Let me begin by saying that I was a first-comer to Scandal. I got hooked on it when it was still a struggling mid-season replacement, when the show was about a political consulting firm that got out ahead of scandals, and when the series was seemingly told from the point of view of Quinn. Henry Ian Cusick from “Lost” was still on it, for some reason, and it was salacious, provocative, and madly addictive.
That seems like so long ago now, and yet it’s only been a season and a half since the improbable but completely believable (by the show’s current standards) murder of an intern by the Vice President’s Chief of Staff. That was before Scandal all but abandoned the political consultant premise at the center of the show, transformed the naive Quinn into a murderer who gets off on torturing people, and before Scandal decided it needed to be more like Alias than The West Wing meets Dallas.
Scandal has become completely unhinged, and not in a good way. It’s unmoored from what made the show so compelling. Shonda Rhimes has Ryan Murphy’d the show, and last week’s episode was like the alien in the second season of American Horror Story: It no longer tracks. Some may argue that the characters on Scandal have become so unlikable that it’s no longer relatable, but the show’s problems run much deeper than unsympathetic characters. Scandal has lost its way: In it attempts to up the ante in every episode, it ran out of room, and in order to continue chewing through plot at the same pace, it had to become a different show, a show I don’t really like anymore.
And the thing is, no one asked for this. No one applied any pressure on Scandal to keep upping its stakes. I think most of us woud’ve been happy if the series had continued to use its procedural elements — the consultant cases where Olivia and her team put out fires before they turned into blazes — to allow Shonda Rhimes to dole out series’ arc in smaller chunks. There’s something to be said for suspense — Breaking Bad told a story in five seasons what Scandal might tell in half a season — and it’s not as though we were feeling impatient, anxious to arrive at the next huge plot twist before we’d even managed to process the most recent one.
Notice how little screen time Joshua Malina (the reason I checked out the show in the first place) has gotten this season. That says so much about what’s happened to Scandal: Malina’s David Rosen was the voice of reason on the show, the white hat the kept the storyline in check. As far-fetched as the voting scandal in season two might have been, Rosen and his investigation into it lent it some plausibility. Now the show barely bothers with opposing forces: The narrative just barrels ahead from one ridiculous plot twist to another. Olivia’s love affair with the President (and their once insane chemistry) has grown stale and been pushed to the background, along with the the show’s other most reasonable players: Harrison, Abby, and Quinn.
The breaking point, for me, had been coming on all season. When we found out that Olivia’s Dad was running a secret shadow organization that basically holds more power than the President, the series began its descent. But then we found out that the President — when he was still in the military — shot down a civilian plane, presumably with Olivia’s mother on it, under orders from Olivia’s Dad; the front-runner for the Democratic nomination (Lisa Kudrow) had to drop out after her sister (who was secretly her daughter) tried to torpedo their opponent’s campaign; and oh, Fitz’s first child is probably not his own, but the his father’s, who raped his own daughter-in-law 20 years ago or so.
But this winter finale? Jesus. It wasn’t the fact that the Chief of Staff set up his husband to f*ck the Vice President’s closeted husband that broke me. It wasn’t even the fact that the VP shot her husband dead for the affair that did it. The fact that Olivia enrolled the President’s help in order to help her mother — presumed dead for the last 22 years — escape the country, only to find out that she’s a terrorist, didn’t help, of course. But no. What really broke me was the torture scene between Huck and Quinn. Not that it was too violent (I don’t care about that), but that it was so completely out of character for both of them. Quinn doesn’t accidentally kill another guy, and not immediately tell Huck about it, and Huck doesn’t torture — and lick her face while doing so — Quinn without first trying to find out what’s going on. They were incredibly close, and Huck’s murder addiction and Quinn’s thrill-seeking excuses neither development.
It was dumb, and everything that came after it — especially the revelation that the VP had shot and killed her husband — was one forehead slap after another. The only scene in that episode that was any damn good was when Sally Langston called Cyrus on his bullshit blackmail threat, because for once there was a check — briefly, it turned out — on the narrative fast-forward button.
I’ll still watch the show — for now, at least — because I’d like to think that Rhimes can reset it, put it back in its own universe. I’d like to think that the political scandals of other people, and the impending presidential campaign might refocus the show. But a show can only drop so many bombshells before we become numb to them, and that’s exactly what has happened to Scandal: The twists aren’t surprising anymore; they’re par for the course.