“I’m gladiating,” Olivia Pope tells Quinn during a stakeout early in Thursday night’s episode “The Key.” It’s less of a declaration than a lame pass at convincing herself that she is still Olivia Pope, the one in the white hat, the Fixer. Never mind that her boyfriend Jake is incommunicado and lodged in the bowels of the Pentagon or that Olivia Pope and Associates has crumbled into an anemically staffed operation. Olivia is a gladiator, and gladiators gonna gladiate.
Or so she wishes.
The fourth season makes it clear that no one is wearing the white hat or standing in the sun. For a show that’s typically packed with deft one-upmanship and ruthless power plays, nearly everyone on Scandal is powerless or has surrendered (everyone except the seemingly untouchable Rowan Pope). To be more specific, nearly everyone is stuck in an extended period of grieving.
The Grants are grieving the loss of Jerry, Jr. Huck is grieving the loss of his family. Newly minted Attorney General David Rosen is grieving the loss of his idealism and honor. Olivia Pope and Associates are grieving Harrison. Cyrus continues to grieve James. And Fitz and Olivia are coming to accept there will be no house in Vermont.
For a show that is always about the next step—the next betrayal, the next reveal—Scandal is struggling to maintain its momentum while picking up the pieces of season 3 and properly mourning its ghosts.
At least one of the storylines in this vein has yielded some compelling moments: Mellie’s whisky-and-fried-chicken stupor comes to an abrupt end when she learns her son didn’t just die, he was murdered. In an exceptionally unsettling moment between her and Fitz, Mellie blinks through the emotional fog and concludes that because Jerry’s intentional killing gave Fitz the White House, her son was a martyr, a “soldier.” In her final scene, she disrobes, shedding her Smelly Mellie cocoon and takes a literal and metaphoric hot shower.
Least compelling of the entire episode was OPA’s current assignment: to vindicate a woman wrongly imprisoned for her daughter’s death. The subplot becomes further neutered when it’s revealed that the culprit is a dirty cop who’s willing to shoot two teenage girls for the key to a locker, rather than just, you know, break into the locker.
Meanwhile, viewers are suffering through seeing a character many of them like (Jake) being framed and bloodied for the deaths of characters they don’t really care about anymore (Jerry Grant and Harrison). To make matters worse, Prince of Darkness Papa Pope’s alternate version of events (damn you Agent Tom Larsen!) seems to have entirely convinced Fitz and Olivia, once Jake’s closest and most loyal allies, as well as Cyrus.
Jake could really use a gladiator on his side, but the best in the business, Olivia Pope, is largely out of commission in her apartment nursing a bottle of cheap wine. She’s been doing a lot of things this season—organizing funerals, bringing her dad coffee, bickering with Abby, leaving voicemails—but gladiating hasn't really been one of them.