‘Scandal’ Season 4 Episode 17 Recap: “Put a Ring on It”

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Is this the calm before the hurricane? After last week’s kinky Lena Dunham interlude, and with just four episodes left before the Season 4 finale, it seems like a fair question to ask. Though “Put a Ring on It” began on frantic note, with Olivia dragging all the Gladiators plus Abby and Cyrus out of bed in the wee hours of the morning, it turned out to be a relatively low-stakes episode focused on developing Cy’s character. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

While I love Scandal ‘s hyper-speed plot twists as much as the next true Shonda Rhimes believer, I’m always grateful for episodes that slow things down. Last season, we got an illuminating (if sometimes frustratingly trope-heavy) glimpse into Mellie’s past. And in “Put a Ring on It,” which has Liv pushing Cy and his erstwhile escort toward a big White House wedding after Michael’s caught in a hedonistic moment at the club, we relive the two other weddings in POTUS’s right-hand man’s history.

Both, of course, are utterly heartbreaking. We watch Cy propose to his first spouse, Janet, calling her his “soulmate.” It’s an uncomfortable scene largely because it’s impossible to know, even this early in his career, if he’s knowingly hiding his sexual orientation from her or simply deluding himself. When we see him again on his wedding day — in what is, honestly, kind of a cringe-worthy moment — telling a handsome younger man in a suit that he no longer “plays racquetball” because he doesn’t want his appetites to kill him. And then things get tense. His marriage to Janet seems to have come at the height of the AIDS crisis.

The last time we see the couple, 16 years later, Fitz has just won his gubernatorial election. Cy is ready to celebrate, but Janet is drunk and teary. “I’m lonely here, Cy, with you,” she says. “Being with you is a lonely experience.” She’s having an affair and wants a divorce. Cy is crushed — not because he’s in love with Janet, of course, but because he needs her by his side if he’s going to run for Congress. Clearly, that never happens.

Even more painful are the flashbacks to Cy and James’ wedding. Scandal has always made it clear that, despite how ugly their relationship could get, James was the love of Cyrus’ life. Before the ceremony, we see Cy assure James that he’ll never ask him to compromise his career or journalistic integrity… and then we see them about to leave for their honeymoon. Cy has gotten a call about an immigration story that could cause a major headache for the White House. He asks James to try and get it killed. It has, apparently, only taken a few days of marriage for Cy to break his promise.

What we learn through these flashbacks is a more focused version of what we learned watching Cy and James’ relationship fall ever deeper into crisis: Cyrus destroys every person who loves him, for the sake of his career. And though his and Michael’s engagement is the most cynical of the three, he comes very close to destroying his new fiancé too.

That’s where reliable right-wing monster Sally Langston comes in. It was ingenious for Scandal to bring her back for this episode, as a Fox News-style anchor who prefers the platform of a 3.8 million-strong TV audience to a position of real political power. She gets word — through Leo! Church and state! — that Liv, Mellie, and co. have set up a White House war room to manage Cy’s “shotgun wedding” and offers $10,000 to anyone who can offer proof that his relationship with Michael is a sham. And out of the woodwork comes a man who’s been leaving dirty messages on Michael’s voicemail.

Since the happy couple isn’t even on speaking terms at this point, having divided Cy’s house in half, the obvious next move is to call off the wedding and paint Michael as an evil cheater. “You’ll be throwing Michael to the wolves to save yourself,” Liv tells Cy. But he’s not ready to leave the White House yet.

What changes Cyrus’ mind is a terrible dinner with Michael’s parents. Lizzie, having recently been taken down several notches by Mellie, who is clearly enjoying the opportunity to treat her former rival for Andrew’s affections like the help, has arranged for them to come into town for the wedding. The thing is, they haven’t spoken to Michael in years, and he doesn’t realize they’ve been paid a huge sum of money to show up. What he naively believes will be a conciliatory dinner turns out to be a replay of his terrible youth, complete with pray-away-the-gay camps.

This is where Cy’s empathy kicks in, and as soon as Liv catches a glimpse of him the next day, she knows she has to change her plans. Thankfully, the husband Sally murdered also had a past, and Liv shows up on the set of her TV show with a copy of Michael’s client list that includes none other than Daniel Douglas’ name. Abby won’t tell Leo whether the list was real or not, and the episode doesn’t reveal it to us either, but the important thing is that Liv was able to use Sally’s hypocrisy against her.

What all of this is leading up to is a surprisingly touching pre-ceremony scene between Cy and his husband-to-be. Michael has broken down, thinking about his awful parents and his fake marriage and how alone he is in the world. “It’s the day I’ve been dreaming of, and I have nothing,” he says. All of the flashbacks pay off in Cy’s response. “We’re not going to fall in love. That is a relief to me,” he says, because it will be impossible to break Michael the way he broke Janet and James. “You are a good person,” Cy continues. “I may not do it well, but I will do my best to be your someone.”

There’s a deep, and uncharacteristically subtle, irony here: Cy and Michael have both overcome so much to live openly as gay men. And now, here they are anyway, embarking on a sham marriage. I hope Scandal doesn’t entirely drop their storyline in future episodes, because it will be fascinating to see their relationship continue to evolve — not as a lifelong romance, but as a partnership between two people who have decided to be good to each other. Has Cy really changed? Probably not. We’ve seen him resolve to be a better person several times already, and it never sticks. In the long run, what’s fascinating is how conflicted he is about his amoral behavior.

“Put a Ring on It” didn’t do much to develop any season-long storylines, though we did get a fairly awful flashback of Fitz and Liv and a family jewel on the day of Cy’s wedding to James. They also exchange a meaningful glance in the final moment of the episode, at Cy and Michael’s ceremony, and I guess that’s supposed to create some suspense. Whatever. At this point, the only Scandal romance I still care about is the one between Abby and Leo, because it is so entertainingly bizarre. I mean, really, who else gets lines like, “You poked the hole in the condom, not me”? Abby and Leo 4ever.