Grading the Season Finales 2014: Scandal

TONY GOLDWYN

Title The Price of Free and Fair Election (3.18)

Written By Shonda Rhimes and Mark Wilding

What Happens? Jake tells Fitz about the bomb Maya Pope planted in the church (which Cyrus was still not going to tell him about), prompting an evacuation of the church just as the bomb goes off. As Fitz delivers a speech, Sally is shown helping the wounded among the rubble of the church, and it becomes clear that Fitz is about to lose the election.

Olivia confides in her father that she doesn’t want Fitz to lose and that she was scared Rowan was going to die when her mother stabbed him. With Maya still on the loose and the election all but lost, tensions are running high in the White House. Things only get more complicated when Olivia tells Fitz about his father raping Mellie. Fitz goes to his wife, and both he and Olivia understand that he can’t leave her with this new knowledge. Instead, he and his family make an appearance together, but while Fitz is delivering his speech, his son Jerry collapses and later dies from bacterial meningitis.

Jerry’s death is revealed to be no accident: A vial containing a strain of the disease was stolen, and all signs point to Maya. A grieving Fitz gives Rowan permission to do whatever he has to do to bring her down, which means reinstating himself as Command of B-613.

As Fitz and Mellie mourn together, Olivia and Cyrus contemplate their humanity: Were they always monsters whose first thoughts are winning elections, which they know will happen now with the public support thrown behind Fitz after Jerry’s death? Olivia is confronted with a way to rediscover her humanity when Huck reveals Quinn found his family. While he ultimately decides to see them again, his words about disappearing inspire Olivia to take her father up on his offer of putting her on a plane to disappear forever—and she takes Jake with her.

With Olivia gone just like her father wanted, Harrison puts the pieces together to see that it wasn’t Maya who killed Jerry—it was Rowan. Olivia wanted Fitz to be president, so he made Fitz president, while taking away his son like Fitz took away Rowan’s daughter. Rowan then orders Harrison to be shot, and we see that he’s keeping Maya locked up once again.

As Olivia and Jake fly towards their new life, David receives boxes of files on B-613, and Olivia receives a phone call from the White House. It’s Mellie calling for Fitz, who has broken down under the weight of everything the presidency has cost him just before he’s set to deliver his victory speech. But Olivia chooses not to pick up.

Game-Changing Moment Scandal is famous for packing multiple game-changing moments into each episode—not just its finales. With so many shocking scenes in its short history, it’s rare that a Scandal twist can be genuinely upsetting anymore, but that’s exactly what young Fitzgerald Grant IV’s death was—upsetting. When none of the major characters in the church died in the bombing, I’m sure most people expected someone to die in a different way in this episode, but I’m not sure anyone expected the teenage son of the president to die in such a sudden and brutal manner. Jerry’s death was a horrifying moment, and it’s more even horrifying after discovering why he died. His death led to so many more game-changing moments in this finale: Rowan being reinstated as Command by Fitz; Fitz winning the election; Maya being recaptured; and, ultimately, the reveal that Rowan was the one who set up the boy’s death (which led to Harrison’s possible death as well). This twist also led to many of the episode’s most important moments of character growth: Olivia and Cyrus talking about becoming monsters; Mellie and Fitz softening towards each other in their grief; and Fitz breaking down in the Oval Office. It’s always a risk to kill off a kid (or in this case, a teenager), but Scandal made it a moment of huge importance while grounding it in very realistic grief.

Finale M.V.P. Scandal is a show that’s often defined by the phrase “the bigger the better.” There’s no kiss too passionate, no screaming match too loud or too tearful, no monologue too over-the-top, and no performance too melodramatic. So imagine my surprise when Tony Goldwyn decided to show something in this episode that Scandal seems almost pathologically afraid to show: restraint. His work in “The Price of Free and Fair Election” was grounded, haunting, and disarmingly subtle. Fitz’s world was falling apart around him in this episode, and instead of using that as an excuse to reach for the melodrama, Goldwyn turned in a realistic portrait of a completely broken man that made me feel shreds of sympathy for Fitz that I thought I’d destroyed long ago. Goldwyn didn’t have a show-stopping monologue to deliver, but he didn’t need one. So much of his performance in this episode was silent, but that made it even more affecting. Today, I’m not really thinking about anything Rowan said or any pieces of dialogue delivered by Olivia or Cyrus or Jake. I’m thinking about the utterly heartbroken look on Fitz’s face as Mellie told him she fought his father as he raped her. I’m thinking about the quietly desperate way he looked for Mellie in the White House after Jerry’s death because no one else would understand what he was feeling. And I’m thinking about the devastation that came seeping out of him as his hands began to shake while pouring himself a drink in the Oval Office before his entire body crumbled under the weight of what the presidency cost him and those he cared about. Goldwyn made that final scene so visceral, so physical in its depiction of the crushing weight of grief. It was raw, and it was real. And in making Fitz feel like a real person with real reactions and not some histrionic character in a Greek tragedy, Goldwyn managed to do the impossible—he made me cry for Fitz.

Most Memorable Lines
Olivia: How did we get like this? When did we stop being people?
Cyrus: Were we ever people? Or did serving at the pleasure of the president just help us to shed our pesky skins and unmask us as the monsters we really are?

What Didn’t Work Making the “church bomb” plot one big MacGuffin was a good twist, but it seemed like a pretty costly MacGuffin. Did anyone die in the blast? If they did, the fact that such a tragedy was given about 5 minutes of screen time just further serves to highlight Scandal’s penchant for going through plots like a pantry full of food that’s about to expire. And speaking of plots that are discarded too quickly, I was left wondering if Sally was ever going to experience any kind of fallout from killing her husband. For a plot twist that was so important when it happened and for a breakdown that was foreshadowed so strongly, the ending of her presidential aspirations (and presumably her whole storyline) felt anticlimactic. I know bad deeds are often left unpunished on this show, but I hope Sally’s story isn’t over, especially because Kate Burton should get to go out with a bang rather than a whimper.

There were also some little things that didn’t sit right with me in this episode. I never want to see Huck and Quinn having sex—NEVER. But I suppose if I’m forced to, then I want it to always include Abby acting as disgusted by it as I felt. And I understand the reason Olivia told Fitz about Mellie’s secret, but that was not her secret to tell. It led to one of my favorite scenes in the episode, and I know rationally that it made sense (Mellie might never have told Fitz otherwise). But it robbed us of a potentially dynamite scene with Mellie telling Fitz about what his father did to her, and it robbed Mellie as a character of her agency once again. But I’m fiercely protective of Mellie Grant, so I’m sure I’m taking this more personally than I’m supposed to.

What Worked Usually, Scandal’s melodramatic plots are accompanied by equally melodramatic acting. So it would seem fitting that episode with as many crazy twists as “The Price of Fair and Free Election” (it’s been a long time since a TV event surprised me like Jerry dying did) would feature plenty of over-the-top performances. However, this couldn’t be further from how it actually played out. Of course, Joe Morton was given some delicious scenery to chew on in the way only he can (“He took my child, so I took his.” WOW.), but the theatrics were actually kept to a minimum in this episode. They were replaced by some subtly powerful acting choices that made the small moments of this episode resonate just as intensely as the turning points.

I’ve already talked about Tony Goldwyn’s surprising subtle performance, so I’m going to jump right to his scene partner in many of his most affecting moments: Bellamy Young. I make no secret of the fact that Mellie Grant is my favorite character on Scandal, mainly because of the depth Young has given her—especially this season. While she may not have had a monologue to rival her drunk speech to Fitz earlier this season or a breakdown to match the one had she had last week in front of Olivia, Young still managed to stand out amid a sea of talented actors.

When Mellie told Fitz she fought his father when he raped her, I didn’t think about Young’s acting; I thought about wanting to wrap this broken character in my arms and to tell her she doesn’t have to prove her strength to anyone. That moment will haunt me for a long time because Young made me feel the weight of all of those years Mellie spent feeling trapped by her secret and damaged by it. And every scene she was in after Jerry’s death—even the smallest background moments—was filled with a grief so tangible it felt like it was sitting on my own chest. Her guilt over being afraid of her own son and her sense of helplessness as a mother who’s going to have to bury her baby were gut-wrenching. Young doesn’t get enough credit for her brilliant work on Scandal, but I hope that starts to change soon because the things she’s done with a character who could have been painfully one-dimensional never fail to astound me.

Mellie’s admission that she was afraid of her son highlighted an important part of what made this episode a success: Characters admitted to their faults, and they didn’t ask one another (or the audience) for sympathy. Moral ambiguity has always been a hallmark of Scandal characters, but in this episode I actually felt the conflict within these characters was genuine. From Cyrus telling Leo to hold onto his soul if he still has one to Jake saying he’s no longer a good person, I didn’t feel like these characters were paying lip service at the altar of redemption arcs. I felt that each was coming to terms with exactly who they’d become and how much that had cost them. Some—like Rowan and Maya—are unapologetic about their horrible deeds. But, in most others, you could see the emotional toll taken by the deals they made with their own personal devils.

I was happy to see Olivia get on that plane to start a new life; she was becoming a character that was getting increasingly difficult to root for, and I’m hopeful that this signifies a fresh start for her that will make me love her again. But my lasting image of this episode won’t be of Olivia on the plane, ignoring the call from the White House. No, it will be the previous scene that established why Mellie would be calling Olivia for Fitz.

I’m not sure there’s ever been a more perfectly symbolic moment on Scandal than that shot of the leader of the free world reduced to a shaking wreck on the floor of the Oval Office, literally brought to his knees by the weight of all he’d done and all that had been done for him to get to serve in that office. Some television moments have staying power, and I think this is one of them. I know I’ll never be able to hear “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” without picturing Fitz on his knees, shaking with grief and regret as he finally faced the true price of leading the republic. Nothing else could have happened in this episode, and I still would have given it a strong grade based on the merits of this scene alone.

Questions That Will Haunt Us All Summer When will everyone find out about Rowan’s role in Jerry’s death? Why does Rowan need (or want) Maya alive? Is Harrison really dead? What will happen now that Huck found his family again? What’s going to make Olivia come home, and will Jake come back with her? And Is anyone ever going to find out that Sally killed her husband?

Finale Grade A. In a season with more downs than ups, this finale was a distinct high point. It maintained the show’s frenzied pace while still stopping for disarmingly quiet moments of character interaction and growth. That allowed the show’s finest actors to shine in a way that made even the most previously unsympathetic characters feel like real people despite the craziness happening around them.

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8 thoughts on “Grading the Season Finales 2014: Scandal

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    • Don’t get me wrong; I’m very protective of Olivia, too. I love both of those women for very different reasons. I know Scandal is Olivia’s story, but I think that’s why I’m protective of Mellie. I see a lot of depth in her character just like I see a lot of depth in Olivia’s, so I defend Mellie a lot because she’s a character that I feel most people don’t want to defend—both on the show and in the fandom. That’s just my reason for gravitating towards her. But the great thing about this show is that all of the character are so complex that everyone can have their own reasons for liking whatever characters they choose.

  3. Good article but please help me understand why you are protective of Mellie’. Please help me see it and don’t give me that mess about a rape. Especially since she was running behind Big Jerry and apologizing for Fitz being mean to him in the flashback. There is not a reason in the WORLD for her to do that unless her primary goal was Fitz’s political career. I really want to know. Please help because I am beginning to actually hate the character.

    • Thank you, and I guess my reasons for being protective of Mellie stem from the fact that I tend to like flawed, ambitious, uncompromising female characters; it’s just what I’m drawn to when choosing my favorites, and Mellie was all of those things and more. She’s not a character I’m only protective of because she was raped (I actually don’t think that storyline was necessary to deepen her character), but I can’t ignore it as something that made me feel for her—because it did. I think Bellamy Young has done wonders adding layers to a character who could have just been written off as a point in a love triangle or an obstacle for Olivia and Fitz. Instead, Mellie became her own three-dimensional character—a woman who has channeled years of frustration into her husband’s political career because she feels like it’s her way of having some power in a world that left her feeling powerless. She’s deeply flawed, but that makes her all the more compelling to me.

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