After being locked in a secret underground cell at Wonderland for the last 20 years -- well, OK, more like two months -- “Scandal” returned Thursday night and, boy, is it nice to have this show back.
There are just seven episodes left in this abbreviated season, and from the very beginning of Thursday’s installment, you can see Shonda and Co. setting the table for what promises to be a very turbulent homestretch.
First up is Sally Langston, whose third-party bid against Fitz is really proving to be an inspired narrative choice. In a delightfully crazy twist, Sally not only announces her plans to run against Fitz but also insists on staying put in her office as vice president -- because she can’t entrust the nation to his care, you see. It’s ludicrous but technically not impossible, and more importantly it creates all kinds of tension inside the West Wing.
It places Cyrus, the man who helped Sally cover up the fact she killed her husband, in close quarters with Leo, Sally’s de facto campaign manager and, it so happens, one of the growing number of people who knows about Cyrus’ role in Daniel’s death. Cyrus is a master of political blood sport, and under normal circumstances I’d bet the farm on his ability to take down just about any opponent. But this situation is trickier, since it pits his desire to win for Fitz against his own self-preservation, and his greatest weapon against Sally also incriminates himself. Something tells me he’ll figure out a clever way to be obedient to both masters at once -- that is, if David and James (a.k.a. Publius) don’t figure out a way to out him first.
Sally’s presidential aspirations also indirectly add to the tension in the first marriage (as if the Grants needed any more of that) as Fitz picks former California Gov. Andrew Nichols as his new running mate. His rationale is that he needs someone loyal above all else; so what if Nichols is, like him, a straight white male, and a renowned playboy at that, at a time when Fitz needs to make inroads with women? The irony about “loyal” Nichols is that, as we learn in the closing minutes of the episode, he’s actually secret in love with Mellie. That’s why, as he tells Olivia in a pretty terrific scene, he’s never gotten married. Because once you’ve had a taste of the real thing, why settle for anything less? Frankly, I’m thrilled about this development, because it’s about time Mellie was portrayed as a desirable female and not just some ruthless harridan.
It also adds another dimension to the impossibly complicated love triangle between Fitz, Olivia and Mellie. The first lady has begrudgingly accepted her husband’s “whore,” as she repeatedly refers to Olivia, because she ultimately cares more about his power than his fidelity. Of course, it’s not that Mellie enjoys barging in on her husband and Olivia locked in passionate embrace, but it’s a price she’s willing to pay to preserve her privileged position -- even if it means smiling through gritted teeth over excruciating public lunches with Olivia. (How great was that scene, by the way?)
But now that Mellie’s got her own love interest on the ticket, I expect things will get even messier. Will Nichols’ feelings for Mellie prompt a little jealousy from Fitz? Or will Mellie and Nichols, emboldened by Fitz and Olivia’s open secret of an affair, give in to what I assume is their long-buried passion for each other? I confess sometimes I wish this show were real. Can you imagine an election in which the president was sleeping with his campaign manager while his running mate was secretly in love with the first lady? I’d be the first in line to read the insider account by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. (But what would it be called?)
Lest we forget, the threat from Sally also creates many new headaches for our heroine. Not only does Olivia have to subject herself to a forced matchmaking session with Mellie, she also agrees to make out publicly with Jake -- oh, the horror! -- to help quell the renewed rumors of her affair with Fitz. More catastrophically, it also looks like Papa Pope, incensed after being ousted from his post at B613, is going to team up with Team Sally to bring down Fitz. In the best scene in an episode full of great ones, Olivia meets up with Rowan-or-is-it-Eli in front of the Iwo Jima memorial. Ashamed at the way she treated her father when, as it turns out, he was just trying to protect her from her international terrorist of a mother, Olivia tries to apologize, telling Rowan she’s sorry for having doubted him and that he was pushed out at “the Smithsonian.” “I know how hard this must be for you,” she says.
For the record, Rowan Pope is not a man who likes to be pitied, and Olivia’s gesture of kindness backfires spectacularly, provoking one of her father’s epic, face-melting tirades. It’s too long to print in its entirety, but it is truly a thing of beauty. “You have no idea what happened,” he sneers. “You’re skipping around in a field full of bombs and mistaking them for daisies…. The man who defiled you also defiled an organization that I gave my soul to build. That is what happened.”
Papa Pope concludes the rant with a bold-faced threat: He’s got more dirt on Fitz than anyone, and he plans to use it. “The greatest weapon I can use against him calls me Dad,” he says. Not only that, but Fitz is unlikely to survive until the end of his term. The look of horror on Olivia’s face says it all: Apparently both her parents are monster.
In the closing minutes of the episode, we see Rowan meeting secretly with Leo, no doubt to plot Fitz’s demise. As we head into the homestretch, “Scandal” itself is turning into a three-way race between Sally/Leo/Rowan, Cyrus/Fitz/Mellie/Olivia and James/David -- each an unstable alliance that is unlikely to hold for long. Even if sometimes it’s downright impossible to keep track of the ever-shifting, entangled motivations and ever-shifting loyalties of the various players on this show, it sure is fun to watch.
In other news:
--Harrison finally has a subplot of his own! Adnan Salif is now on American soil and it turns out she is a super-sexy lady he can’t seem to resist. Fun!
--Quinn: still the worst! And now she’s kidnapping children. Creepy!