Now THAT is how you do an episode of television, folks. Tonight was easily the best episode of Scandal all season and one of the best the show has ever had. I’ve said so many times that I prefer characterization over plot. Because when you develop characters the plot develops organically. We finally got some characterization and a stunning turn of events for Olivia Pope. For the first time in probably ever, Scandal showed us the personal side of politics and how the politics can get personal.

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James is dead. He’s the one #whogotshot last week. He was the most obvious choice, for sure. James’s death is set to look like a carjacking gone bad, but have we ever seen James even in a car? Jake killed James to protect B613 and to keep Sally’s secret. To get to the personal side of this senseless killing we get flashbacks to a bearded Cyrus and James as they meet on the campaign trail. This episode was Fitz and Olivia’s “The Trail” but with a way worse, less happy ending.

The episode focuses on Cyrus’s grief over his husband’s death. His reaction was perfect: throwing himself into work, forgetting to mourn and finally breaking down in the most public way. The minute Cyrus steps up to the podium, the place James stood many times before, he can’t even get a word out as he has the most heartbreaking break down. What a lovely scene. It almost felt exploitative because of the way it was shot and the raw emotion coming from Jeff Perry. But before it got too baroque in its depiction of grief it was softened with just the slightest bit of editing and presenting the scene from a different point of view. The shot of Olivia and Fitz watching Cyrus wasn’t meant to show pity or even sympathy; instead it was meant to show a shared moment of grief among friends. They’ve all lost too much and seen too much. But this, this act they’ve never seen before. As Fitz embraces Cyrus in a hug it’s not the president hugging his chief of staff — it’s a friend hugging another friend in their time of need. That wasn’t politics and one of the few non-political moments thus far.

Everything on this show is politicized, including James’s death. Except that moment on the podium staring out at the White House press corp. That singular moment of grief is probably the thing that will stick with me the most out of this episode. That wasn’t political, it was personal. James was killed for political reasons, but the shared grief is personal. What a beautiful, beautiful moment.

One bit of satisfaction coming from all of this is Olivia’s characterization. It’s kind of crazy that after everything she’s seen James’s death would have the biggest impact on her character. That scene where she tells the press about having the suspect in custody was the most confident we’ve seen Olivia in ages. There was no reservation in her voice; no agency in her intentions. No urgency to get off the podium. Once again, a personal moment becomes politicized as Olivia further takes off that white hat as she takes questions from the press.

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I still don’t understand B613′s motivations, but I do like Olivia and David working together to take them down. David still remains my favorite character on the show. He’s the only character with a shred of something even resembling a conscience. He can’t in good faith convict an innocent man. He has just enough decency to want to see this play out the right way instead of the way he’s told. His confession to Abby made me do a little fist pump because he hasn’t changed. He’s still David Rosen, defender of the people. David confessing to Abby and then to Olivia was another beautiful moment. I love any time David and Olivia are alone together and their scene at the Lincoln memorial talking about taking down the most powerful organization in the world gave me  renewed hope I thought was long gone. Welcome back, show. I’m glad I stuck with you.

As is their wont, Scandal had its “wha????” moments as well. Huck and Quinn sharing way too much spit, Mellie and VP nominee getting it on, and mysterious Mama Pope and Adnan nonsense was just enough levity in an otherwise heavy episode.

Let’s have episodes like this one, Scandal. Please? Every episode doesn’t need to be run and gun; taking the time to devote to character’s stories makes for a much more interesting show. I’m sure next week’s episode is sure to bring back the excitement we’ve come to expect from a show like Scandal, but I wouldn’t mind if that kind of storytelling started to take a backseat.

What did you think about this episode? Did it live up to last week’s cliffhanger? Personally, this episode was much better than last week’s. I’ve never been a fan of cliffhangers for the sake of shock value, but when they contribute so beautifully to the main storyline then I request we have one every week.

Photo credit: ABC