“The Trail” is the penultimate episode in Scandal‘s first season, when the mysteries of Amanda Tanner’s boyfriend and killer were the big questions dominating the season. There were no signs of B613, not even a glimpse of Scott Foley’s Jake and Olivia Pope didn’t even have parents much less two who were the worst. “The Trail” is solving problems that are rote compared to the ones that get brought up only one season later, and its most overarching theme was the impossibility of the relationship between political fixer Olivia and married president Fitz Grant, and “The Trail” flashes back two years to when Olivia and Fitz first met on the campaign trail. Olivia makes her grand entrance with bang and a wavier ‘do, announcing that all Fitz’s troubles stem from his cold marriage (rather than anything Fitz is doing of course), compelling Fitz to attempt to fire her. He only wants her gone because he’s too attracted to her to stand working alongside her, and that should have been a hint to how awful Fitz, and him and Olivia together, really were, but we were all fooled by the longing looks and sappy theme music.
Scandal is now in its fifth season and has jumped its shark by exposing Olivia and Fitz’s relationship to the public. That’s not unusual, since episodes after “The Trail” will toy with the notion of making Olivia and Fitz common knowledge, but will also find a way to undo itself before any real damage can be done. That’s not the case now, when last week’s episode had the two going on their first public date, surrounded by secret service and unerring controversy. But even seeing Olivia and Fitz chase their happily ever after doesn’t elicit the same warm fuzzies it once did when their relationship was still brand new to viewers. Where an episode like “The Trail” used to draw warm feelings and anxious hopes for the survival of such an impossible couple, in present day it would only draw ire. Every time a new episode airs, my Twitter feed is saturated with incredulous viewers who, among other things, hope Olivia and Fitz will get their asses kicked for their willful continuance of their stupid romance. Who wish Olivia had more black friends to tell her to hop off Fitz. Who hope for another, and this time successful, assassination attempt. Or who just hope that Olivia will come to her senses and decide Fitz isn’t the one for her. Even I hope that this will happen, that perhaps giving Olivia and Fitz what they’ve wanted since they first met on the campaign trail, that it will finally snuff out this terrible coupling and set us all free. There’s still time. Perhaps Scandal‘s series finale will be Olivia finally saying sayonara to Fitzgerald Grant for good. But that’s terribly unlikely.
I, too fell under the spell of season one Olitz. Perhaps it’s the short episode count (there are only 7) that keep the couple from wearing out its welcome. It’s in season two when their charm will wear off, Fitz’s speeches will become deluded, controlling and, in some cases, downright offensive, Olivia’s “gut” will devolve into a complete joke and all of her advice will be tainted by her complete lack of self-awareness and her undying selfishness. But “The Trail” has none of that. It’s the glossy beginnings of a bad relationship and still has some trace of sheen. Olivia and Fitz’s scenes are overflowing with chemistry, and their sad attempts at accepting the impossibility of their romance is perfect drama fodder. When they finally give in and retire to Fitz’s hotel room, it’s an extended, super steamy, romantic sequence. Even now, disillusioned as I am, the rewatch made me wish we could go back to this Fitz and Olivia. They weren’t perfect either, but they were better than what we have now.
The flashbacks are committed to developing the beginning of Olitz, proving that their love is something true. Olivia’s brought onto the campaign to whip Fitz into shape, which also means whipping his marriage into something believable, enviable and romantic. “The Trail” does what is to be expected, highlighting the already present rift between Mellie and Fitz. It’s origins aren’t explained in this episode, but the point is, Olivia didn’t cause their marital strife. She just happened to walk into it. For good measure the episode even throws out the red herring of Mellie having an affair herself, though that’s quickly nipped in the bud. What we’re really supposed to take from this is that Mellie is awful, too ambitious and calculating to be Fitz’s true love. Season one isn’t very kind to Mellie, and her one display of vulnerability in this episode comes with a manufactured miscarriage, a heartwrenching sob story that Mellie accurately predicts will boost their numbers among women. We know Mellie is bad because people, including Olivia, will buy into this story and when Olivia goes to express her condolences to Fitz, he takes the opportunity to lament what a mistake he made in marrying such a woman.
Okay, Fitz. Whatever.
All of this is of course leading up to the reveal that the sex tape was a recording not of Fitz and Amanda Tanner but of Olivia and Fitz during the campaign. And also to reveal that Amanda’s boyfriend, the one who got her pregnant and also killed her, is Billy Chambers. Sally’s chief of staff and former campaign manager and Olivia’s flirty adversary and colleague, stabs reporter Gideon in the neck with scissors to keep that information from becoming public. Though the present is interspersed with the past, it’s fairly boring. Present day Olivia and Fitz say their goodbyes with another solemn “one minute”, but the rest of Olivia’s merry band appear only briefly. A mangy Huck, a domesticated Abby and a still-employed Columbus Short as Harrison appear to help Olivia out in the past. These glimpses we get of them are tantalizing and will eventually expand to be uninteresting (with the exception of the arrival of Abby’s ex last season) but these moments beg for more than we ever get for them.
And that’s because Scandal isn’t so much about its ensemble cast but about the breathing scandal they all work around. Even when Scandal pretends to go in another direction, such as with the arrival of B613, it all comes back around to Olivia and Fitz. And once those two are done, because their relationship finally transcends controversy and becomes mainstream and accepted or because they finally see sense and split, that’s when the show will be done. This season hasn’t been subtle in its assurances that Olivia’s life would never be the same if she and Fitz were really together. And that would also apply to the show. And though Scandal isn’t afraid of being ridiculous, I’m not convinced it would be interested in following Olivia and Fitz through the White House.