The death of a former president has everyone reconsidering what they want.

By Kat Ward
Updated October 31, 2014 at 04:33 AM EDT
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Credit: Nicole Wilder/ABC
S4 E6
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This week’s episode ended up being all about women in the world, and the various ways they are used by men—and turn that using around. But first, let’s skim the general plot set-up before diving into the many ways power differentials play out between women and the men who love and loathe them.

Randolph Cooper, the Scandal-world’s Reagan, has died. During his presidency, Cooper survived an assassination attempt, which left a bullet in his brain and his failed alleged assassin in jail. In Olivia Pope’s world, this means Leonard Carnahan, the assassin, claims he’s innocent and needs her help. In the White House’s world, this means being compared to a man who is held up as the pinnacle of modern Republican leadership—not ideal when you’ve decided to challenge Republican banner issues in your second term.

Meanwhile, Cyrus Beene continues his liaison with Michael the sex worker/spy, to the point where he’s getting him an apartment and secure cellphone. Oh, Cyrus. You used to be such a keen political operative. A veritable shark! And now you leave your Blackberry out where your lover can rifle through it. Needless to say, Michael gets some valuable tidbits out of it.

And, back at Pope and Associates, Quinn and Huck are still doggedly working away on the cliffhanger from last week’s case: What does that key Quinn dug out of a teenager’s guts open? Turns out it leads to a locker full of pictures of Olivia Pope. The plot thickens, and gives high hopes that Scandal will kick its plot into a higher gear soon.

“The words used to describe women!” Olivia exclaims after Fitz declares Abby to be a bitch. “If she was a man, you’d say she was formidable, or bold, or right.” This is as good a thesis for this episode as anything else. Olivia Pope made a splash, as a character, because she presented an intoxicating combination: a brilliant, independent, powerful woman who was swept up in a delirious affair in which she was still brilliant, powerful, and independent. The allure of Olivia Pope is that even though she is passionately (and sometimes downright CRAZILY) in love with Fitzgerald Grant, she is, at the core, still her own person, still committed to her principles. Kerry Washington and Shonda Rhimes together have managed the difficult task of keeping their protagonist true to herself through whatever loopy plot twist.

This episode is no different, but it shows us both Olivia trying to maintain her position, and, more tellingly, how the men in her life deal with her and around her. Olivia and Fitz are the primary couple here. He won’t return her calls, but will show up at her door unannounced and expect a glass of wine. He’ll deny her a visit to Jake, but then peremptorily change his mind and have her brought in to see her former lover. In this episode, Fitzgerald Grant is using whatever tools he has available to try and exert control over Olivia’s life. This season, she had essentially boxed him out. She’s kept pretty rigid professional standards, minus a slip here and there. So naturally, Fitz is using what slim bargaining chips he has—being president, Jake—to force Olivia to interact with him, to try and wring a reaction from her, even if it’s negative. Fitzgerald Grant wants to know if there’s any hope for them in the future, and what he gets from Olivia, with a disbelieving sneer, is the yes he wants.

Meanwhile, Papa Pope is using his daughter as leverage in transactions that she cannot assert herself at all. “I handed my greatest treasure to you on a silver platter,” Rowan tells Jake. “All you had to do was pay your respects to her father.” Rowan loves his daughter. We’ve seen that for sure. But this is not about his daughter. That quote tells you everything. This is a different power struggle, between Jake and Rowan, and in this Olivia is not a person, but a bargaining chip. She can be served up and she can be taken away. The most important thing for Rowan is not whether Jake loves Liv, or whether he’s a good or bad force in her life, it’s that Jake defer to him. Which is why it’s immensely gratifying to see Liv and her father face off at the pool after Jake is pulled from his grasp. “You may be Command, Dad, but I have weapons at my disposal. Weapons you can’t possibly possess,” she tells Rowan as she kicks off from the side of the pool. I know we’re supposed to assume she means the romantic hooks she has in Grant and Ballard, but those are just the surface level ones. Rowan’s a past master at manipulation, but Liv’s got a certain idealism, a righteous fire, and a deep well of empathy, that give her machinations sticking power.

NEXT: Power dynamics all over the place…

Even the client of the week is manipulating our girl. He convinces our lady of infallible judgment that he really is wrongly accused, that he can be proven innocent. Turns out Leonard Carnahan is a proper fanatic, eager for the infamy of being a presidential assassin. Liv’s crusading on his behalf only proves him incontrovertibly guilty.

David Rosen, meanwhile, thrills to having beaten Olivia at her own game, but can’t even properly enjoy his upper hand. “I’m not gloating,” he says. “I’m honestly saying this feels really weird, winning, against you.” In this instance, David Rosen is maybe the only man in this episode who’s not trying to put Olivia in her place. His moment of gloating (he was, a little bit) is immediately undercut by his own sense that it’s strange. And it’s even further undercut by his reminder, when she admits she was fooled, that this is why we have a justice system. It’s a nice moment, as for the first time in a long time, Olivia and David are aligned.

Liz North, on the other hand, isn’t going to let anyone get the upper hand on her. She gets a tip from Michael that there’s chatter in the White House about closing some military bases, which would be a strong negative for Fitz if it came out. Naturally, she leaks it on a morning news program and attempts to get Mellie to deny it and put the president in a no-win situation. Liz is a woman, but she’s also the head of the RNC. She doesn’t wait for someone to define the power equilibrium, damn it. She makes it. Liz is the kind of woman Fitz would call a bitch—but he’d be too scared of her to say it to her face.

This episode also introduces us to the delightful Bitsy Cooper, who walks into the White House like she owns the place—and it turns out, she has good reason to feel like that. Widow of the recently dead president, Bitsy reveals to Mellie that she was the power behind the throne during her husband’s years in office. Cooper, she says, had undiagnosed ADD (a frankly very thin gloss on Reagan’s Alzheimer’s and nowhere near as convincing). This means Bitsy played hardball with Brezhnev, ginned up a new tax code, and strengthened the military. But, as she reminds Mellie, that means squat, noting, “I will be remembered as the wife of a man who did something with his life.”

This FLOTUS face-off leads to maybe the greatest scene: Mellie and Bitsy tossing back martinis on the White House balcony. (For the record, there is nothing I would rather do than have happy hour with Bitsy and Mellie. That looks like a BLAST.) They bond over having horndog husbands. “After a while I was grateful,” Bitsy says about her husband’s many paramours. “It gave me time to actually run the country.” Bitsy Cooper, the picture of a very traditional woman’s role (check those pearls!), chose to have political power—she suffered her husband’s affairs and having her accomplishments go unsung in order to engineer those accomplishments in the first place. Meanwhile, we’re watching Mellie have an awakening. For the past three seasons we’ve seen Mellie try to balance being the model First Lady with her own desire to be a mover and shaker, mostly unsuccessfully. Hanging out with Bitsy seems to have shown her that maybe she’ll have to sacrifice some things, like her marriage, if she wants a political career all her own. And so, she throws Fitz under the base-closing bus after the Cooper funeral.

Abby, on the other hand, spends most of the episode getting the short end of the stick. After confronting Fitz about his handling of the Jake situation, she finds herself clinging to her job. Cyrus makes it very clear that the first legitimate chance they get, the White House will boot Ms. Whelan out the door. He tasks her with finding out where Elizabeth North is getting her information from. That’s not enough though, so Fitz intentionally calls her “Gabby,” most gallingly in a White House team huddle. It’s a petty move, meant to put Abby on the outside, let her know that her value is too low to even bother getting her name right. Fitz is the leader of the free world, but he’s not above making a woman feel small because she called him on his bulls—, because he can. Abby gets the last laugh, as her digging into where that leak might have come from leads to her discovering all of Cyrus’ stealthy little plans for Michael. She might be getting dissed and dismissed and threatened by her bosses, but she’s not going down without a fight. She’s a gladiator, after all.

Episode Recaps

Scandal

Shonda Rhimes’ political drama: Sex! Murder! Olivia’s suits!
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