Kerry Washington Kerry Washington

On a Wednesday afternoon in late August, Kerry Washington's shih tzu-Yorkie mix, Josie, is napping contentedly on a Hollywood soundstage sofa as her Emmy-nominated owner gets back to the business of being scandalous. Clad in her character Olivia Pope's trademark Armani, Washington is...well, we can't tell you what she's doing, who she's doing it with, or even where they're doing it. If we did, Scandal creator and executive producer Shonda Rhimes would unleash the show's figurative guard dogs, the fearsome spies of B613, on us.

After all, the buzzy political thriller closed out its third season with a show-altering cliffhanger: Blaming herself for all the drama in the lives of those around her, Olivia shuttered her D.C. crisis-management firm, bid adieu to presidential boyfriend Fitz (Tony Goldwyn), and hopped on a private plane to parts unknown with besotted out-of-work hit man Jake (Scott Foley). Viewers will discover in the season premiere where (and how) the pair spent the two months that have elapsed since they boarded that flight; until then, rest assured that the scenes being shot while we were on set were classic, whiplash-inducing Scandal. "The cool thing we can gather from being here," Washington says, referring to her top-secret surroundings, "is what we're doing feels very old-school. The people in the room are not who you expect them to be, but we're getting back to the show's core."

That means a renewed focus on the fans' most-loved characters, who are still reeling from the finale's dark twists. Among them: Fitz won another White House term, but he and wife Mellie (Bellamy Young) lost their teenage son, who was murdered at the behest of Olivia's ruthless dad, Rowan (Joe Morton). The multitasking Papa Pope also shot Harrison (Columbus Short), his daughter's sleek-suited right-hand man, and manipulated Olivia into abandoning Fitz, much to the ­dismay of some fans — and one of the show's stars.

"Olivia getting on a plane with Jake was like, 'Just put a bullet in my head already!'" Goldwyn says with a laugh. "It was a great story move from Shonda, but personally, I don't respect Olivia's decision. She ran away again, and he'd just lost his son!"

Even so, Rhimes stands by her creative choice. "We were telling a very specific story," she says, "that had to culminate in both Liv and Fitz breaking down to some extent."

All the better to build them back up again this season. "The finale wiped the slate clean," Rhimes says. "One thing I wanted was for Season 4 to not be as dark. I remember Kerry saying, 'What am I thinking in that moment on the plane?' And I said, 'That is your first step in your journey back toward something more positive, toward being your old self.'"

Unfortunately for Washington, who gave birth to daughter Isabelle in April, that was all Rhimes revealed. "I had no clue where Olivia went, and I kind of wanted to know, like, when we come back, am I in a burka or a bikini?" says the actress, who whipped herself back into prepregnancy shape during her ­hiatus. What she found upon reading the first script left her "pretty floored," Washington says. "Not even Olivia Pope can make choices without there being consequences."

Indeed, the fixer extraordinaire's exit will impact every major Scandal character, starting with Jake, who Foley hints didn't find complete fulfillment with Liv. "He's always been bound by this protect-the-Republic responsibility," says the actor, "and that's still there. He believes the people in power are not doing it right and that he knows what's best."

Meanwhile, Olivia's former associates — Abby (Darby Stanchfield), Huck (Guillermo Diaz), and Quinn (Katie Lowes) — react to Olivia's betrayal in ways as disparate as their personalities. And with the team also dealing with Harrison's death, "the family has been irreparably damaged," Rhimes says. "And whether or not they get back together is an interesting question."

The same could be said of Liv and Fitz. Still grieving for his son — and still rocked by the bombshell that Mellie was raped by his father — the commander in chief has "a take-no-prisoners attitude," Goldwyn reveals. "He has to counterbalance all that darkness with some meaning, so in a way it's made him more determined than ever to make a difference as president."

The show will also welcome several pivotal guest stars, ­including Lost's Sonya Walger, whose character has a ­connection to Olivia's past, and Arrested Development's Portia de Rossi, who has a juicy recurring role as a D.C. power player who will clash with Fitz. And Mary McCormack (In Plain Sight) and Josh Randall (Ed) pop up as a couple in the Oct. 2 ­episode, which Young calls "world-class. You'll be laughing your heart out, crying your heart out." Time to bust out the red wine, Gladiators.

Scandal returns Thursday, Sept. 25 at 9/8c on ABC.

For more scoop on all your favorite returning series, pick up the new issue of TV Guide Magazine, on newsstands Thursday, Sept. 18!

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