Culture

“Scandal” review: “Everything’s Coming Up Mellie”

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Last night’s Scandal was an episode I’ve been waiting for, although I didn’t quite know it until I saw it. While there were a multitude of other threads in play as well, last night’s Scandal‘s primary focus fell on the much-maligned First Lady Mellie Grant.

This isn’t the first time the show has structured an episode around flashbacks. Usually they’re about Olivia, although Huck was given an episode at one point too. Hopefully in the future we’ll get insight into more of the major characters’ pasts. But in the meantime, I’m glad they decided to tell us a little more about Mellie.

I can see why a lot of Scandal fans would dislike Mellie. Not only is she abrasive, but she stands in direct opposition to the tortured love story at the show’s center. When it comes right down to it, Scandal is designed so that we root for President Grant and Olivia. Their torrid affair is not only steamy, but written with the kind of forbidden passion that most of us envy in our own lives. Shonda Rhimes has created a scenario where it’s virtually impossible for these two characters to be together, and when two people who are in love can’t be together, you’ve got a classic recipe for compelling drama. So, yeah, more often than not Mellie gets left in the dust.

But personally, I can’t help but feel sorry for Mellie (Bellamy Young). Not only does she have to put up with continued emotional abuse from the President, but the show also frequently mentions that she had to quash her own political aspirations to support her husband’s. But I also love that every time she throws the President’s threats back in his face, or schemes a little behind his back, she becomes more than just the stereotype of the suffering wife. Mellie Grant may not be a particularly likable character, but she’s definitely one of the show’s strongest.

In flashbacks, “Everything’s Coming Up Mellie” revealed a time where she and the President were much closer. As we’re introduced to a younger (and closeted!) Cyrus Beene, and reintroduced to the President’s lecherous father, “Big Jerry” (Barry Bostwick), we see a lot of things we already knew about; Mellie motivated her husband to run for office even when he had doubts, she gave up her dreams for him, etc. However, the episode did contain one shocking new fact about Mellie’s past. While talking to Big Jerry one night about how they get can future-President Fitzgerald Grant to run for Governor of California, her drunken father-in-law mistakes her concern for desire, or simply chooses to see it that way, and rapes her.

Here’s the thing: rape is a tricky subject. No matter what show, what medium, what story, one should take the utmost caution when dealing with something so heinous. It’s especially a risky move for Scandal, which takes great pleasure in its over-the-top pulpiness. The problem also harkens back to the first episode in this season of American Horror Story. While I appreciate Ryan Murphy’s campy sensibilities, I think he frequently does himself a disservice by trying to blend them with a certain grim realism. So when he included a rape scene (and one of the more brutal rape scenes I’ve seen on television in recent memory) in the season premiere, I had a hard time enjoying the catty dialogue and the weird plot twists of the rest of the episode.

All that said, I think Scandal actually handled the situation fairly well. There’s a scene that takes place immediately after the rape, where Mellie goes upstairs to take a shower, but her husband asks that she lie in bed with him for a moment. As he talks to her about his reservations about running for Governor, the focus is on Mellie’s horrified face. We see that she doesn’t want to touch this man, after what his father did, much less be around him. Yet, in the stiff upper lip fashion we’ve come to expect from her character, Mellie wakes up the next morning and decides to use what each man has privately told her to bring her husband and his father together for the good of Fitz’s career. However, we get the sense that after what happened, she could never look at Fitz in the same way, which probably resulted in the rift that would widen between them in years to come.

By the end of the episode, President Grant has decided to actually be nice to Mellie for once, and publicly supports her in an interview. But it still feels like it’s too late. From here on out, Mellie can love her husband, she can defend him, but because of what was done to her, she can never truly repair her relationship with him.

The other important information we got in last night’s flashbacks was concerning Operation Remington, wherein President Grant shot down a plane carrying Olivia’s mother. We now know that the plane was supposedly carrying a dirty bomb. We also know that Big Jerry helped cover up his son’s involvement in Operation Remington. For the moment though, we are still in the dark as to the complete truth. And in other noteworthy storylines, Quinn thought super-spy Charlie was trying to sleep with her, but he was actually just trying to recruit her to kill some guy who knew about Operation Remington, and she did, and now she’s in B-613, the elite group of killer spies of which Huck was also once a part. Please, Shonda Rhimes, make this stop. Every time I think it’s getting interesting, it just gets too ridiculous. It was also revealed last night that the ultraconservative Vice President’s philandering husband Daniel Douglas isn’t actually interested in chasing women, but instead prefers the company of men. More juiciness! (Side note: this marks the second time Jack Coleman has played a closeted man in the world of politics, after The Office.)

Finally, the somewhat unsurprising surprise at the end of “Everything’s Coming Up Mellie” was that Olivia’s mother is still alive, and being helped by her father in some kind of underground uber- jail. This storyline reminds me a lot of Alias, another ABC show about a tough female heroine with a secretive father, who also believed her mother was dead and than later found out that she had been lied to about that. As Scandal goes down this path, I’m starting to worry that they are going to imitate Alias in other ways. Alias was always crazy, but eventually they went past the point of no return. Despite the fact that Scandal has always been overdramatic, one of the best things about the show is that it had at least some link to the real world. But this storyline about Olivia’s mother is not only creepy (really, her dad kept her locked up for years?), it’s also so absurd that I have to question whether Scandal is going past the point of no return as well.