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Saturday, September 29, 2012

Scandal takes all hats off

Grade: 92%

ABC’s SCANDAL is back this week with “White Hats Off.” The episode title is a nod to the frequent reference the characters in the series make to ‘wearing the white hat,’ meaning, acting like a hero. But what does it mean to be a hero? Does one necessarily have to follow the law? What role does justice play in deciding the right thing to do, and does the end justify the means? These are just a few of the questions that SCANDAL explores weekly.

In season one, the overarching story was of Amanda Tanner’s accusations against President Grant (Tony Goldwyn). As season two begins, there are two major plots, which is fine, given the increased number of episodes in which they can play out. Grant still figures in prominently, as he prepares for re-election. His wife, Mellie (Bellamy Young), manages to get pregnant, as she’d hoped, and spin the baby into a way of controlling the campaign and the president’s policies. Grant doesn’t take too kindly to this, striking back in a public fashion, even while maintaining the illusion of a happy marriage.

Mellie is more prominent in “White Hats Off,” which speaks to further sparring between the First Couple. On one hand, it’s great to see just how manipulative and selfish she can be, Bellamy playing the villain nicely. But it also brings out the worst in Grant, turning him into a worthy opponent for his shrewish spouse. This makes for very entertaining television.

On the other hand, though, it’s sad that a couple has to fight so much, and it will certainly make the election hard to win, as they risk imploding at any moment. They should be teaming up to concentrate on defeating Grant’s opponent, and instead, they are engaged in an internal struggle for power. It’s hard to say who will come out on top, but it definitely will not be the American people.

The worst thing about seeing President Grant go down this path is that it tears him away from the great man he can become. When he is with Olivia (Kerry Washington), it is true he is cheating on Mellie, but he is also inspired to be a better leader, to live up to what Olivia believes him to be. This isn’t so with Mellie, who tears him down. He will fail professionally, as well as personally, if he doesn’t cut Mellie off. His campaign could take a hit from a divorce, but by not seeking one, he is risking a bigger meltdown.

While the arrangement is not made one hundred percent clear in “White Hats Off,” it appears that Olivia is back at work on Grant’s campaign. As much as being with her makes him better, it sort of does the opposite for her. If he were single, it probably wouldn’t, but the doubts she has about herself because of her feelings for him and the in appropriateness of it all cloud her judgment in other areas. She has lost a lot of that brazen confidence first glimpsed in season one, and breaking away may be her only shot to return to form.

It can’t be easy for Olivia to find the strength to do the right thing, with everything else going on. Stephen (Henry Ian Cusick) has gone on to find his happiness, which is what she encouraged, but it’s taken him away. Olivia is in the business of helping people, and Stephen is a prime example of what she can accomplish. Unfortunately, by helping Stephen to grow, Olivia cost herself a confidante and close friend. This leaves her more vulnerable to her new, negative shift.

The second major arc this year involves Quinn (Katie Lowes), who we learned last season is not really named Quinn. As “White Hats Off” opens, she is being tried for murder by David Rosen (Joshua Molina). If she can be trusted, and given her position as a main character and Olivia’s faith in her, she probably can be, she is innocent. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t a lot of questions about who she is and what happened to her.

Viewers get only a brief glimpse at the Quinn debacle in this premiere, but it is a rich taste. I won’t spoil who is involved for those who haven’t watched it yet, but suffice it to say, there is definitely a lot going on that we still need to know, and Quinn’s inclusion into the group does not come about by happenstance.

One does feel bad for Rosen. He is fighting hard for justice. Finding Quinn guilty might not be justice, but he doesn’t know that, and it’s not like Olivia is going to make it easy for him to lock Quinn up. Rosen just wants to solve a murder and put away the guilty party. And while Quinn may not have killed anyone (or maybe, as unlikely as it seems, the twist is that she did), she is guilty of other things, as is Olivia. Rosen wants to work with them because they can help him to do his job effectively. But listening to this group costs him a little bit of his soul each time, as even if they do right, they often do it while breaking the law.

SCANDAL worked last year because of the intricate, engaging mystery, the juicy plot twists, and the likeable cast of characters. All of these elements continue on par in season two, so fans should be satisfied with its return.

SCANDAL’s second season begins this Thursday on ABC.

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