For those concerned that the Jan. 26 “Scandal” premiere would take us back through some painfully familiar campaign terrain, that fear was quickly divested.
Bellamy Young’s Mellie Grant — by far the episode’s MVPs — lost the election, due to, it seemed, a small county in California. But instead of taking a page from Season 7 “West Wing” and flashing back to weeks on the campaign trail, parsing out the nitty-gritty maneuvering and, one can assume, destroying what’s left of the viewer’s sanity, “Scandal” skipped the in-between for now, and focused on what happens next.
“Scandal’s” always been a show that’s like, “Sure, we can walk-and-talk, but on the way there let’s blow some stuff up” — and a good deal of stuff blew up, starting with a Walden-esque cabin in the woods — and this week especially, the series really nailed the juxtaposition of policy and OMG.
The lazy way out has been the obvious — and inaccurate — comparison between Mellie’s loss and Clinton’s in the weeks before the premiere — but the first mistake there is conflating the heartbreaking wonderfulness of Mellie Grant with the living breathing Hillary Clinton. On a “Daily Show” appearance the night before the premiere, Bellamy Young pointed out that the reason we compare female characters on TV who run for president to Hillary Clinton is because she’s the only woman to compare them to.
Mellie’s way of smiling through rage, and through tears, is so utterly graceful and simultaneously terrifying, you wind up believing whatever lie she needs you (and herself) to believe at that moment, to make it through. The smile shows up here, a few times: Immediately after learning she’s lost the election, she’s clapping her hands together and telling campaign manager Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) it’s time to draft a statement and demand a recount in California and find an expert on constitutional law… And Live has to yell her down from the cliff, walking her through a gracious concession call one phrase at a time, during which Mellie still (still!) smiles that heartrending smile.
After the call (but before Mellie has to make another gracious concession speech), Mellie and Olivia hide out in the hotel bathroom, getting drunk together on overly anticipatory champagne. Mellie has made a temporary home for herself in the empty tub, and the way the two hold hands, and bitch about Cyrus for being the one elected — and seem to forgive each other, for now, all the crap they still have left between them — is adorable. It makes us wonder, once again, why either of them ever needed Fitz (Tony Goldwyn) in the first place. More than a little cathartic, but then: The only thing better than watching Mellie smile is watching her finally let her guard down.
No one smiles like Mellie; no one hurts like she does, either. And the number of times Mellie thinks she has the Presidency in the premiere, only to have it snatched away from her again… That’s a lot of hurt, even when she’s waffling on whether those grapes are sour or sweet: It’s only when sitting with her estranged presidential partner, on that porch outside the Lincoln Bedroom, that she comes clean about what the power of the presidency truly means to her. After apologizing for resenting him for taking the whole thing for granted — and getting a well-earned admission of privilege from the hapless man himself — she leans her head on his shoulder and shines that same grace on him, too.
It is inconceivable, this radical act of Simply Being Mellie Grant. The things she’s put up with, the endless fighting she does. On the day her presidency has been, presumably stolen — here she is, thanking Olivia and stopping her from going down the “it’s my fault you lost” path, while apologizing to Fitz for her perception of him as spoiled, however on-target it may be. Imagine still having that much grace, after losing the thing you wanted most. When we think about the Mellie we met in Season 1, the understandably unpleasant and near-sociopathic face she wore, it seems unfair to remember a time she wasn’t at the very heart of the show. We know how Olivia feels.
Beginning his victory speech, Frankie Vargas (Ricardo Chavira) is shot, three times — his VP and puppetmaster Cyrus (Jeff Perry) in a shocked fugue state and covered in blood standing by in the hospital, as Abby (Darby Stanchfield) does her best to keep the tragedy quiet until Fitz can decide who to support — which sends Olivia on a covert mission, whether Mellie wants it or not, to solve the assassination immediate: Is it her father Rowan and B613 brother/lover (Joe Morton & Scott Foley)? Is it a party outside the ensemble? Or is it her terrifying mentor and former popcorn buddy, Cyrus Beene?
Because it’s debatable who’s been more of a father to Olivia, Cyrus or Rowan. It’s also debatable who it would hurt more to be betrayed by. But what isn’t debatable is who is better at whispering in his daughter’s ear and changing her mid-direction. Although Rowan — and the show — imply Cyrus is directly responsible for the murder, and all the chaos that follows, it’s a little early in the season to know for sure. It wouldn’t be the first time Rowan has set someone else up to take the fall — nor the first time Olivia, blinded by love and ambition, is so easily tricked by him.
In the end, it seems clear enough — for now — and so we’re left wondering where Mellie falls, in this righteous mission of Olivia’s. Admitting that she is offended by the loss more than the hit to her candidate was one thing, but if Mellie resists the treacherous but existent path to the White House, now that Olivia’s got a dragon to slay, it could go just as poorly for her. And it’s a testament to the power and slow burn of this often underappreciated show that we find ourselves playing “what about the white lady” in a show that only recently allowed itself to talk about race at all — but here we are. If Olivia is the Buffy, getting her hands dirtier every season, then Mellie is the Spike, or perhaps the Caprica Six: A monster who can’t seem to stop herself from becoming more and more human. It’s to be applauded, whenever and wherever we find it.
Even before becoming First Lady, Mellie has shouldered the burdens of the powerful all around her: Her assault at her father-in-law’s hands, her implication in a stolen election, her messy and embarrassing public divorce were all results not of her own ambition but her proximity to power. She played at Lady Macbeth, but not very well and not for long stretches — and certainly not at the cost of her own soul, which makes her a DC rarity.
To go from being the person in the mirror to the person inside your body is a life’s journey, especially for women raised like Mellie, and watching her shed these illusions and take back the pieces of herself one scornful monologue (and mason jar of hooch) at a time happens on such a scale it makes sense it’s taken this long for Mellie even to discover what she wants, much less to voice it.
The premiere was about power, even more than the show’s usual focus on it: Who wants it (Mellie, Olivia, Cyrus), who has it but doesn’t want it (Fitz, Jake, Marcus, even Abby this episode), and the unequal ways it’s doled out. And as always, one of the best things about this season in particular — besides Mellie — will be seeing what happens when that power changes hands. We find ourselves rooting for Mellie not because she would be a female president (if still a Republican one — albeit the Shondaland fantasy kind, with compassion and fairness and a basic understanding of the law and its underpinnings), not even for president at all, necessarily, but because Olivia chooses her, and because her reasons for doing so are valid and inspiring. Or perhaps it’s even simpler than that.
Maybe Mellie deserves our love the same way she deserves power: Because we’ve only ever seen her without it.
“Scandal” airs on #TGIT, Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on ABC.