Emotional Shonda-coaster, Week 10: ‘Grey’s,’ ‘Scandal,’ ‘How To Get Away With Murder’

I’m still feeling the whiplash from last night’s Shonda-coaster.

All aboard.

I’m still feeling the whiplash from last night’s Shonda-coaster. Can we all join hands for a moment and collectively catch our breath?

I’ll wait.

Okay. Thank you. Welcome back to #TGIT, folks.

This week was a giant hope sandwich. Or rather, it was a giant void of hopelessness sandwiched between two thick slices of hope. I’ll stop before I beat this metaphor into the ground, but I can’t be the only one who noticed the huge tonal shift from Grey’s to Scandal and from Scandal to HTGAWM. All three shows ended the fall with massive cliffhangers – in true Shonda fashion – but the comfortable resolutions found in Grey’s and HTGAWM were completely lacking in Scandal, creating a deeply unsettling and disjointed tone for the evening.

Certainly, what feels like resolution on Grey’s and HTGAWM is unlikely to remain that way. The specifics matter less than the overall feelings of hope that are now pervading Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital and Middleton University. Dr. Geena Davis’s cancer might be operable after all, discovered thanks to Amelia’s genius and Arizona’s unethical snooping, and she’s willing to move past her pride enough to give the treatment a shot. Meredith and Derek’s marriage, while physically separated, is still resilient and spiritually solid. Sure, we knew we wouldn’t be seeing actual divorce proceedings for those two any time soon, but it’s nice to see their love for one another (wedding vow sticky notes and all) reaffirmed. And even though Jackson and April were on the verge of breakdowns for the full hour, something hinted to me that their baby is going to be okay. I could be completely off-base about that, but the tone of every other story was so rose-colored and optimistic that there’s bound to be a positive twist for them, too, in the next few episodes.

And the biggest hope of all came in HTGAWM, with Rebecca’s acquittal (I was convinced they were going to stretch that out all season) and Annalise’s commitment to teach her students the show’s titular lesson. The set-up of Sam’s involvement in Lila Stangard’s murder feels just a bit too convenient, at this point, so I think we should expect to see major development on that front in the coming weeks. Still! Rebecca and Wes are both off the hook (or seem to be) and are adorably decorating a Christmas tree, Laurel and Legal Aid Dude are making amends, Michaela is fitting into her wedding dress, Connor is successfully flirting with his cute hacker ex, and Annalise and Nate are having guilt-free, sexy make-outs. What could go wrong?! (Everything, I’m sure, but at least we have this illusion of hope for now.)

Maybe it makes sense that Grey’s and HTGAWM, despite their drama and complications, remained reasonably hopeful this week. After all, both shows have relatively optimistic outlooks on the world. HTGAWM is the more cynical of the two, for sure, but both operate under the assumption that things will work out in the end. The Keating Five (four, really; Asher does no wrong) will get away with murder. The doctors at Grey Sloan Memorial will save their patients and each other and themselves. There is optimism inherent in the premises of these shows that lend the complications that arise to relatively positive conclusions.

The same cannot be said for Scandal, and if there was ever a question as to what distinguishes Olivia Pope and friends from the rest of the Shondaland line-up, there won’t be after last night’s episode. Last night’s episode took all of the facets of Olivia’s fantasies of the future – dancing with Jake in her living room and having him save her from terrorists, showering with Fitz and making jam for him in their quiet Vermont town, and never hearing from Rowan or Cyrus or B-613 again – and turned them on their heads. Suddenly, Tom is interrupting her dreams to keep her and Fitz apart. Suddenly, Abby is showing up to yell at her for abandoning Huck and Quinn and to remind her that the answer to her problems will never be a man. So Olivia listens to this prophetic dream, figures out how to escape from the her undefined terrorist captivity (are we still so sure it’s the Republicans?), only to discover that the one man she’d trusted in her cell – Ian, a fellow hostage – was actually the mastermind of her whole abduction. The realization that she’s being held in an ominous, nondescript soundstage is infinitely more terrifying than the fears that she was brought to a foreign country.

So, sure, there’s some literal hope that, yes, Fitz and Jake and the Gladiators will come to her rescue and save her, just as she’s saved them time and time again. But what then? She’s never going to choose between Jake and Fitz – she’s already established that. And her father – who never physically appeared in the episode, but whose aura and influence could be felt everywhere – is committed to destroying everything she touches. There is no threat that she will be killed, because she is too precious to too many powerful men, but the fact that she will remain alive no matter what means that the torture that she’s bound to experience may never fully end. We think of Olivia as a powerhouse hero who can handle anything, but the other side of that coin is the fact that she will never stop enduring the worst pain imaginable. Her inability to choose between the two men who love her means that she will end up alone, with her only family being her terrorist mother and her vengeful father. Even if she abandoned all of them to start over, she’s experienced too much trauma to ever fully let her past go. She’ll always have it watching over her shoulder.

There is a darkness to Scandal, an inherent cynicism that makes it different from Grey’s and HTGAWM. Olivia feels as tortured and complicated to me as the protagonists and antiheros we’re used to seeing on AMC and HBO prestige dramas, and I sense that the second half of season four may finally be brutal enough for the critical community to take notice and see beyond Scandal’s soap opera packaging. But there’s a cruelness to that brutality that makes me uneasy. Meredith Grey and Annalise Keating are going to survive in a way that Olivia Pope will not. Olivia will always literally survive, of course, but her quality of life is continuing to shatter. The optimism inherent to Grey’s and HTGAWM is utterly lacking on Scandal, and while that’s fine on an episode-by-episode basis, the destructive impact of Olivia’s fate will always feel more pronounced when sandwiched between those other two thick slices of hope.

Emotional Shonda-coaster, Week 10: ‘Grey’s,’ ‘Scandal,’ ‘How To Get Away With Murder’