TIME

In Favor of Scandal‘s Big Death Being the First of Many

Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope in ABC's 'Scandal'
Olivia Pope: Untouchable. Eric McCandless—ABC

On a show where nothing ever truly changes, one character's death may usher in an era of new progress

The thing about Scandal and other shows of its ilk — you know, the ones where crazy, impossible things happen every single week, season after season — is that no matter what happens, you look back after a few years and nothing truly crucial has changed since the first few episodes. (Here’s looking at you too, Revenge.) Lovers get together, break up, reunite, then end up hating each other before finally reconciling — all within the course of a single season. Then they do it all over again the next year. Characters disappear, supposedly forever, only to return at the most (or least, depending on your point of view) opportune moment. This is the primetime soap modus operandi and the reason that shows cling to it so desperately is that, whatever its faults, it works.

Even if they won’t win any awards and aren’t widely considered “serious television,” shows like Scandal are, most weeks, highly enjoyable. Every now and again, they’ll throw us a bone and make a decision that can’t be reversed. That was the case last night when, following last week’s cliffhanger (naturally), the husband of the president’s chief of staff (played by Dan Bucatinsky) was assassinated by the head of top secret spy agency B-613. In the plainest terms, this was a surprise —though not a “shocking twist” or an event that will “change everything,” as the ABC promos would have you believe. Bucatinsky had appeared in just over half of the show’s 48 episodes and even won an Emmy as Best Guest Actor for his role last year. He wasn’t just a bit player on a show that has plenty of them.

On the other hand, this didn’t exactly do much to establish Scandal as the sort of show where “anything can happen.” Though an important character and well-liked by fans, Bucatinksy’s James Novak wasn’t exactly essential to the dynamics of the show. A far bolder choice would have been killing David Rosen (Joshua Malina), who also found himself at the wrong end of the assassin’s gun during last week’s cliffhanger. Problem is, Malina is a show regular who’s appeared in every episode and serves the useful function as the show’s lone character whose morals haven’t been completely compromised. For those reasons, Rosen lived — and Scandal retained its status as a show where anything can happen, so long as anything isn’t an irreversible change in circumstances for one of the main characters.

Again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this — and it’s not even one of Scandal‘s biggest problems (those would be Quinn and the impossibly repetitive relationship between Olivia Pope and President Fitzgerald Grant), nor a new one. Fitz was shot with a high-power rifle by an assassin in Season 2, but was fully recovered just a few episodes later in time to murder a bedridden Supreme Court justice. Neither incident would be likely to crack the top five on a “Craziest Things That Have Happened on Scandal” list.

Knowing that, it’s encouraging that Scandal showrunner Shonda Rhimes was willing to kill off a significant character — something she previously showed a willingness to do on Grey’s Anatomy. Best case scenario, it’s a gateway killing of sorts — a sign that Scandal is starting to see that if the show wants to be as shocking as it claims in a way that actually matters, it needs to make no character (short of Kerry Washington’s Olivia Pope) untouchable. Worst case scenario, James’ death was an isolated incident of uncharacteristic permanence for Scandal.

In either case, whatever Bucatinsky’s objections to James’ death, Scandal fans have something new to look forward to: change. How political.

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