with the fact that everything that seemed off about Liv’s kidnapping suddenly makes sense at the end of the episode — not just why the ringleader abruptly disappeared, but why her English-speaking captors supposedly brought her halfway around the world, why she had a friendly co-captive to bond with, why she was allowed to keep her bra (even after she tried to use it to escape), and why that guy claimed his job as foreign correspondent was just a way to pay the bills while he wrote his novel. I was constantly bracing for a rape scene, and though I was grateful one never came, I did question the realism of the choice to pretend Olivia Pope was immune to that particular form of male-on-female violence. The ending believably explained that, too.
Then there’s the fact that the episode felt like a semi-generic action movie because, in the fictional world of Scandal, the people who engineered Olivia’s kidnapping wanted it to feel that way. And yet, within those constraints, we did get to see Liv’s character finally move forward — past getting rescued by Jake, past making jam in Vermont with Fitz, to a place where she could free herself (or at least believe that she was freeing herself). On top of that, I think there could even be a layer of cultural criticism happening here. Although there are several things about happening on “Run” that just don’t add up, Rhimes knows that we — and Liv — will believe this vague tale of our heroine getting drugged and winding up in a desolate room in a Muslim country because that’s just how shows like Homeland and 24 and countless action movies portray the shadowy evils that prey on good Americans.
I’m genuinely floored that, so far into its run, Scandal managed to accomplish so much in a single episode — one that also had me at the edge of my seat throughout. Next week, I’m sure, we’ll check in with the Gladiators and the White House, and find out more about what “Ian” wants with Liv (surely it involves West Angola). It would be easy enough to fall back into old patterns after this truly surprising, refreshing midseason premiere, but something tells me that “Run” was more than just a one-off thrill ride — it was an admission, from Shonda Rhimes, that Scandal needed some shaking up.