“Scandal” seems to follow a similar pattern every half-season or so. After each season of crazy, convoluted plot, the show presses the reset button, leaving all the characters in a state of relative peace. Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington, “Django Unchained”) begins each season by spending a few episodes tackling cases of the week with Pope & Associates. These episodes recall a calm USA political procedural, there to ease you gently into the undoubtedly batshit serialized story to follow.
The fifth midseason premiere, “It’s Hard Out Here for a General,” takes this route again. Olivia, Huck (Guillermo Díaz, “Stonewall”), Quinn (Katie Lowes, “Big Hero 6”) and newer associate Marcus (Cornelius Smith Jr., “All My Children”) tackle the case of National Security Agency head General Diane Peters (McNally Sagal, “Pleasantville”), whose boyfriend is suspected of leaking classified NSA information from her personal computer. While Olivia works to defend her client and find the whistleblower who caused the leak, Jake Ballard (Scott Foley, “Grey’s Anatomy”) works under President Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn, “The Last Samurai”) to prevent crucial information from reaching The Washington Post. Olivia and Jake, still sleeping together despite their long-dead emotional relationship, find themselves at cross-purposes, with Jake working to have Peters removed for keeping classified files on her PC.
The NSA leak plot works well because the major players have personal stakes; Olivia is faced with opposition from one ex-boyfriend, so she tries to contact another ex to help her out, but Fitz doesn’t answer her call. The ending twist of the episode, though, reveals that there are significant repercussions even beyond these initial stakes. It turns out Jake was the one who orchestrated the whole thing, framing Peters’s boyfriend and forcing her resignation to take her place as the head of the NSA. Still in the role of Eli Pope’s (Joe Morton, “Eureka”) obedient surrogate son, Jake seems to be the new villain of “Scandal.” This is probably the right move; the series has failed to find a real purpose for Jake since his introduction in season two, and making him this season’s villain justifies him staying around a bit longer.
As entertaining as this all is, “Scandal” has reached a point in its five-season run where so many betrayals and dalliances have occurred that nothing feels quite as fresh or urgent as it did back in the season two Defiance arc. When Olivia first embraces Jake near the beginning of the episode, it doesn’t come as a surprise, especially because it’s layered over with “Scandal” ’s typical Motown soundtrack that comes out for scenes of violence or sex. And the continued existence of Eli Pope on this show is mind-boggling by now, his interminable monologues still peppering every scene he’s in. How can Olivia happily dine with her father and sleep with Jake after all that has transpired between them? Since “Scandal” has no plans to drop Olivia in an entirely new setting with a new cast of characters, this isn’t a problem that can be easily solved until the characters acknowledge the abusive nature of their relationships.
At least Olivia and Fitz’s break-up is sticking for now; theirs is the one relationship that actually has been called out for its toxicity. There are hints of other moves towards change, too. Abby Whelan (Darby Stanchfield, “Mad Men”) has a fun subplot where she deals with being Fitz’s “work wife,” and Mellie Grant (Bellamy Young, “Criminal Minds”) is still on the path to the White House, writing a memoir under Olivia’s guidance. Between Jake’s switch to the dark side, the lack of Olivia-Fitz interaction and Cyrus Beene’s (Jeff Perry, “Grey’s Anatomy”) powerlessness in the position he once loved, this half-season has the potential to really shake up the status quo. That’s what “Scandal” needs right now.