‘Scandal’ Season 3 Episode 3 Recap: “Mrs. Smith Goes to Washington”

There comes a time when every woman tasked with writing about Scandal must break from the pack of breathless stans, and I’m sorry to say that for me, that time is now. For the first time in recent memory — perhaps the first time since Season 1, although probably not — I just couldn’t join Twitter in panting and squealing at the episode’s every minute plot twist. “Mrs. Smith Goes to Washington” brought plenty of action, but none of the pleasure that separates Scandal from increasingly dull political thrillers like Homeland.

For the first time in Season 3, the Gladiators are taking on a client whose problems are entirely unrelated to Olivia and Fitz’s affair. Her name is Mary Nesbitt, and she cleaned out her bank account to pay Pope and Associates’ retainer. Apparently because Olivia’s PR issues have taken a toll on her client list, no one bothers to really vet Mary — the important thing is that her money will pay the office’s rent.

Well, no careless move goes unpunished on this show, so of course mild-mannered Mary has strapped on an adorably DIY-ed bomb and waltzed into the Capitol, where she threatens to blow up her congressman if he doesn’t release her son’s FBI file. That son, it turns out, was a young guy named Chris Lawrence, who was killed by the FBI because — she was told — he was involved with al-Qaeda.

Luckily for everyone, Olivia’s famous gut (which, Mary tells her, is why she wanted to obtain Olivia’s services) leads her to follow her client, showing up just in time to see Mary flash the bomb. For some reason, it’s Olivia — not, you know, the United States congressman in the room — who phones the FBI, and also checks in with Fitz and Jake. But she runs afoul of her government allies when Fitz sends a sniper to pick off Mary and she purposely botches their assassination attempt out of fear that if the shooter misses by a couple of inches, she and the congressman will get blown to smithereens, too. (Since this is Olivia, I assume there’s also the underlying unselfish motive of protecting Mary, who she clearly empathizes with and strongly suspects isn’t hearing the whole story.) After that little stunt, Olivia’s got the FBI calling her a terrorist, while Jake hits up Fitz’s cellphone, only to have the president tell him, “You’ll have to tell her you couldn’t save the day.”

Meanwhile, the Gladiators are scrambling. Abby is lobbying David to get access to Chris’ file; in Huck’s absence (more on that later), an increasingly obsessive Quinn is holding her own private hackathon; and Harrison’s on the street with the FBI, where no one seems to want to give him any answers until a mysterious agent thrusts an al-Qaeda recruitment video starring Mary’s son. But soon after Harrison calls Olivia to tell her what he’s seen, David reluctantly delivers the news that the woman who showed him the video was not an FBI agent at all. And then there’s David in Cyrus’ office, having done some magical snooping in FBI personnel files, where he discovered that Chris’ murder was a very bad government mistake.

Back on the phone with Fitz, Olivia finally hears the real story: Chris Lawrence wasn’t a terrorist; he was a CIA agent who had successfully infiltrated al-Qaeda and recruited 57 other operatives. The FBI didn’t know this when they took him out, and Chris had to be painted as a traitor because if his true identity became public knowledge, all 57 of those agents working undercover in terrorist cells would be outed, tortured, and killed. Fitz demands that Olivia promise not to tell Mary the truth, but instead of responding, she hangs up. For a too-short moment, we don’t know what she’s going to tell the woman with the bomb. Of course, since she’s not insane, Olivia tells Mary she’s sorry, but Chris was a terrorist. Mary crumbles.

That’s when it’s finally safe for the men with guns to come in a bring Mary and her two hostages out — but wait! There’s the congressman. There’s Olivia. And then a door closes and the bomb detonates. (Don’t worry, Olivia falls to the ground for a moment, but she’s fine.) Well, good-bye, Mary! Too bad you’ll never know that your son was an American hero!

This storyline disappointed me for a few reasons. For one thing, it didn’t move the larger story along in a way that I thought was particularly clever or illuminating. There were several missed opportunities for Olivia and Fitz’s phone conversations to get more personal or meaningful, for Fitz to think about Olivia dying in that office and for Olivia to come to terms with the fact that the man she loves might just need to let her die for reasons of national security. It’s the character-driven stuff that makes Scandal such juicy fun, but there was nothing light or silly or even sexy about this episode. And for an episode that seemed like it was almost supposed to serve as a standalone mini-action movie, there just wasn’t enough suspense. We knew Olivia Pope was going to get out of there, because Scandal wouldn’t exist without Olivia Pope.

The episode did, of course, offer a few side plots with more relevance to the overarching story. First of all, by far the best scene in “Mrs. Smith Goes to Washington” comes after the Capitol-building action, when Fitz and Mellie share some of Papa Fitz’s hooch. She’s already pretty far gone when he shows up, and gives an absolutely deliciously bonkers speech about how happy she is that Olivia survived — because if she died in such a heroic way, she’d have won. She’d live forever in Fitz’s mind and heart as a martyr. And more importantly, she would no longer be “the strings I will pull to make my puppet husband dance.” If Scandal Season 3 has an MVP so far, it’s Bellamy Young; every time she shows up on screen, there’s sure to be some campy fun in store.

More relevant but less enjoyable is the B-plot that finds a supposed crank breaking from a White House tour, running to the Oval, and getting tackled as he shouts that he needs to talk to the president about Operation Remington. Clearly, this is all related to the secret Fitz-and-Jake files that Cyrus and Rowan have been passing around — and sure enough, Rowan soon shows up at the man’s trailer with the latest in a series of money envelopes. But when Olivia’s dad leaves the trailer, he comes face-to-face with Huck, who’s been following him all day. And although Huck had every intention of killing Rowan, it turns out that the former B613 commander has so much psychological power over him that Huck simply follows his instructions and kills the man in the trailer. Later that night, in the office, Huck has a breakdown to Olivia, repeating the words, “He owns me.” Not to be super-negative about everything this week, but I’m not thrilled with this development in Huck, either. He may be scarred by his super-disturbing past, but I don’t think it makes sense to push him so far that he basically becomes a mind-controlled murder-robot (again). He’s now become so unstable that it seems actively unwise for Olivia to keep him on the payroll.

Finally, there’s Jake! He’s still at Olivia’s apartment, and it’s clear from the urgent phone calls he makes to her and Fitz during the hostage situation that the love triangle is still so on. In fact, he seems to care a hell of a lot more about keeping Olivia alive than Fitz does this week. But if his torch-carrying wasn’t abundantly clear throughout the episode, in its final moments, he tells her that while he was in the Hole, “I just kept picturing your face. Your face saved me.” A lovely sentiment, although it’s now clear to Olivia that Jake has only survived to give Rowan one more means of manipulating his daughter. He doesn’t just own Huck; he owns Jake and Olivia, too. This isn’t such a bad place to stop, so I’m crossing my fingers that it means we’ll get a better — and most importantly, more fun — episode next week.