Before the Season 3 premiere of “Scandal,” you could count the things we knew about Olivia Pope on one hand: she liked wine, popcorn and highly impractical outerwear. And, oh yeah, she has a desperate and unstoppable attraction to the married president of the United States, Fitzgerald Grant, one that makes her do crazy things like steal elections.
Beyond that, however, Olivia was always a bit of an enigma, someone who kept her own secrets deeply hidden in order to preserve her aura of invincibility -- like a female version of Don Draper. But in Thursday’s premiere, “It’s Handled,” that mystique begins to crumble and we learn more about Olivia in about five minutes of screen time than we have in all 29 previous episodes combined. I'm glad Shonda Rhimes and her writers have decided to tell us more about Olivia. After all, every superhero needs an origin story.
The premiere picks up just seconds after the show left off in the spring -- an unusual move for a show that takes huge temporal leaps. Olivia, just outed as Fitz’s mistress, has been swept away into the back of a limousine with her dad, Rowan -- a.k.a. Mysterious Guy We Saw Talking to Jake on Park Benches Last Season. Played with face-melting intensity by Joe Morton, Rowan launches immediately into a blistering tirade.
“You raised your skirt and opened your knees and gave it away to a man with too much power,” he seethes, spittle flying from his mouth. But Rowan’s not disappointed with Olivia for sleeping with a married man; he’s disappointed in her for not remembering his advice, “You have to be twice as good as them to get half of what they have” -- an indirect, if unmistakable, reference to their race.
Which is why Rowan’s so mad she would settle for the pipe dream of being first lady and not “aim higher,” for something like secretary of State. Throughout the lecture, Olivia stands with her head down, looking abashed.
His solution to the unfolding crisis is to put his daughter on a private plane and send her off to faraway lands with a new identity. “You’re getting on that plane come hell or high water,” he says. “And to be clear, I am the hell and the high water.” Old Man Pope is terrifying.
Olivia bails on the plan, as we knew she would, because otherwise Fitz will think Cyrus had her killed. We’ve all been there, right? You want to flee the country but your best friend begs you to stay so your boyfriend doesn’t think he had you murdered. She returns to the office to find her firm itself in crisis, with clients desperately trying to distance themselves from the scandal. (Oh, the irony!)
Making matters worse, Cyrus, who assured Olivia, “I’m your monster,” is not living up to his promise. He asks his aides to start a “kill folder” on Olivia who, need I remind you, is the godmother to his daughter. It's pretty low, but it's also very useful, because here’s what we learn: Olivia's mother died when she was 12; her father curated antiquities at the Smithsonian, or at least that’s the cover he used, and went by the name “Eli”; she went to lots of fancy boarding schools and never lived at home after her mother’s death; she has a thing for powerful older men and has dated a “nice lineup of silver foxes.”
“I never knew that about her,” Cyrus says. Neither did we, Cy. The plan is to use the information to smear Olivia as an “ambitious slut,” but thankfully Cy doesn’t pull the trigger. Instead he and the Gladiators team up to frame someone else, young White House staffer Jeanine, using an embarrassing video.
This, however, does not sit well with Olivia. Unbeknownst to everyone else, she’s “pulled the fire alarm” -- activated some kind of one-time-only emergency procedure that allows her to meet with Fitz and Mellie in a super-secret underground bunker equipped with flattering lighting and stylish modern furniture. In the midst of the hasty operation, she changes into her fiercest and most armor-like coat yet, which looks a little like something Sherlock Holmes would have worn if he were a size 0 woman with an unlimited dry cleaning budget.
The bunker scene is easily the highlight of the episode, mostly because of Bellamy Young, who is always so next-level amazing, like a latter-day Bette Davis or Joan Crawford. Olivia outlines an elaborately detailed plan to come clean about their affair and put the whole issue to bed by the time primary season rolls around. “The truth works,” she says confidently.
But Mellie ain’t having it. She knows the press will want all the gory details, and so she crafts a revisionist history of L’Affaire Du Fitz et Olivia, one that will be more palatable for everyone involved. In this version of events, they only slept together twice, both under extreme circumstances -- first, during the giddy high of inauguration night (Mellie has a strangely accurate imagination), and second, in the intense wake of the assassination attempt. Contempt is practically radiating off of Mellie’s body, and the whole ordeal leaves Olivia shaken. Fitz comforts her but leaves things at a hug, thank God. By now these two have had more than enough sex in enclosed spaces.
Back in the daylight, the first couple is about to face the media in the Rose Garden just after the erroneous reports about Jeanine have broken in the news. Fitz wants to quash the rumor, but Mellie -- who, in a sign of rebellion, is dressed in deep purple rather than the lavender or soft blue Olivia suggested -- reveals that it was actually her idea to leak Jeanine’s name. And not only that, she got the idea from Fitz, who was the one who leaked Olivia’s name. Dun-dun-dun!!!
Then it’s time for another Mellie soliloquy, my personal favorite Shonda-logue of the night. “Being first lady is profoundly boring,” she says. “I use the copious amount of free time I have here to think.” (Side note: I would pay a lot of money to know what Michelle Obama thinks of this show.) Mellie figures out that leaking Olivia’s name was the first step in Fitz’s plan to make Olivia his first lady. She’s only half right. Yes, Fitz was behind it all, but he only let the cat out of the bag, via his trusty Secret Service sidekicks, in order to liberate Olivia from Mellie’s control. I've never really been convinced that Fitz is such a great politician, but Thursday night he at least showed himself to be a savvy tactical thinker.
Maybe it’s something he picked up in the Navy doing whatever crazy thing he did in Operation Remington? In the closing minutes of “It’s Handled,” Shonda & Co. drop one last bombshell on us. Cyrus is taken away at gunpoint by Charlie, everyone’s favorite carb-loving assassin, to meet with Rowan, who presents him with a folder showing “what really happened” on that mission with Jake Ballard.
“Oh, my god,” says Cyrus. Took the words right out of my mouth.
--Abby’s got a saucy new look, including bed-head curls and smoky eyeliner. I approve!
--Harrison gets one of the great lines of the episode, “Are we gladiators or are we bitches?”
--Quinn continues her descent into crazy, freaking out everyone by suggesting they kill another intern -- "a bad one, the worst one." Still not OK, Quinn!
--Jake is nowhere to be seen in this episode. Presumably he’s still in that hole in the ground.
--Can't really make sense of what's happening between Sally and Fitz, but I like that the show's making her a smidge more likable. (Any woman who drinks scotch, neat, can't be all bad.)
Twitter: @MeredithBlakeCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times