On a scale of one to crazy, the latest episode of “Scandal,” “We Do Not Touch the First Ladies,” is a relatively tame affair: No one is tortured or murdered in a jealous rage or prostituted out by his spouse. By the standards of this show, it’s a relatively quiet installment, more about character development than, as ABC’s marketing team likes to put it, “OMG moments.” Not that there weren’t any, mind you: I really did not see that last-minute reveal with Maya coming, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
That’s not to say it’s a boring episode -- far from it. Any episode with this much James and Mellie can't possibly be anything but entertaining. Let’s begin with the first lady, shall we? Months ago, we learned that she was raped by Fitz’s father, and doesn’t know if her son -- you know, the one we hear about but have seen, like, once on this show -- is actually Fitz’s. In a long overdue follow-up told via flashback, we finally learn more about what happened after that horrific attack. (I almost always enjoy the flashbacks on “Scandal,” since it usually means we’re getting a little insight into these crazy characters.) Mellie pulls away emotionally and physically from Fitz, creating a rift in their marriage. (I think Shonda Rhimes has been watching too much “Downton Abbey.”)
Mellie, ashamed and unsure about her child’s parentage, attempts suicide by overdosing on a bottle of painkillers. Naturally, it is not Fitz but Andrew who finds her, nurses her back to health, and covers up her sad secret by pretending to have developed a drug problem after throwing out his back. It’s great to see Mellie’s more vulnerable side, but I also admit to some discomfort with her being portrayed as some kind of damaged soul who needs rescuing by a handsome man. Can’t a woman be fully human without having been subjected to unthinkable emotional torture?
But whatever: It all pays off when Mellie finally gives in to her feelings for Andrew -- in a back room at the White House decorated with portraits of the first ladies. They passionately embrace for a few seconds but then, like paintings in a Victorian murder mystery, the faces of Eleanor Roosevelt and Jackie Kennedy glare at Mellie disapprovingly -- I swear I even saw their eyes moving -- and she pulls away. Yes, it’s utterly ridiculous, but it’s also a genuinely illuminating character moment. Here’s a woman who, for all the backstabbing and scheming she’s a part of, still believes her role as first lady requires a certain amount of decorum. Help your husband steal an election? Sure. Manipulate your friend’s husband into seducing the closeted spouse of your husband’s chief rival? Yeah, why not. But make out with someone other than your husband with Pat Nixon watching? Absolutely not.
Another central development this week is James’ efforts to expose Sally’s role in Daniel’s death. Though he’s beginning to regret his choice of code name, “Publius,” which, as he admits sheepishly, he didn’t actually say out loud before choosing. (The James-David phone calls are my second favorite thing about this episode, after the judgmental first ladies.) James is scared that Cyrus will find out that he’s actually the mole, and have him killed, so he and David decide to leak the recordings to journalist Vanessa Chandler. David agrees to meet with her instead of James, but along the way Abbi figures him out and kidnaps him just as he’s about to be revealed as the informant. The question is how David will explain what he was doing, and what Abbi will do with this information: Of course, it’s great for Fitz and therefore Olivia if Sally is revealed to be a murderer, but it’s a disaster for Cyrus if his role in the coverup is uncovered. The plot thickens!
Finally, we also learn a bit more about the glamorous Adnan, who wields two forms of power over Harrison. He is clearly very hot for her, but she also knows about his involvement in some mysterious scheme called “Clearwater,” a fact that may prove even more consequential. She also seems to have money, and lots of it, making her an enticing target for Cyrus as he tries to raise funds for Fitz’s campaign. Given her ties to international terrorist Maya, revealed in the closing seconds of the episode, this could get very messy indeed.