Shondaland is bliss. It’s full of powerful women and fallible heroes and gay people with real, messy lives and minorities not defined by their race.
It’s also scary as hell.
Is there a show on TV that’s as unsettling as Scandal?
The final half of this season alone: the kidnapping, the torturing, the slitting of Lena Dunham’s throat, the bus massacre, the betrayals, the Olivia loneliness. When my doctor asks me why my blood pressure is so high, I’m going to skip the part about the Taco Bell, pizza, and empty bottles of white wine in my wastebasket and instead say three words: “Shonda did it.”
Thursday night’s Season 4 finale of Scandal was the curtain call in what’s been an operatic year for Shonda Rhimes. With on- and off-screen messaging about normalization and representation, not to mention three hit shows on the air simultaneously on which to air that messaging, she’s proved herself to be one of culture’s most powerful voices.
And with another out-of-its-damn-mind season of Scandal under her belt, she’s proved, too, to be one of culture’s most shameless, boldest, confident storytellers. It takes a whole lot of self-assuredness to pull off TV this bonkers and have us giddily along for the ride, head out the window, screaming “woo hoo” the whole way.
First, let’s recount just how unsettling this episode was.
The season’s penultimate episode kept teasing a dastardly B613 operation called “Foxtail,” which we learned in the final scene involved first lady (and Senate hopeful) Mellie Grant (Bellamy Young). “Foxtail,” it turns out, was a blackmail tactic from Rowan/Eli Pope (Joe Morton). He threatened to release every compromising bit of information about both her and her husband’s personal and professional lives unless she gave him a list of names.
Who was on that list of names? The 12 jurors in a case that was meant to expose and eradicate the rogue spy agency B613. Minutes later, in one of the most ghastly scenes this show has produced—and that’s a high bar—all 12 jurors are shown in their sequester bus with bullet holes to the head.
Even Attorney General David Rosen (Josh Malina), who keeps calling himself one of the “good guys,” is spooked by this. “Normally I’d be all white-hat woo hoo,” he says. But after the killings, he’s done trying to expose B613.
It’s unsettling enough to see such a gruesome scene, but what makes a Shonda Rhimes show so good is that violence and gore doesn’t exist for shock value’s sake. It’s always a catalyst for emotional repercussions that change the course of the show entirely.
In this case, Mellie is haunted by her involvement in the murders, Cyrus (Jeff Perry) plummets deeper into his dark instincts than even he thought possible in order to cover it up, and two relationships—Olivia (Kerry Washington) and Jake (Scott Foley), and Mellie and Fitz (Tony Goldwyn)—are ruined because of it.
In a wrenching scene, Fitz finds out about Mellie’s involvement in the jury massacre and disowns her. Mellie was riding the highest high—she just won her Senate race, and her husband, after years of a tortured relationship, was supportive. At the end of the episode, the despondence on her face indicated she was back at her lowest low. It was heartbreaking.
Fitz knows Cyrus was involved in the incident, too, and he fires him. Cyrus is fired! How will the Oval Office function without the throbbing stress vein on his forehead to turn to? Will a lost Abby (Darby Stanchfield) be wandering the halls of the West Wing dead-eyed, constantly jerking her head around to answer to hallucinated calls for “Red!”? Stay tuned for Season 5 to find out!
But then there’s the Mellie-Fitz-Olivia-Jake love quadrilateral, which is always infuriating and occasionally heartbreaking and engaging. Sometimes even rewarding. But rarely.
The majority of the tail end of this season saw fleeting happiness between Mellie and Fitz. Perhaps we should have known better. Their happiness is always fleeting. Happiness in their relationship is like butterfly kisses to the heart. The high is so sweet and so intense, and then it’s just gone. Flown away. It’s so transient that it makes you angry. Screw the butterflies, you say! And screw the writers for making you feel like there was hope for Mellie and Fitz. Again.
And then, oh, Jake and Olivia. These two. It took so long to get warmed up to them as a couple, outside of the fact that the mere existence of the flawless Kerry Washington and perfect Scott Foley on screen together was the equivalent of a visual boner.
But finally, we were on board with this dreamboat happy couple. And not just romantically! They were such a good professional team, too! They were Daphne and Freddy, driving the Mystery Machine full of those meddling Gladiators around on their mission to take down B613. How cute and satisfying was it when they finally, though a technicality, framed Eli Pope for embezzlement and got him locked behind bars?
Shonda Rhimes killed freaking Jake Ballard, brought him back to life, reunited him with Olivia, made them happy, jailed her father, and then—and then—at the end of it all, had Jake leave her! Ms. Rhimes! What are you trying to do to me? My doctor would like to have words.
At the very least, we’re hoping that jailing Eli Pope doesn’t mean the end of this deliciously villainous character.
Joe Morton is so, so good in this role. He’s Shakespearean in the grandness of his malice and so morally bankrupt he becomes, in a weird way, likable. When he was telling Olivia about how she inadvertently orchestrated the eradication of every member of B613 in her efforts to expose him, it was like that cartoon thing where the villain monologues his whole evil genius plan and then before he can say “bwa ha ha!” it all blows up in his face.
And what do you know? It does! And it was satisfying.
Perhaps that’s the best thing to say about Shonda Rhimes, and specifically Scandal. As messed up as it may sound, a show this unsettling is also extremely satisfying.
It’s satisfying in its fairly obvious and gloriously unapologetic feminism. Past episodes have seen a first lady run for public office, an arc crusade for rights of victims of military rape, and Olivia take control of her own sexual energy without shame or judgment. It’s been fabulous.
It’s satisfying in the layers it creates in the relationships between its characters. That’s the only real way you can pull off a true plot shocker, and it certainly worked when Quinn pulled a gun on Huck and revealed that he had been the one to execute the jurors.
And it’s satisfying in the way it respects and rewards its loyal audience with callbacks and refrains and continuing storylines that assume you’re a regular viewer of the show.
Cue: “Here Comes the Sun.” Did you get it!?
Yep, the season ended with a callback to Olivia’s famous plea for happiness—wanting to stand in the sun with Jake—but this time she was with President Fitz, arguably her soulmate. He had left Mellie. Jake had left her. And there they were together at the White House, staring at each other as “Here Comes the Sun” played in the background.
It may have been a swoon of a twilight on a White House balcony in the nation’s capital, but Olivia and Fitz are still basking in the sunlight of their happiness.
Is it emotionally jarring to go from such depression—Mellie is alone, Cyrus is fired—and be expected to be cheering for hot-and-heavy romance? Yes. But we’re Shondaland-trained athletes, conditioned after years of practice to withstand the whiplash pacing of her shows with a certain emotional agility and mental flexibility.
After all, you gotta have something to make up for that high blood pressure.