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Quantico, the beautiful mess of a television show, explained

Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

There are spoilers for Quantico here.

There's a difference between bad television and trashy television. Bad television is unenjoyable — something you can't laugh with or at. Bad television deserves to be canceled and never heard from again. Trashy television, however, is bad yet brutally fun. Trashy television shows are the small-screen equivalent of novelty foods like fried beer or turducken: They aren't substitutes for fine dining, but they are, in their own way, delicious.

And if you survey the vast landfill of American television, there is no trashy show that currently shines brighter than ABC's Quantico.

Quantico is what would happen if you collected all the gimmicks and tropes of Shonda Rhimes-ian productions like Grey's Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away With Murder and boiled them down into one palate-obliterating program (one that isn't actually a Shondaland production). There is no nuance. Quantico follows two stories: The first is told via flashback and follows seven recruits at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia (a real place), while the second is set in the present day and reveals how the recruits' training helps them investigate the bombing of New York City's Grand Central Station when one of their own is apparently framed for the terrorist attack.

Quantico's acting isn't good. The show is often devoid of logic and frequently formulaic. But it's strangely addicting, and in spite of both itself and some competition from other Sunday-night TV shows like The Walking Dead and Sunday Night Football, it's performed valiantly in the ratings. Quite simply, Quantico is a testament to America's obsession with trashy television.

What is Quantico about?



Quantico's main story centers on the life of Alex Parrish (Priyanka Chopra). Parrish, an Indian-American FBI agent, wakes up at a bombed-out Grand Central Station, the site of the biggest terror attack on American soil since 9/11. An anonymous tip to the FBI says that someone in Parrish's FBI Academy class (the best-looking FBI class ever assembled) was responsible for the bombing, and everyone thinks it's her. She insists she's being framed, and she (and we) must piece together clues from her time at Quantico to find out who really planned the attack.

That's easier said than done, because everyone at the academy has secrets and acts shady. Since Quantico debuted in September, we've learned that when Parrish was a teen she killed her dad, who was a belligerent and violent alcoholic but also an FBI agent. Shelby Wyatt (Johanna Braddy), Parrish's roommate, regularly places mysterious calls in Arabic to an unknown recipient, and her parents allegedly died during the events of 9/11. Simon Asher (Tate Ellington) pretends to be gay and wears fake glasses in a non-hipster way. Ryan Booth (Jake McLaughlin), Parrish's love interest and fellow cadet, is actually an agent who is spying on her. Nimah Amin (Yasmine Al Massri), another of Parrish's friends from Quantico, is actually a twin, and both sisters are at Quantico pretending to be one person. And Parrish's mentors, FBI directors Liam O'Connor (Josh Hopkins) and Miranda Shaw (Aunjanue Ellis), are dealing with their own terrible baggage in the form of alcoholism and a son who was recently released from jail, respectively.

Quantico is a convoluted and complex whodunit. And each week, we find out a little more about the mystery.

What do we know about each of Quantico's characters?

It's easier to break this down by recruit:

  • Alex Parrish killed her dad while she was trying to protect her mom. Her dad was an FBI agent, and one of her mentors, Liam O'Connor, gives her a thick FBI file to learn about him. Parrish starts dating Ryan Booth, but later learns he is actually an agent who's been assigned to spy on her after being banned from fieldwork. They stop dating, and Parrish blackmails O'Connor, who assigned Booth to spy on Parrish the first place, into reinstating Booth as an agent.
  • O'Connor is, in the present day, the assistant director of the FBI. We find out that he is secretly in love with Parrish and has a history at the FBI with her dad, but we're not exactly sure what it is.
  • Booth looks like a rough amalgam of every handsome white man seen on Grey's Anatomy and Scandal. Something went wrong during an operation he was part of in Chicago, which is why Liam took him out of the field to spy on Parrish. He likes shower sex. In the flashback scenes he's sleeping with Parrish, but in the present-day scenes he is sleeping with Natalie Vasquez.
  • Vasquez (Anabelle Acosta), another FBI recruit, doesn't like Parrish. She has a fake scar on her neck that she applies daily. She's basically an agent whose only purpose is to scowl and wear a fake scar.
  • Shelby Wyatt is a good shooter. She is Parrish's best friend and former roommate. She inherited a bunch of money from her parents and is having an affair with her ex-boyfriend's dad — who also happens to be an executive assistant director at the FBI. She lied about being out of town during the bombings, and she knows Arabic.
  • Simon Asher was admitted to the FBI Academy as its first gay recruit, but a gay analyst named Elias Harper (Rick Cosnett) finds out Asher wears fake glasses and digs deeper into his past. Eventually Asher reveals he was part of the Israeli Defense Forces, that he wears fake glasses, and that he might not even be gay.
  • Nimah and Raina Amin are twins who are posing as one person — it's a secret that only the audience is let in on. Raina likes Asher; Nimah does not.
  • Miranda Shaw, the FBI's former assistant director, has a son she is afraid will become violent and perhaps a terrorist. She really like to mind-fuck the recruits with weird training exercises, but she helps Parrish escape after the FBI detains her in the pilot episode. She believes Parrish is being framed.

What do we know about the bombing?

The details of the bombing arrive in bits and pieces. Whoever framed Parrish has her fingerprint from when she entered the FBI Academy, but doesn't have a recent copy, which would include a scar from an injury Parrish received during one of her training exercises.

We also know, by way of Shelby, that the bombs were planted far underground and that whoever is responsible for the attack couldn't have detonated them remotely. She, Parrish, and Caleb Haas (Graham Rogers), Shelby's love interest and an FBI analyst, were all at Grand Central at one point or another close to the time of the bombing. In Quantico's November 8 episode, we learned that Nimah was at Grand Central, but she and her twin sister, Raina, claim she was trying to surveil a terrorist sleeper cell that was planning a big attack.

In addition to the recruits, Caleb's dad Clayton Haas (Mark Pellegrino) as well as O'Connor — two FBI heads — were also in or near Grand Central around the time of the bombing. So basically, every character on the show could be responsible. Showrunner Josh Safran has said that the bomber's identity will be revealed prior to the season one finale.

Quantico can be extremely outrageous and silly



Quantico wastes no time revealing its penchant for ridiculous plotting. There's actually a scene in the premiere episode where a young recruit commits suicide during a training exercise at the academy in which students are supposed to profile each other and find out a secret about one of their classmates.

Eric Packer (Brian J. Smith) was a Mormon who traveled to Africa for missionary service and got an underage girl pregnant while he was there. She died when she got an abortion, and the FBI didn't know about this because it is apparently very bad at vetting its prized recruits. So during the profiling exercise, Packer shoots a polygraph administrator and then himself — in front of his entire class — because he thinks his secret is out. Again, this happened in Quantico's very first episode.

Is Quantico a sharp satire of FBI stupidity, or a primetime soap that just so happens to be set at the FBI?

If Quantico were even the slightest bit aware of the way it portrays American self-importance and the idiotic bureaucracy of the FBI, it would deserve all the awards. Quantico's version of the FBI is (unintentionally) made to look like an inept dumpster fire of an organization.

The recruits are treated like boarding school brats, and each week they participate in an "exercise" where they're supposed to learn a skill that will help them once they become FBI agents. We know these skills are important because a teacher says so, explaining at the beginning of each lesson that "the goal of this exercise is to ________." There is more subtlety in an episode of America's Next Top Model than there is in a single scene of Quantico.

Quantico's FBI also likes to play childish games akin to soft fraternity/sorority hazing, with the apparent intention of kicking out its poorly vetted recruits. In one instance, the recruits are asked to list the names of three fellow classmates they feel should be kicked out. This is a trick assignment that is somehow meant to foster loyalty, and no one is really supposed to hand in names.

These exercises allow the recruits to make sharp observations like inferring that twins don't have the same personalities.

"You and your sister, you might look alike, but you are both very different people," Asher tells Nimah and Raina when their twin experiment is revealed in one of the flashback scenes.

And in the present-day storyline, after Parrish and her friends have become agents, they still act against their own best interests. For example, Parrish's love interest Booth is shot by the alleged bomber. He plans to clear her name by telling the FBI that she shot him when he went to her apartment to ostensibly stop her from blowing up Grand Central. This is a man who could easily clear his ex-girlfriend's name simply by telling federal agents that she did not shoot him, yet he believes accusing her of shooting him will "help" her. It is unclear if Booth's idiocy is a result of the poor training he received at Quantico.

But even though it's brimming with tomfoolery and idiocy, Quantico isn't trying to be cynical. The gimmicky trick assignments in the flashbacks are all given earnest respect in the present-day scenes, even though they make the FBI academy look like a fun, experimental New Age college.

Quantico desperately wants to make a statement about societal prejudice, but should probably just stick to action and intrigue

Parrish (probably) didn't bomb Grand Central.

And this is where the show's objective comes in with the subtlety of sledgehammer. Quantico is aware there might be tendency to blame Parrish, and to some extent Nimah and Raina, for the bombings because of the color of their skin (Parrish is half-Indian; Nimah and Raina's nationality hasn't been revealed, but they are described as conservative Muslims).The show even includes a riff on the real-life Boston Bomber media circus of 2013 by having a tabloid nickname Parrish "Jihadi Jane" because she is South Asian.

The show believes it is above the notion that the easiest people to blame in a terror attack are the brown people, and it spends a lot of time explaining why this notion is wrong. Quantico's intentions are good — Islamophobia and racism against people of Arab and South Asian descent are very real things. But the way the show addresses these topics — in addition to calling Parrish "Jihadi Jane," there's also a plot that involves Parrish hiding in a mosque — is really patronizing.

The mystery of who committed the bombing is what keeps people tuning in


We don't know who framed Parrish. This is why people keep watching. Every Quantico viewer has her own theory, and that theory is constantly evolving.

My best guess: I predict that someone (Liam O'Connor) worked together with Booth to orchestrate the bombing. Booth knows Parrish did not shoot him — he wants to clear her name by saying she did, remember? — and therefore must have some idea of who shot him. But why wouldn't Booth share what information he knows with Parrish or anyone else? Like, this is crucial intel, even if he didn't get a good look at the shooter (though it was a good enough look to know it wasn't Parrish).

Also Booth might be dumber than a box of hair. He says he is telling the public that Parrish shot him to make the bomber think no one is onto him/her. But the person who actually shot Booth knows Booth is lying about Parrish shooting him. This isn't a good strategy.

(It's worth noting here that Parrish, who is supposedly the most gifted recruit at the FBI in years, didn't even think to ask the one person on her side who happened to be shot by the alleged bomber if he had any insight as to who it may be.)

It's hard for me to fathom how Booth can be this stupid, so maybe he's attempting an elaborate long con, and he really is just framing her. I also have this silly theory that there will be a twist, and no one from Parrish's class actually did it (Quantico has made it clear not to believe the information it provides).

If Quantico is so dumb, why is it popular?



Popularity and quality aren't always directly related. Books like Twilight, regarded as pulpy trash by many, are massively popular. Meanwhile, Mad Men, consistently regarded by critics as one of the best shows in the history of TV, never had a massive viewership. In fact, the viewership for Quantico's season premiere (around 7.1 million) dwarfed the viewership for the series finale of Mad Men (4.6 million).

What Quantico does best is cash in on what makes shows like How to Get Away With Murder, Grey's Anatomy, and Scandal so popular. In the same vein as How to Get Away With Murder and Grey's Anatomy, it capitalizes on its classroom/educational setting and the idea of the best of the best learning important, almost superhuman skills and then going up against each other. And like Scandal, it relishes and advertises its twists; indeed, almost every episode ends with a cliffhanger. This is a show that unashamedly caters to our most basic desires for drama, cliffhangers, and twists. It unashamedly caters to them.

So what's going to happen next?

Quantico's November 15 episode is being promoted as one in which Parrish finds out there may be another bombing in the works. Of course, the show thrives on misdirection and red herrings, so who knows what's actually in store:

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