Thursday, March 10, 2016

REVIEW: 'Scandal' - An Aimless Olivia Tries to Knock Some Sense into Fitz in 'The Fish Rots From the Head'

ABC's Scandal - Episode 5.13 "The Fish Rots From the Head"

Olivia and the team take on some embattled Secret Service agents. Abby has her hands full trying to keep Fitz in line. Jake begins to reveal a few secrets of his own.

When Scandal started this fifth season with Olivia and Fitz once again trying to be a couple, it felt very redundant and aimless. But the show found a way to make their coupling a compelling plot thread again. The first half of this season truly explored their relationship in uncharted ways and gave a definitive end to them as a couple. And now, the show has returned with its sights on a new future. But it's one that has been completely aimless and wasteful of the cast's talents. Storytelling decisions have been made over the past few episodes that have been dreadful and simply play as a way for the show to keep one-upping stuff they've already done in the past. The show isn't exploring new territory. It's mining a lot of great material with the parallels to the real-world election cycle. But it's just so hard to be invested in anything anyone is doing because it just doesn't make any sense. It doesn't seem like the show knows what to do now that Olivia and Fitz are over for good. And that is very problematic.

This season has showcased just how powerful and nuanced a character Olivia Pope really is. She craves power and had it when she was at the White House with Fitz. She chose to walk away from that life. She made decisions that were riveting to watch because they focused on her going after this power and control for herself. And now, she's simply a character in flux with nothing of substance to do. She goes from standing in the White House to a hotel room with the body of a dead hooker. That's a tremendous fall from grace. But there really isn't a specific angle to this storytelling. Olivia is facing an internal existential crisis. But the show is as well. They don't know what to do with Olivia. They put so much stock in the tension between Olivia and Fitz as a couple. And now, that they are over - a decision that was for the best - they are uncertain and afraid to really dig into anything deeper and new with Olivia as a character.

Of course, Olivia does have a compelling story with Mellie right now. That campaign continues to ramp up in interesting ways. But it's a very minor part of this episode. They talk for a moment and that's it. That's the direction Olivia should be heading in. Instead, she's bogged down by needing to control this situation for the Secret Service team, yell at the President for doing a terrible job at leading the country, and mysteriously look into the vague mechanics of what her father and Jake are up to. Seriously, who cares about the mystery going on with Jake and Rowan right now? Once again, it's the show falling back into a familiar pattern when that's the exact opposite of what it should be doing. Olivia is embracing the pull to continue to play this game with these two men in her life. And yet, it is just so icky and without purpose. When she awakens to see Jake in her room who then tries to seduce her, it's just so gross. It also lingers for too long as well because Olivia somehow can't decide if this is something she wants or not. And that is the most troubling dynamic of late with Olivia. She is no longer a strong and forceful leading character. She's forced into a reactionary role. That, quite frankly, is not interesting to watch at all.

Olivia does have a strong moment when she returns to the Oval Office for the first time since leaving Fitz. Their dynamic has changed so much. They chose to keep their distance from each other and the camerawork makes that very obvious throughout that scene. But it's a scene that largely amounts to Fitz finally getting some sense knocked into him. He has really been deplorable over the past few episodes. He's nothing but a horny teenager. And he's dragging Abby down with him. She had a great moment standing up for herself in the previous episode where she demanded to be taken seriously as his Press Secretary. He agreed. But now, she's too busy handling all of his sexual flings to get any actual work done. It's plotting that doesn't track whatsoever and really hinders the character work as well. It's also just not interesting to see Fitz give in to these sexual urges. It tells us nothing interesting about where he is in life right now. He's acting so immature but that doesn't provide a valuable context for the story. It's just a plot construct that everyone else has to deal with for a little bit before everything goes back to normal.

And again, the election stuff is genuinely interesting. Well, the ideas have been. The execution has been very troublesome. Cyrus has always been a despicable character who will do whatever it takes in order to win. But him manipulating events in order to get his candidate to run for President have just been too extreme to take all that seriously. He nails that monologue talking about his crippled brother who doesn't exist. But it's a plot thread with no value. It's just manipulation for manipulation's sake. A way for Cyrus to have his own stake in the upcoming battle. It's a dark story that plays in stark contrast to whatever Susan, David and Liz are up to. That's a love triangle that has gone on for far too long. It's not surprising considering how long the Olivia-Fitz-Jake triangle has been going on. But it's just not entertaining or meaningful watching Susan run for President simply to please David. She's a character who needs to stand up on her own and have her own voice be heard. And David and Liz need to stop being a couple because it has just been so forced and isn't sexy at all. David's dynamic with Susan is genuine. But there is one too many plot developments at play here that bog down what the story is trying to do.

Some more thoughts:
  • "The Fish Rots From the Head" was written by Heather Mitchell and directed by Sharat Raju.
  • All of the stuff with the Secret Service in the party that went awry was very formulaic and predictable. And yet, it makes no sense at all. They hired hookers for this event and then didn't want to pay them for some reason. And then, they just happened to have enough heroin to stage the scene to make it look like an overdose? So much of it didn't work and was honestly a distraction from what the character arcs should be doing.
  • Does anyone like Marcus yet? He doesn't really seem to have a ton of value in the narrative on an ongoing basis. He was promoted to series regular this season in order to have another perspective on the team. But he rarely adds anything to the story. Here, he stands up for what is right in the main case. And yet, that's more like a plot necessity than a character-based decision.
  • The mystery with Jake and Rowan is only going to become more prominent as the season develops for a number of reasons. First of all, Joe Morton has finally been promoted to series regular. And second, Jake's new girlfriend is played by Justified alum Joelle Carter - a casting that would suggest more importance than a minute cameo here.
  • This episode suddenly remembers that both Cyrus and Fitz have toddlers at home that they are caring for. And Cyrus still has a husband - even though he now also has a sexual dynamic with Tom that came completely out of the blue. But even those remainders just served to push the plot forward.
  • This past week ABC renewed Scandal for a sixth season. As it stands now, that's not really an enticing renewal I was eager to hear. But hey, the show has bounced back from rough patches before. Hopefully, it can again.