Thanks for the nightmares, Shonda Rhimes.
As alarmingly commonplace as murder is on “Scandal,” it’s rarely ever depicted as gruesomely or disturbingly as it is in the closing minutes of Thursday’s episode, “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.” Shot in the back as he runs away from Jake, James lies in the street experiencing what is very clearly a slow and painful death. But his assassin, rather than leaving him there to suffer alone, shows some mercy. Jake sits calmly by James’ side, soothing him as he expires.
Within the first few seconds of the episode, we learn that it was James and not David who perished along with Vanessa and Shelby, but seeing him in agony is an extra punch to the gut. “Scandal” is a show I find intriguing without being particularly moving, but this episode is a notable exception. The nature of his demise is all the more upsetting, given the flashbacks that tell the story of his romance with Cyrus. The two fell in love during Fitz’s first presidential campaign, when Cyrus was not yet out of the closet -- at least not professionally. With encouragement from James, Cyrus eventually reveals his sexuality by dancing with his boyfriend at Fitz’s first state dinner. As terrible as these two both could be, they were also pretty adorable, and if Cyrus’ breakdown didn’t get you verklempt, then you, sir, are a monster.
Perhaps I am naive, but last week I thought that whoever got shot might live to see another day; it worked for Fitz, after all. I am also shocked the writers would be willing to part with Dan Bucatinsky, who won an Emmy last year for his performance and brings so much wit and intelligence to this show. But in this post- “Sopranos” era, killing off a beloved character is pretty much a requirement for any buzzworthy drama. So far, while the body count on “Scandal” has been high, the show’s most beloved and/or central characters have been safe. (No offense to Verna Thornton, may she rest in peace.)
But as unsettling as that last scene was, it did serve an important function, reminding us of the very serious issues lying beneath all the soapiness on “Scandal.” Like “House of Cards,” that other show about ruthless Washingtonians, “Scandal” takes place in a heightened alternate dimension where politicians are, quite literally, killers. As exaggerated and ridiculous as “Scandal” is --even the most cynical among us would probably not imagine a president capable of smothering a Supreme Court justice to death -- the questions the show has been asking lately are incredibly relevant, even outside of a freshman political science class.
In recent weeks, there has been a lot of talk about the price we pay to maintain “the republic” (no one ever says “country” or “nation” on this show) and nearly everyone in “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” is confronted with a question of whether to reveal what they know about James’ death, or to participate in the cover-up in order to accomplish a larger goal. Olivia encourages a wary David to go along with the carjacking ruse but to focus on bringing down B613 -- to throw the battle but eventually win the war. “Brick by brick, we’ll tear that building down,” she says.
Last week, Cyrus told Jake that if the public learned that Sally killed her husband, democracy itself would crumble. Covering up the vice president’s crime is a small price to pay for preserving a free society, so the thinking goes. This question of what actions are acceptable to preserve the greater good comes up again in “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” when Olivia, distraught to discover that Jake killed James, Vaness and Shelby, turns to her father for some advice. It’s an unusually vulnerable moment for Olivia, and she wants Rowan to speak to her not as the former director of B613, but as a dad.
“I don’t know what the point is of this, of democracy and freedom and patriotism, if there are no white hats,” she says.
Then Rowan launches into one of his trademark eyebrow-singeing lectures, revealing that he is responsible for the deaths of 183 people, a number I actually find surprisingly low for a guy who’s spent years working in covert operations. I mean, Jake’s been on the job for just a few weeks and has already personally killed three people. In any case, being the “the hand of God,” as Rowan puts it, is not easy. The guilt that comes with killing innocents like James is “the worst punishment in the world” but it also comes with a purpose. There may not be any white hats, but democracy is worth getting your hands dirty. “Everyone is worth saving, even the monsters, even the demons. In the face of darkness you drag everyone into the light, that’s the point,” he says.
Papa Pope’s philosophy is the exact opposite of Maya’s: As a pure mercenary, she is motivated by greed, not political ideals. “Terrorists use violence to advance their convictions. i’m more of a facilitator,” she tells Adnan. “I don’t make bombs, I make money.” Unlike Rowan, who claims responsibility for his wrongdoing, Maya distances herself from it, and the only ideal she strives for is personal gain. It’s little wonder their marriage failed. One of the overarching questions this season on “Scandal” has been which of Olivia’s parents is more frightening and I think, for the first time, the show is giving us a clear answer: Mama is the real monster.
In other news:
--Just when I thought the relationship between Huck and Quinn couldn’t get any creepier, it does! Am I the only one who’d be happy if both these characters disappeared and were never heard from again?
--In a hilarious subplot, Sally tries to steal away the endorsement of a powerful gun lobbying group known as -- wait for it -- the Gun Lobby from Fitz, who’s wary of courting their favor following the shooting death of his press secretary. Mellie and Andrew travel to the event instead of Fitz and the first lady apparently finds the smell of gunpowder to be an aphrodisiac. In the midst of a passionate debate about gun control -- 2nd Amendment enthusiast Mellie thinks buying a firearm should be at least as easy as buying a beer -- they pounce on each other. Hey, whatever floats your boat.
--James’ death may be covered up for now, but I don’t expect Vanessa’s disappearance, or her extensive correspondence with James, to go unnoticed.