Embrace the strangeness. That’s what a great poetry professor used to tell me. “That’s so strange—I think you should explore that more, Shannon.” Well, the essence of Suzanne Gardinier seems to have seeped into the Scandal writer’s room (and editing room), and I couldn’t be more thrilled. Last night’s winter premiere, “Run,” was one of the strangest, most bizarre, exciting episodes of Scandal the show has ever delivered.
Olivia Pope with bad hair is enough to make you just about fall out of your chair, and I did last night. But I was also prepared to see a lot of dramatics, and lip quivering, and all the things that make Scandal a sometimes guilty pleasure. Twas not to go down last night though. The flashbacks to Olivia’s final evening in her apartment—dancing with Jake and boldly declaring that she wanted him and Fitz, and so was choosing herself—were carefully shot and edited to depict something much stranger. This scene, and much of this episode, felt like a dream, as we weaved in and out of a moment that was simultaneously the same thing we saw in December’s finale, and yet something very different. The editing plays on the fact that, because we know all that sweet pillow talk (or, sweet piano talk—see what I did there with the sex thing?) ends with Olivia getting kidnapped, it changes our perception of it. It was a strange sensation, further dramatized by the choppy images and screwed and chopped words. It was… cool. But not cool in the way that Scandal often tries to be cool—quotable cool, and meme-worthy cool. It was weird cool! The kind of weird cool a poetry professor at Sarah Lawrence might even be into.
The writing, directing, and editing also played on certain assumptions we couldn’t help but make. We assume, with Jake, that Liv is in the car. She’s not. We assume that, since she’s been taken to the apartment directly across the hall, they’ll keep her there. They don’t. Then when they take her in the van, and try to pressure her to beg for her life, we assume she’ll make a bold statement about how she’s Olivia Effing Pope, and she don’t beg for her life. And she does sort of do that, but in a really creepy way. Washington, rather than letting that beautiful, perfect, lower lip quiver under those big, gorgeous eyes, starts blubbering this barely decipherable monologue about why she’s not begging. She’s not begging, because she’s smart enough to know that these are the wrong men from whom to beg—she saw the man running the show, and he’s not in the van. But Washington’s delivery is pretty terrifying—as in, terrifyingly good. I got flashbacks to The Last King of Scotland, and remembered that the reason I started watching Scandal was because I always believed Washington was this amazing actress who should be given more legitimately good roles (I loved I Think I Love My Wife, but I did not want to a whole career of that for her).
More of our assumptions are thwarted as Liv ends up in a dirty cell somewhere scary, and we know it’s scary because her cell mate, Ian (ohhh, Ian) notes the Islamic call to prayer. Very interesting choice here. It could be a stretch, but I read that particular illusion as a way of drawing attention to a very American fear of the other, especially when that other is Muslim. Seeing our American hero, Olivia Pope, in a possibly Muslim country (turns out, it wasn’t), and in danger—well, I don’t think that was incidental.
In addition to drawing attention to that bias, I can’t help but read the whole “underwire bra saves all” bit with an eagerly feminist eye. 2015 feminism says, “Don’t burn your bras ladies. Deconstruct the bejeezus out of them, and pull out that underwire so that you might dismantle the system which holds you captive… or at least become aware that the whole system might be an illusion, but you need to learn that to find the real prison which holds you captive.”
What? Exactly. This episode was weird, and I admit that my analysis may be weirder. But it’s a necessary weirdness.
The dream sequence was probably the most blatantly strange part of “Run,” and I enjoyed every bit of it. Olivia’s back with Jake, then in Vermont with Fitz (“White Hat Jam,” FTW), then getting schooled by Abby (that part felt realistic). Abby reminds her that, in spite of what she told Ian about how The POTUS is totally going to save her, no one is coming for Liv. Not yet, at least. And even if they are, she’s going to have to put in that work. And “work” means going into that disgusting bathroom, making a weapon out of a pipe, busting one dude in the head, and then… there it was. Now, we’ve seen a lot of Scandal characters kill, and we’ve seen Olivia do some bad things, but damn. She is now, officially, a person who has killed. And—even though it was in self-defense, and even though that guy was basically asking for it, and taunting her, and declaring that she wouldn’t do it—we know Olivia is most likely going to sit with the guilt of this for a while.
But let’s discuss that awesomely strange ending. I suppose my main point here is that Scandal isn’t typically weird. Crazy, yes. Over-the-top, definitely. And it even does creepy well (Hi, Huckleberry Quinn). But, Olivia bursting through those locked doors, escaping to her freedom, only to find that she was still in captivity (and had, therefore, escaped from this illusion of captivity to her real captivity, which actually looked like a movie set or a sound stage, AKA another illusion)? That was weird. And strange. And one of the coolest reveals Scandal has ever given us.
What Ian has planned for her, and why she was chosen, we’re not exactly sure. But I will absolutely be tuning in next week to find out. And for the first time in a while, I know I won’t be watching it on my DVR the next morning, because this cannot wait!
And while I did enjoy this Tom Verica/Shonda Rhimes director/writer mash-up, I’m looking forward to seeing what Debbie Allen does with next week’s episode, “Where’s the Black Lady?”
Favorite Quote: “Do you know how to use a dutch oven? Do you know how to turn on a regular oven?” (Sassy Abby makes a good point.)
Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor at Paste, and a New York-based freelance writer with probably more babies than you. You can follow her on Twitter.