March 21, 2014 3:00 AM EDT

We all knew we were in for a rough night. As promised, a major cast member was murdered — and unfortunately it wasn’t Quinn. With the opening credits still rolling, Jake’s victim was immediately revealed as James. A quick pop to the back of the head as he was running away, trying to reclaim an imperfect life with an imperfect man he happened to love.

But don’t be too sad, guys. James is in a better place now… with Ellen:

David was the sole survivor of the NSA/White House Reporter/Press Secretary slaughter, and Jake left the prosecutor with one imperative: Kill the case if you want to live. The scene is set up to look like a car jacking gone wrong — somehow the two women’s bodies have been removed — and David plays along as he leads the investigation.

Back at the White House, Olivia tells Cyrus, stiff and in shock, “We are going to find them, and they are going to go to jail for the rest of their lives.” Olivia tries to take control of a situation she has no real comprehension of. Yet.

Flashback: To make sure that viewers didn’t fall into a deep depression, flashback scenes of James and Cyrus’ early romance were sprinkled throughout the episode. As we might have guessed, it began when James approached a scraggly looking Cyrus at a bar to press him for source information. Cyrus tries to demean his dinky newspaper articles (in-depth exposes Cy has obviously pored over) and his clothing choice to which James retorts: “You really think I’m going to take fashion advice from a man with a neck beard?” Love at first quip.

Back in real time, Fitz is taking a break from the election out of respect. Sally says she will too but turns out to be a liar-liar-pantsuit-on-hellfire because, as Leo says, she’s taking this as an opportunity to go after the gun lobby “guns blazing.” (Boo. We have no place for characters with bad puns.)

Remember when Olivia was always five steps ahead? Most of this season has been a scramble to watch her catch up, and tonight’s episode was no exception. At a White House briefing from hell in which a nervous temporary press secretary — um, she should be terrified… all of her predecessors have been murdered — stumbles through her notes, Olivia notices reporter Vanessa Chandler (murdered) is missing. Maybe it wasn’t a car jacking after all. Abby goes to David for answers (he gives nothing) and Olivia calls Jake, who’s outside doing some yardwork, to tell him her suspicions of murder — but who dunnit? Maybe it was Sally Langston? “I’m in the middle of something right now,” but will look into it, Jake says. In the middle of what, Jakey? Some pruning? Oh… no… just burying the murdered bodies of Vanessa and Shelby Cross in broad daylight. NBD.

But Jake isn’t the only bad guy in town. Lady terrorists Mama Pope and Adnan Salif resurfaced this week to remind us they have a devious plan that involves terror and stacks and stacks of money. Mama Pope clarifies that she won’t personally be carrying out whatever attack they have planned — “I’m a facilitator” who makes money not bombs — and Adnan is reluctant to add a third player to the plot. Adnan becomes more concerned when Mama Pope doesn’t hesitate to shoot a terrorist middle man who disrespects her. No one throws shade at Mama Pope.

Our escape route comes in the form of more flashbacks
– James asking Cyrus why the president doesn’t have a stance on gay marriage if “he has a gay campaign manager.” The no longer neck-bearded Cyrus stutters out the equivalent of: “Who, me?”
– Cyrus tells James, “I don’t indulge very often.” “Indulge? Cyrus, I’m not a dessert.” But Cyrus then choses to lunge at his face as I would a warm piece of chocolate cake.

But Cyrus clearly isn’t ready to reflect on these memories, instead he insists on trying to foil Sally’s covert campaigning, telling Olivia keeping him from his job is “not helping me, that’s involuntary manslaughter.” “Let it go,” Liv says. “Let it go,” Fitz says. (Thanks for getting Frozen stuck in my head, Shonda.)

Instead, Mellie and Andrew go to woo and shoot guns with the gun lobby. And Mellie has never looked happier than when she’s packing. Later in the episode, Mellie works on the gun lobby to gain their support from Sally — “who may love guns more than she loves Jesus,” Cyrus notes. While Fitz refuses to thank Mellie for her help, Andrew does during a tete-a-tete debate over vodka about background checks (which Mellie is obviously against.) “It’s a shame that he can’t see you like I do,” Andrew says, which leads to furious making out and clothes shedding that we support wholeheartedly. At the end of the day, Fitz decides to go anti-gun lobby instead of going for the more liberal votes instead, but Mellie and Andrew’s mission wasn’t for nothing.

Olivia finally realizes that she has been out of the loop. Huck watches some hidden security camera footage and finds out that Quinn stole the Daniel Douglas files from Olivia’s safe. That means that B613 is behind James’ murder. (Quinn and crazy Charlie also got an innocent car mechanic with liver failure to confess to the fake car jacking/murder, because inmates get better health insurance.) Olivia confronts Jake, who immediately admits he was the mastermind of the whole murder and if she can’t accept that, and his need to “protect the republic” then “Bad things happen to good people all the time.” Is his colossal jerkdom solely for the sake of making Fitz seem good in comparison? Jake, we had such high hopes for you.

Out of emotional desperation, Olivia goes to Papa Pope for help, begging him to be a dad “just for a few seconds, please.” And the heavy-handed dialogue doesn’t disappoint: “I don’t know what the point is… of democracy freedom and patriotism if there are no white hats, If everyone is evil,” Olivia says. “If the deck is always stacked. If everyone I love is a monster… What is the point?” (Hey, Liv, Abby still isn’t evil!) Rowan responds with more self-important rhetoric about how she needs to give Jake more credit because as head of B613 “You become the hand of God” and “being the hand of God is already the worst punishment in the world.” Rowan would know. He’s responsible for the deaths of 183 people. Also, monsters are worth saving, too. “Have I finished being Dad now? Are we done?” says a man who will not be getting a “#1 Dad” mug for Christmas this year.

What were the other Gladiators up to? Harrison finds out that Adnan is working with scary Mama Pope and might want an escape route. Abby gets David, who’s having difficulty filing charges against the innocent mechanic, to spill that Jake murdered James and is threatening his life. Huck decides to go to Quinn and, rather than kill her, makes out with her. Of all the places Scandal went this week, the kiss was one of its most unwelcome moments. It also seems implausible given their pre-tooth pulling brother-sister relationship. Thumbs down.

Olivia’s done being a victim: Rather than fall apart, the Gladiator-wrangler has decided to get back on her A-game. She tells David to “lose this battle so we can win the war” and take down B613 “brick by brick.” Finally. Let the plotting begin.

And the end was an emotional roller coaster: The last flashback, which makes us almost able to see Cy as a human being going forward, shows him throwing his insecurities aside at the Inaugural Ball, grabbing James’ hand, and dancing with his man. Onlookers (who unrealistically didn’t immediately start live-tweeting the revelation) be damned. He had tears of joy in his eyes, which was quickly juxtaposed with guttural cries during a White House press briefing. The only thing more painful than Cyrus’ emotional breakdown was the final revelation that just because James’ identification as the victim was immediate, his death was not. Jake crouches down next to a dying James explaining that he had to shoot him sloppily so that it looked like it wasn’t a hit. While Jake tries to play the good guy card, assuring James that his daughter will be safe, the cruelty of a messy kill was almost unbearable.

With a few episodes left, I’m almost scared to think of what Scandal has in store for the finale.

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