Review: Scandal, “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”

All hail Shonda Rhimes.

“Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” is not just the best season three episode of “Scandal,” but a necessary reaffirmation of what makes the show so great when everything’s working at peak efficiency. If that weren’t enough, it also managed to solve the show’s central problem, pointing towards a potentially even better future for the series.

But other than that? It didn’t really do all that much, I guess.

Let’s talk about that reaffirmation, which really boils down to “the personal is the political is the personal.” What makes “Scandal” so damn impressive isn’t its handle on the actual day-to-day politics of Washington DC (which, let’s be frank, are pretty sketchy at best), but rather its handle on the impulses of people in positions to write legislation, order drone strikes, or do one of a hundred things that affect the lives of literally everyone in the world. These people have certain skills that set them apart, but those skills do not cleave them from basic human frailty. In fact, “Scandal” argues that efforts that go into making these people so primed for power in fact bring those frailties to the surface if left unchecked for a single second.

scandal_0.jpgIn “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” the death of James Novak pushes all those frailties to the forefront, bursting in the same blood red that soaks Novak’s corpse in the opening shot. The episode using that instigating event and then just lets its characters react to it. Olivia tries to comfort Cyrus, ends of learning the harsh truth from Jake, seeks fatherly advice from Rowan, returns to her office only to be bombarded by her coworkers, and then eventually forges a partnership with David Rosen to take down B6-13 “brick by brick.”

That’s only one of the several interesting journeys on display tonight, but it’s probably the most important one, since Olivia herself has been somewhat at sea this season. She’s the show’s lead, but hasn’t been its driving force for sometime. Putting Joe Morton on the show has allowed him to take Shonda-nese to new, operatic heights (seriously, “Morton Monologues” would be my favorite show on TV), but introducing both Rowan and Olivia’s mother Maya has put Olivia in a passive position for large chunks of this third season. Not only has she been placed between two parents, but also two lovers, leaving Olivia in a type of stasis all season. Kerry Washington has done yeoman’s work in keeping Olivia interesting, but “Scandal” has been busy developing characters like Mellie and Jake this season at the expense of its nominal star.

But when Olivia forges an alliance with David, it solves that problem in a remarkable elegant manner. One could always argue that Olivia’s inaction has been the entire point of this season, to which I say a kind, friendly, “Fuck that noise.” Having something ring true and have it be entertaining are two inherently separate things, and while it’s nice when they overlap, the latter is always preferable to the former. “Lost” spent a few years beating Jack Shephard into submission as part of its execution of the Joseph Campbell mythmaking process, but that doesn’t mean watching Jack systematically make shitty decisions was remotely fun. While Olivia turning into a puddle each time she’s around Fitz gets somewhat repetitive after a while, it used to function as the exception to the rule. Now, Olivia’s quivering lip and eyes darting around for any sign of escape while her feet remain firmly planted on the ground has gotten old. By pairing up with David, “Scandal” finally may give something Josh Malina something to do, but crucially, it’s giving Olivia Pope something to do again over the course of these final four episodes.

While Olivia’a future looks bright (story-wise), the emotional heart of tonight’s episode lie with Cyrus and James. James Perry and Dan Bucatisnky have always has great chemistry (go back and watch them both strip naked to prove neither is wearing a wire, a “this is totally ridiculous but totally sexy and totally in line with the melodramatic frequency in which these characters operate and YAY SCANDAL” moment to say the least), but not always great material. You could argue this was an “easy” episode, in that James’ death automatically gives the flashbacks poignancy and the present material urgency. But nothing about “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” is easy, even if the writers and actors sure as shit make this look easy. You damn well knew that Cyrus’ desire to work through his grief would bottom out by episode’s end. But you couldn’t count on James’ incredibly forward flirting in the flashbacks (which disarmed me almost as much as it did Cyrus) and the guttural, primal yell Cyrus lets out in front of the White House Press Corps.

scandal-3-13-jake-shooting.pngThat yell comes at the end of the episode, but exists outside the spectrum of human ears throughout. Just look at the way “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” pairs up people tonight: Olivia/Jake, Abby/David, Quinn/Huck, Andrew/Mellie all react in some ways to James’ death, and the realization that Olivia and everyone else recognizes way the hell too later: White hats don’t exist in “Scandal,” and haven’t for far longer than anyone recognized. Olivia might strive to be the protector her father wishes her to be, but the very best she can do is make the world better for others. No one on the show has a chance to step into the light, to borrow imagery from last week’s episode. These people are in the shadows, with only unnatural lights peeking through shades and drawn curtains hitting their faces. So they lash out, they reach out, they spit on each other, they fuck each other, they try and save each other, but the desperation in each act betrays the fact that redemption probably isn’t in the cards for any of them. What “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” does is not make that reality as depressing as the one on “The Walking Dead”: Even if Olivia and company are screwed, there’s hope for others, and they can keep that hope alive.

I’ve argued for as long as I’ve written about the show that the characters in “Scandal” consume the same type of pop culture we do, and buy into the same lies that we do, and therefore are just as confused as we are when the moves that work onscreen don’t actually work in the reality of everyday life. Saying that “Scandal” has any form of “reality” might make some of you laugh, but everyone on the show is an unreliable narrator. The Cy/James flashbacks show a few brief moments in which these people had a shot, just a SLIGHT shot, at some form of happiness. Current Day Fitz is POTUS but also Pretty Much The Worst, whereas early POTUS played the Pronoun Game with a flustered Cyrus, the latter of which unaware that Fitz knew about James and couldn’t give less of a shit. Throw in the transcendently romantic moment when Cy leads James to the dance floor of the state ball, and you had an odd tone of optimism in a show that rarely traffics in that spectrum.

But somewhere along the lines, every major character on this show made a decision that closed off that slim chance at a happy ending. They either did something or had something done to them that closed off that particular branching path. But they still remember those moments in which that possibility still existed, and that memory haunts each and every one of them. That’s why these people work so hard and move so fast and talk even faster. They aren’t just moving forward but running away, running towards the unknown, an unknown that’s still a better alternative than what they can’t forget. James is dead, but the sounds of their first dance softly played in Cyrus’ ear until he had to scream in order to drown out the music.

That’s horrible.

That’s human.

That’s “Scandal”.