After two weeks over in Olivia’s (Kerry Washington) camp, we get Cyrus’s (Jeff Perry) POV, as “Fates Worse Than Death” (Feb. 9) delves into what really happened between Frankie (Ricardo Chavira) and Cyrus during the campaign, and seems to answer the question: Who really killed Frankie Vargas?
Based on the video clip from Jennifer Fields’ (Chelsea Kurtz) computer, it seemed like Frankie had finally discovered that Cyrus set up the whole active-shooter situation last season to make Frankie look like a hero — a clearly irreconcilable breach that would explain Cyrus’s motive for having him killed… As if Cyrus didn’t have enough of a motive.
Turns out that video clip is taken out of context, and that’s nowhere near what Frankie’s angry about. And it all goes back to the night of the Vice Presidential debate — and runs in much closer parallel to Olivia’s friction with Mellie (Bellamy Young) — ostensibly over Marcus (Cornelius Smith Jr.), but really over how far Olivia could go to stay in control of Mellie’s life and campaign, for the duration — than we ever would have expected.
Two things happened on debate night, and neither were Cyrus winning the debate. One was that Cyrus met Jennifer Fields for the first time, the campaign’s new videographer, noted the sparks flying with the very married Frankie, and saw the entire campaign going down the tubes. Frankie was more like Fitz (Tony Goldwyn) than Cyrus realized, and this ghost of his history — his love and disappointment for the man he served for so long — hangs over Cyrus in a way we usually associate with parental attachments…
Or, of course, long marriages — like Cyrus’s with Fitz: How we repeat those patterns, over and over, and sometimes go to self-deluding lengths to bring them into existence: How we punish the current boyfriend for stuff the ex did, forcing them to play the role. For example: Fitz was never a Roman (Joe Morton), even if Jake (Scott Foley) always was — but think about Edison Davis (Norm Lewis), who didn’t start out a Roman — Olivia had to put literal years into bringing that one into existence. And Olivia actually had other stuff going on besides Fitz, she always does. Cyrus has been about one thing, one man, for decades. They joke around about it being a marriage, a lot; they even turned it on its head by acknowledging that Abby Whelan has become Fitz’s “work wife,” his composite Cyrus-and-Olivia, without ever looking at the implications of that for Cyrus.
But this is the hour for that, because Cyrus’s imprinting on Fitz is the music playing in the background of every scene in this Cyrus-centric episode. Cyrus’s belief in Frankie has always been presented as a “falling in love at first sight” moment, and here we see Frankie offer him the VP spot: A consummation of that love that Fitz could never have given him. Frankie is Fitz, but better, cleaner, untainted by corruption, free of the caveats of Defiance and white privilege and all the things that make Fitz imperfect. When he privately weeps — hard — for this moment of validation, it’s not just pride or proof that he is loved. It’s a moment in which time rewrites itself, winds back to Fitz before he ever fell, erasing decades of shame and pain and disappointment.
We return to points of trauma in our history, and to those relationships, not because masochism is a human drive, but because we believe — in some very tender, precious, childlike part of ourselves — that this time it will work. We will find the exit, the right combination, to fix everything. Cyrus’s meltdown in that campaign office was nothing less than a religious experience, a spontaneous blank slate.
But the countermanding, more consequential interaction that night happened between Cyrus and Olivia, when she congratulated him for winning the debate in the most patronizing way possible: “You were impressive,” Olivia says, implying that his skill at being a candidate statesman was surprising. Olivia didn’t even realize the insult inherent in that: Dirty old Cyrus is only good at being the bad guy behind the curtain (or the troll beneath the bridge, or a dancing monkey, as he so sadly and aptly points out)… But Cyrus did.
And even worse, Olivia let slip that she thought that Cyrus had put himself on the ticket. It wasn’t even a slip — in Olivia’s mind, it couldn’t have been that much of a secret, because of course the only way Cyrus Beene could be running for Vice President was if he manipulated someone into it. Maybe on some level Olivia knew what she was doing by telling Cyrus he put himself on the ticket, and her whole goal was to get inside his head. It’s more likely that Olivia just couldn’t conceive of a world in which Cyrus was liked and respected enough to have been asked to be Vice President based on merit alone — either way, the damage was done.
By brilliantly presenting these twinned events out of order, the episode sets up a bit of a shadow play: Cyrus, in the conversation as it goes, what we see is a feral animal, who escalates the conversation into outright threats and ugliness so fast you couldn’t see it happening. One of those “the fight was having us” moments — he bares his teeth, she bristles, they go from giggling together to permanent hatred within a single breath. It’s only later, when we see the relationship and what this gift meant to him, that his reaction comes clear. She was being a little bit of a jerk, perhaps — the case could be made that she’s so impressed by him generally that it began as a “OMG yet one more thing you’re good at!” — but she wasn’t being offensive. She couldn’t know, and we couldn’t know at that moment, how dangerous it was.
At the time, it still tracks: Cyrus Beene, after all, was the “fat, mouth breathing kid picked last during gym class” — as he tells husband Michael (Matthew Del Negro) later in the episode. For years, he worked with Olivia and Fitz, doing everything he thought he should for them, not all things good, and yet in his mind, they never saw him: Not his brilliance, nor his greatness, not even his moments of goodness.
But Tom (Brian Letscher) saw, these and more, and this is another ghost we meet, for the first real time: Their relationship always seemed pretty utilitarian, making sense in soldierly terms of lust and loyalty. We couldn’t know what it was built on, or what it meant — or how dangerous it was. Charlie (George Newbern) is the cuddly psycho, Huck (Guillermo Diaz) is the mostly tamed beast, Jake has free will, but Tom is what happens when that guy’s left out in the cold. And so is Cyrus.
Of the relationships that hit their breaking points in “Fates Worse Than Death”, the saddest is Frankie’s and Cyrus’s. Cyrus is not, really, lying as he tells everyone on the show that he didn’t kill Frankie. Cyrus loved Frankie. Cyrus believed in what Frankie stood for, believed in his beliefs and his convictions, in his goodness… And more importantly, Frankie believed in Cyrus: Not as a tool but as a man and partner. Cyrus’s failing wasn’t his hubris, his desire for power… It was that Cyrus didn’t believe in Frankie enough. Devastating, over and over, from the night Frankie died to every time someone brings him up.
When Cyrus saw Frankie interacting with Jennifer, he saw Fitz and Olivia all over again — even the OPA team assumes, from footage, that they were sleeping together. So when Cyrus met with Tom later, and Tom offered to take care of the problem, Cyrus chose to remain willfully ignorant of Tom’s methods — to rewrite the reality of what Tom is, when part of what Tom is, is a way to make that as easy as possible — and let him. And when Tom laughs that he didn’t “even have to raise his voice,” Cyrus — the relieved Cyrus who wants more than anything to be be Frankie’s Cyrus — takes that on faith too.
Moments — and a brutally beaten Jennifer — later, the whole thing crumbled. We’re not surprised, as viewers, by any of this — unlike Cyrus, we aren’t able to reconstruct the narrative of his life, his relationship with Tom, his pacts with Frankie — and anyway, we saw the writing on the wall. But Cyrus watched, angry and sad and helpless, as his life and his relationship with a version of Fitz who could actually believe in him, crumbled. Frankie’s claim that nothing would have happened with Jennifer — real or not, it doesn’t signify anything now — rang immediately true for Cyrus: In the moment he lost Frankie’s respect, he found a new way to love him. The damage was done.
…Almost. Cyrus made one other mistake. See, in any fairy tale, a little boy wants something — the Presidency, perhaps. Maybe it’s for power, maybe it’s for the ability to do something great. Or maybe, in the case of Cyrus Beene, it’s for children to look at a picture of his face, and say I want to be him when I grow up.
And along will come a dark, untrustworthy creature who wields magic, and that creature will come and stand behind that boy, and whisper in his ear, You’re the one who deserves that absolute power. You’re the great one. Say the word, and I will get it for you. And for a second, Cyrus believed him, and said yes, forgetting the sacrifice that comes with such a bargain (Frankie’s death, of course). And forgetting the most important thing: Like in any fairy tale, once you’ve made your wish, you can’t take it back, no matter how dark it is.
Of course, in this specific case the creature is a sociopathic killer he’s had an ongoing affair with, who also happens to be in love with him in the only way he knows how. And the whisper comes with some very loaded body language, choreographed touch, sensory overload — a symphony of sexual input, designed to make Cyrus feel powerful enough to take it all.
After the beating, Cyrus met with Tom again, and no matter how much he screamed about shutting the whole thing down, about breaking up, Tom wasn’t hearing him: Spies play shadow games. No matter how many times you say “I am not lying about this,” a person will put the words they need to hear just beyond that. Cyrus wanted to believe that one of those rounds of “I’m not kidding” worked, even if a small part of Cyrus still knew there were no takebacks. Cyrus Beene loved Frankie Vargas and when Frankie died, Cyrus wasn’t falsely mourning. He was more stricken than we could see, and more than is reasonable for Olivia to (maybe ever) understand.
Michael smuggles his husband a gun in a box of brown rice past the press outside their house, so Cyrus can finally kill his demon lover. But when Cyrus balks, unable to get blood on his hands, Tom knocks him out and drags him home before turning himself in, telling the head of the FBI that Cyrus ordered him to assassinate Frankie, and it’s over. But not before some very loaded body language, choreographed touch, sensory overload — a symphony of sexualized input, designed to make Cyrus feel weak enough to make Tom a man again.
There will be no clemency, it seems — but sometimes, in even the darkest fairy tales, help arrives at the eleventh hour. Cyrus doesn’t deserve it, no question: Even if you can give him the benefit of willful ignorance when it comes to Tom killing Frankie, or believe this story isn’t over (we still haven’t seen what role Rowan might play in all of it), Cyrus has done a great deal of bad sh*t over the years. It doesn’t mean there’s anything less to love about him, and it doesn’t mean he wouldn’t have been a transformational president; we can mourn that, too.
There’s so much to mourn.
This show would be nothing if it weren’t for that ability to make you love past its characters’ many, many faults and their wrongdoing. It isn’t necessary to accept them; the breadth of story around it gives you more than enough room to maneuver. And in some ways, the more important questions were solved. Not #whokilledFrankie, not by a long shot we’re sure, but the ones that matter most: Did Cyrus love Frankie, did he truly believe in him? And: Was Cyrus legitimately on the ticket?
In “Fates Worse Than Death,” we learned the answers to both those questions: A surprising, heartbreaking, barely audible “Yes.”
“Scandal” airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on ABC.