Although “Scandal” spent several episodes building to an explosion that could have killed the president, the bomb Shonda Rhimes dropped on her twist-hungry audience was of a different kind: The abrupt, utterly un-foreseen murder of the president’s son, which turned out to have been engineered by Olivia Pope’s father. It’s the kind “twisty, crazy OMG moment” the show lives by, or as Time‘s Laura Stampler put it, “a culmination of the sociopathy and moral depravity we have come to expect from the cast of characters.”
Rhimes has called the show’s characters “monsters walking around in human skin,” and the third season finale, “The Price of Free and Fair Elections,” pushed Kerry Washington’s Olivia Pope closer to realizing she is one of them. In “No Sun on the Horizon,” which ended with the death of the superlatively amoral Cyrus Bean’s husband, Olivia was gripped by manic laughter as she realized the show’s three candidates for president shared one thing in common: “They’re all murderers.” But five episodes later, the “they” has become “we.” “When did we stop being people?” she asked Cyrus (Jeff Perry). “Or did serving at the pleasure of the president allow us to shed our skin and unmask us as the monsters we really are?”
It’s a serious moral question: Have the show’s characters been corrupted by the world in which they live, or merely empowered to act out their most primitive instincts? And it’s also a question whose answer “Scandal” is hell-bent on avoiding, especially when it comes to Olivia Pope. The episode’s emotional climax is a soul-searching monologue in which Olivia concludes “I am the scandal, and the way to deal with a scandal is to shut it down.” But there’s no depth to her moment of clarity, because even though the episode ends with Olivia and Jake (Scott Foley) flying off into the sunset, we know that she’ll be back on the job in the fall. (Far less certain is the fate of Columbus Short’s Harrison, whose abruptly resolved storyline and possible offscreen death seems clearly designed to give the show leeway to write him out if it the accusations of domestic violence against Short bear fruit.)
For all the concern over the “bad fans” of “Breaking Bad,” et al., I wonder why there’s been so little talk about “Scandal’s” blithe amorality, the way it offers up acts of supreme inhumanity as delectable plot-twist tidbits, rarely letting the pace slow enough for any of its transgressions to sink in. Perry got to dig deep into Cyrus’ grief after James was killed, but a few episodes later, he’s plotting for the president’s political rival to walk into a death trap. I’m particularly repulsed by the show’s fetish for using vintage soul to pep up its darker moments, lest they bum out any of the show’s loyal viewers.
Having crossed just about every other line, “Scandal” closed out the season with the death of a young man: the president’s son, Jerry (Dylan Minnette) — who, in a cruel and glib irony, had only just had his parentage confirmed by a DNA test. It was a shocking twist, but it had no weight; Jerry was barely a character, and the episode was so busy moving on to the next twist that despite a tearful monologue by his mother, Mellie (Bellamy Young), it barely had time to register. So many people have been murdered on the show by now that one more death hardly makes a difference.
“Scandal’s” fans live to live-tweet the show, trading OMGs in real time, but it seems to inspire little thought beyond that — even less than “The Walking Dead,” perhaps its only rivals in terms of its willingness to kill off characters for pure shock value. The death of a child in “The Walking Dead’s” “The Grove” prompted even some fans to feel the show had gone too far, and even the murder of the loathsome King Joffrey on “Game of Thrones” was the subject of some small amount of hand-wringing, but “Scandal” seems to escape that sort of evaluation, perhaps because the show all but commands its audience not to take it seriously. Rhimes’ writing is highly stylized, as evidenced by this Slate supercut of her pause-riddled dialogue and Vulture’s make-your-own-“Scandal”-monologue, which further insulates us from the obligation to feel anything but giddy satisfaction as the show careens around yet another corner. It’s like a roller coaster where the other riders keep getting their heads cut off, and only the constant forward motion keeps you from getting covered in blood.