And you thought dinners with your family were tense.

This week’s flashback-heavy “Scandal,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” dives further into Olivia’s fabulously twisted relationship with her father. We learn that five years ago she agreed to regular Sunday-night dinners with Rowan (or is it Eli?) in exchange for help with her law school loans. (It’s quaint thinking of Olivia, with her massive, beautifully appointed apartment and impeccable designer wardrobe, having something quite so unglamorous as debt, isn’t it?)

We get the sense that, at the time, they had already been estranged for quite a while, but details are scarce. For about five seconds, it seems like there might be a happy future for the Pope clan. Rowan introduces his daughter to the pleasures of a fine bottle of red -- to think, there was also a time when Olivia didn’t like wine! -- and she contemplates introducing him to her boyfriend, Edison.

PHOTOS: Hollywood backlot moments

But the reconciliation is short-lived. Our heroine quickly discovers, thanks to a branded pen, that her seemingly mild-mannered museum curator dad is actually head of the sinister B-613, the very same shadowy organization responsible for turning sweet family man Huck into a twitchy killing machine.

She confronts him with this information over dinner and, not surprisingly, Papa Pope does not take it very well. “If you push, you will know me well and that would break my heart,” he says, commanding her to “pick up your menu, order your meal, and tell me about your day.” Later, he meets Edison, who’s about to be appointed to the Senate intelligence committee and, it’s implied, orchestrates an “accident” to keep this from happening. As an origin story for the version of Olivia Pope we know -- the one who seems to equate intimacy with peril -- it makes perfect sense.

Flashbacks on other TV shows often feel clunky, superfluous and heavy-handed, but on “Scandal” they are at least as interesting as the present-day storylines. Sure, all the hokey trappings are here -- the silly wigs, the washed-out color palette, the soft-focus lighting -- but somehow I actually find “Scandal’s” flashbacks not only enjoyable but also thoroughly useful from a storytelling standpoint. I was iffy about “Scandal” until the end of Season 1, when the series began to divert from its case-of-the-week format and flashed back to Olivia’s days on the campaign trail. Even (or perhaps especially) a show as bonkers as this one needs to be grounded in some emotional reality.

PHOTOS: Celebrities by The Times

The flashbacks also tie in nicely to the present-day happenings in the world of Pope & Associates. Olivia is at odds with the White House, which is trying to frame poor Jeanine Locke as Fitz’s mistress. Meanwhile, Jake is still nowhere to be found and Olivia is so concerned she has her buddy at the morgue give her a call every time they get a stiff fitting his description.

Rowan shows up at her offices, threatening to kill Jake if Olivia insists on backing Jeanine -- all the while putting on fake smiles and laughing boisterously in order to maintain the facade of a happy father-daughter relationship.

So why does Rowan want to throw Jeanine under the bus? It’s not entirely clear. Maybe he’s just trying to preserve his little girl’s reputation (doubtful), or maybe he’s concerned that should she be confirmed as Fitz’s mistress, reporters will follow the bread crumbs back to him (more likely).

FALL TV 2013: Watch the trailers

Ultimately, though, it’s Fitz who plays spoiler. Just as Jeanine is about to go on the airwaves and possibly deny the affair -- in defiance of Mellie, who tries to buy her compliance with $2 million in a Caymans account -- Fitz uses his presidential power to preempt the airwaves and “confess” to an affair with Jeanine.

As is often the case on this show, everyone’s motivations are so elaborately convoluted they border on illogical. From Olivia’s perspective, it looks like Fitz is acting out of self-preservation and simply doing Mellie and Cyrus’ bidding (or, as they shall henceforth be known, “Mellie Cyrus”). Little does she know he’s actually doing it to save Jake Ballard, who shows up, bearded and bruised, at Olivia’s front door in the final moments of the episode. He may be safe, but that doesn’t mean Olivia is.

Before I go, a quick word on poor Jeanine, whose saga is overshadowed somewhat by the Pope family drama. One of the things that sets “Scandal” apart from other dishy prime time soaps is its sharp take on women and politics. Jeanine is the kind of person who’d rather go to policy meetings on the Hill than go shopping (crazy, I know) and yet because she’s a woman, her career in Washington is effectively over once she’s accused of sleeping with the president. Her consolation prize? Getting paid to fabricate a tell-all. (Meanwhile, he’ll barely take a hit in the polls.)

FULL COVERAGE: Fall TV preview 2013

The irony of it all is that Mellie “Rose Dying a Vine” Grant leads the charge against Jeanine. Mellie squandered her professional ambitions in order to support her husband, but if anything she’s far more politically savvy than someone like Jeanine, and she understands that women have to be more ruthless and more Machiavellian than their male counterparts -- not the other way around.

“You’re evil,” Cyrus says when Mellie concocts the plan to frame Jeanine.

Her response? “You’re welcome.”

'Scandal' Season 3 premiere: Looks like ABC has found its hit drama

'Scandal' recap: Olivia's got some daddy issues

ABC's 'Lucky 7' becomes first cancellation of fall season

Twitter: @MeredithBlake