Scandal can be hit or miss whenever it hews closely to real-life. The Planned Parenthood and abortion controversy? A slam-dunk. Police brutality against people of color? A swing … and a pretty bad miss. The well-timed return of one of the show’s seedier characters (and that’s saying something), Hollis Doyle, brought in to comment upon the meteoric rise of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, lies somewhere in the middle.
Hollis (Gregg Henry), you may recall, is one of the players who helped Fitz rig his presidential election in Defiance, Ohio—a slimy, old-school billionaire oil man from Texas who fits the mold of exactly what you would expect from a slimy, old-school billionaire oil man from Texas. (Think J.R. Ewing, only blonde and heftier.) He’s a progressives’—and feminists’—worst nightmare: He hates the EPA, can’t encounter a woman without commenting upon her physical attributes or teetering uncomfortably on the border of sexual harassment, and is not a fan of “those freeloading immigrants.” Basically, he’s Trump.
And so Hollis is back, just in time for Scandal’s presidential elections—both current Vice President Susan and a desperate Mellie seek financial backing from him on their campaigns. Foolishly trusting him, Mellie reveals the platform she plans to run on: “Embrace America’s tomorrow,” with a focus on universal pre-K. Of course, Hollis steals this idea, right down to her plan to make the announcement at her former elementary school, and warps the slogan to his own despicable, regressive tastes, by ensuring a cheering crowd that embracing America’s tomorrow means keeping immigrants out and lazy American-born minorities from “abusing the system,” as implied when he says, “These kids are gonna have to work hard, no shortcuts,” while turning to look at the beaming little black boy standing next to him.
Hollis is, according to Shonda Rhimes, supposed to be “terrifying,” playing on our fears of a Trump presidency that’s become more and more likely every day. Henry not only resembles the real-life billionaire (only with a significantly more stable hairline), he embodies a few of his signature mannerisms, namely, Trump’s beady-eyed, scrunched-face, shrug of the shoulders combo. Maybe, as the season progresses, he will actually be terrifying—but this time around, it never feels like more than a pale imitation, a laughable attempt at crystallizing just how disturbing Trump is, especially when a straight-faced Fitz tells a pissed-off Susan “Hollis is a joke, no one will take him seriously, I assure you he’s not gonna be a problem.” And for all of Hollis’ similarities to Trump, the attribute that has seemingly made the businessman the most appealing to a frightening amount of people across the country is missing—Hollis still has the cadence, the studied air of a politician. Nothing about his character feels like unrehearsed, off-the-cuff word vomit. And of course, unrehearsed, off-the-cuff word vomit is Trump’s schtick.
I wouldn’t blame the Scandal writers or Henry’s performance entirely, though—if anything, Hollis is proof that the Trump machine has become so real, so worrisome, so incredibly dangerous, that pretty much any attempt to dramatize or satirize his rise at this moment, in the very thick of it all, won’t land all that effectively. The reality is so, so much more horrifying than the fiction.