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Scandal S03E18: "The Price of a Free and Fair Election"


I would like to take a moment to personally thank Kerry Washington for getting pregnant. First, it forced Scandal to come up with as many weird camera angles, blockings, and prop maneuvers as was humanly possible to keep her expansion off-screen. Second, and more importantly, it's probably for the best that Scandal's third season only ran for 18 episodes as opposed to the typical 22 to 24. Because you guys, it's been a huge mess—and the finale was absolutely no different.  

Now, you could smartly say, "Oh but Cory, if this season had been longer, the show would've had more time to develop certain storylines or character arcs and not just smash things together on a semi-regular basis!" That's true. But I'm not sure any additional episodes would've made this run of episodes any better, because the problems go beyond the hodgepodge plotting. The primary issue ultimately tracks back to Scandal's decision to jump, both feet, into B613, terrorism, and by the end of "The Price of a Free and Fair Election," the poisoning of a member of the Grant family. In public. On the day before a presidential election. 

I don't know if Shonda Rhimes simply burned through 24** on Netflix in preparation for the upcoming Live Another Day, or started digging around too much on that Deep Web everyone's talking about on House of Cards, but with the B613 hysteria and the Pope family circus sucking up so much of air, Scandal was oftentimes too worried about the BIG STAKES to do any of the slightly more personal work it managed to pull off in Seasons 1 and 2. 

**It's no accident that the finale's opening scene, with the split screen of the bomb ticking down as people sat patiently waiting for Fitz at the church, looked as if it was pulled directly from 24, right? I'm just going to imagine that moment as Shonda's acknowledgement that what she really wanted to do was a half-cocked Jack Bauer story. 


As a result, "The Price of a Free and Fair Election"—like so much of the season's back half—was stuffed full of moments intended to shock us, or make us feel every single FEEL there is. The problem is that very little of it actually registered. When your show is built on hyperbolic events and emotions, there's always going to come a time where it's simply too much. Frankly, I didn't suspect that Scandal would reach that point so soon. Sure, the bomb plot caused a couple of "shocking moments" and further hammered home the idea that Cyrus is willing to do anything to keep Fitz in office, even as he constantly notes (like he did in this episode) that he's a monster and whatever else. And the public murder of Fitz's son was somewhat successful, because it allowed the show to give the evil villainy reigns back to Eli and the immortal Joe Morton. But it also means that we're probably on the hook for at least another round of B613, big-time spy games, and the kind of truly silly, empty stuff that defined the show in Season 3. 

The really odd thing is that Scandal had a story engine front and center, primed and ready for quality drama: the election. You guys, election stories on TV are awesome! If the show wanted to borrow something from 24, why didn't it do a more real-time run through election night as the votes started to come in? Wouldn't that've given Scandal a chance to dig a little deeper into the personal melodrama that really makes its stories and characters sing? It's kind of gross and disappointing that Fitz and Mellie's conversation about her rape—which was tremendously acted by both Tony Goldwyn and Bellamy Young—had such a small part in this episode. The re-election itself was, hilariously, and afterthought. While I understand that, in some ways, that was the point—that these people were yet again so willing to bend for whatever was necessary to achieve victory, and then immediately forced to face how empty and costly that victory was—I can't help but imagine how a better version of "The Price of a Free and Fair Election" might have handled what was already compelling in its own right. And without three additional layers of espionage and bombs and murder layered on top.


I really don't care whether this show is believable, or some representation of the real world. But when it starts throwing in so many things that I at least start to consider how dumb it can be, there's a problem. Author and film critic Mark Harris tweeted that this episode "was like an efficient summary of a five-hour episode," and that's so true. Remember when a bomb went off before the title card? Or when Sally Langston survived that bombing and went back into the rubble to help survivors, seemingly locking up the presidency? By the time Olivia and Jake were on Daddy Pope's top-secret jet to a New Life, those early moments felt like they'd occurred three episodes ago. 

Of course, it doesn't help that every single one of Scandal's characters is horrible and kind of not worth caring about at all. Now, I can understand that the show wants to be about how these supposedly great people so regularly promise or expect one thing of themselves and others and always fail. However, when this finale made it to the 109th time that Fitz and Olivia discussed how something wasn't going to happen "right now," I started to wonder why we should invest in them. Do we hope that the 110th time is going to be the one where Fitz and Olivia can be together for real? Or are we supposed to marvel and be sad at how they continue to think they can make it work, only to fail? I think Scandal wants to have it both ways, and to have us answer "yes" to both of those questions. It's not working.


There's no doubt that Scandal is immensely watchable and entertaining. Even the poorly constructed episodes, like this one, are fun to sit through because of the world and characters that Shonda Rhimes has brought to life. However, there were times in Season 2 when the show was more than that—and on its way to becoming something really fascinating. This season, the show's compulsions got the better of it more often than not. The results were, while still watchable, extremely convoluted and less impactful than they could have been. Nevertheless, there's so much talent here, both in front of the camera and behind it. Here's hoping that Scandal can let its star have a baby and find a way to clear the table for a stronger Season 4.



NOTES

– R.I.P., Jerry Grant Jr., you were so supremely memorable that I had to Google "Scandal Fitz Son" to get your first name.

– The less that's said about Quinn and Huck, the better—though I appreciate that the writers used Abby, who's probably the closest thing they have to a human being, to acknowledge how icky the pairing truly is. 

– On that note, I'm curious to know whether people want to see Huck reunite with his original family. I'm already dreading his former wife and kid being pulled into a terrible hostage situation. Is it for the best to just leave that be?

– The fact that we didn't see Harrison's body, and that we didn't even even get to see him executed, clearly means that he's alive. Eli seemed to have taken an interest in the young man, so don't be surprised if he pops up playing for the other team next season. 

– Despite the fact that this season went off the rails, we should stop and acknowledge all the amazing guest stars Scandal hosted over the course of these 18 episodes. Check out this murderer's (sometimes literally) row: Lisa Kudrow (remember that?), Jon Tenney, Nazanin Boniadi, Paul Adelstein, and of course, Khandi Alexander and Joe Morton. Kate Burton is still technically a guest as well. At least the show does a good job of crafting juicy, speech-y roles for quality actors. 


What'd you think of the finale? Did you think this season was as messy as I did?


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