‘Scandal’ Season 3 Episode 5 Recap: “More Cattle, Less Bull”

Well, I’m officially worried. Five episodes into Scandal Season 3, and the heady momentum of this fall’s premiere — and the wildly addictive, suspenseful season that preceded it — has entirely worn off. We’ve settled into that same “client of the week, plus a few minutes of progress on the season-long arc” pattern, and it’s all starting to feel a bit too easy and disposable, isn’t it? But wait: “More Cattle, Less Bull” is packed with reveals that have the potential to save this season, if the show just calms down on the twists for a minute and instead spends some time exploring their real impact on the characters.

This week’s client starts off more promising, and relevant to the show’s ongoing storyline, than usual: Josephine Marcus, the Democratic congresswoman played by the wonderful Lisa Kudrow, who appeared last week as Fitz’s biggest critic and got a big boost in both name recognition and sympathy after Mellie was caught on tape uttering some rather nasty words about her. Now, she’s running for president.

Josie calls Olivia in for a meeting and hires her on the spot, confessing that she doesn’t need a campaign manager so much as someone to make the little problem that she had a baby and gave it up for adoption when she was 15 go away. Although Liv advises her to just confess and get in front of it, she seems mysteriously disinclined to listen. So the Gladiators head out to Josie’s hometown in Montana to take care of the scandal the hard way, paying off high-school best friends and reaching the “baby daddy” just in time to head off a news crew, tipped off by Cyrus and co. — who have, of course, already found out about the baby.

In fact, Cy unknowingly tips off Liv about what the White House knows, when he attempts to hire her to dig up dirt on Josie. (This, apparently, is called “getting Poped.”) What he doesn’t know is that Marcus’ reticence to admit she had a baby as a teenager is actually about the fact that the child turns out to be the woman we know as Josie’s sister, Candace — who, at 30 years old, still hasn’t been enlightened about her true parentage. I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t stop thinking about Chinatown.

By the time the Democratic hopefuls’ debate rolls around — Ms. Marcus’ career sure is moving quickly! — Cy has made sure the teen adoption story has been leaked to Josie’s competitor, Reston. And although Olivia’s client vows not to go public with her secret, she realizes when it comes up in the debate that a confession really is her only option. Lo and behold, she makes a beautiful, heartfelt speech about making a mistake and giving up a child, and it only makes the public love her more. Watching the debate with Fitz, Mellie, et al, even Cy has to admit, “She just won America’s heart.”

Unfortunately, the psychodrama doesn’t end there. Candy is smart enough to realize what Josie’s confession means for her, and she storms off. So, just as Liv is ready to declare victory — and she could really use one right about now — she’s unceremoniously fired.

This may seem like an unusually satisfying single-episode storyline on paper, but in practice, I just couldn’t get into it. I don’t think Scandal is giving Kudrow enough time to give this character any emotional resonance, and each new plot twist felt obligatory. Meanwhile, remember when the client-of-the-week stories provided an excuse to look deeper into the lives of the Gladiators? This season, aside from the Huck nonsense we get every year and the flashes of Quinn slowly becoming unhinged for no apparent reason and the excruciatingly boring two steps forward, three steps back dance Abby is doing with David, we really haven’t spent much time getting inside their heads. How many episodes will we have to sit through until Harrison’s background is finally even a little bit fleshed out?

Anyway, there are at least a few promising signs of life in the ongoing story of Olivia’s relationship with Fitz and his minders. This week it’s the White House Correspondents’ dinner, and Liv is feeling shitty because she used to helping her beau plan his jokes, but now she’s firmly outside of his inner circle. But Fitz can’t do anything on his own. Eventually he calls her up and she dispenses the same brand of self-evident yet apparently, in the world of Scandal, brilliant advice she gave Josie: Be honest and self-deprecating! Tell a hugely unfunny joke about how many people in this room you’ve been accused of sleeping with! If no one else around Fitz is capable of arriving at such an obvious strategy, he really should be worried about his reelection prospects.

In the end, of course, Liv ends up going to the ball — on the arm of Jake, no less. Before we go farther, let’s just take a moment to fully appreciate the incredible black-and-white dress and asymmetrical hairstyle she throws together for the occasion. This may be her best outfit of the season so far. In any case, as soon as she arrives, she’s whisked away to what she thinks will be a one-on-one with Fitz, but turns out to be a meeting with Mellie. Our first lady has taken a chat with Liv’s competition, Leo, to heart and realizes that the president is too dead-eyed and defeated and sex-starved without the woman she calls his “whore.” So, because she’s hungrier for power than she is for fidelity, she’s begging Liv to be his campaign manager. “He’s not alive when you’re not here,” she pleads. “You’re everything to him.”

Olivia makes no promises, but her absence does manage to piss off Jake, and he promptly ditches her. And suddenly she’s on to a meeting with Josie, who has had time to cool down and wants her back on the team. So now Liv’s got a decision to make: rejoin the man she loves, albeit under the watchful, diabolical eye of Mellie (not to mention Cy) or team up with Lisa Kudrow to bring him down. Both options promise a whole lot more interpersonal drama than we’ve seen so far this season, which I hope means I’ll start caring a lot more about the storyline in the next few weeks, but I’m curious to see what happens when Olivia faces off with Fitz and co. (Plus, I think we’d see more Kudrow in that scenario.

Finally, an Operation Remington update. All we learn from Fitz’s somewhat anticlimactic showdown with Rowan is that the president is sick of watching people die to protect a secret that he believes no one is even close to revealing — but, of course, Rowan knows the truth. And after Fitz unsuccessfully attempts to get Papa Pope off Jake’s case, he asks Cy, “How do I get rid of B613?” Of course, this is not an OK thing to ask right in the middle of the Oval Office, so Cyrus takes him aside and, in a whisper, explains that presidents who go against B613 tend to end up like JFK.

Meanwhile, Jake and Huck have turned into their own little buddy assassin/spy show, and most of what they have to say to each other is totally dry and expository. But at least they finally dig up some evidence that will make this storyline more interesting than facts and files and close-up shots of binary code: It turns out Fitz was in Iceland the day after the mission in question, where he shot down a plane on behalf of the US government — a plane that happened to be carrying Olivia Pope’s mother.

I’ll admit that this is a more compelling revelation than I’d hoped for regarding Operation Remington; as implausible as it seems, at least it promises to bring the season-long arc’s drama back to Scandal‘s most fascinatingly fraught relationships. There’s no excuse for things not to heat up next week, so here’s hoping this storyline finally starts delivering on its newly juicy potential.