Rowan Pope: There is, incidentally, a point. If there are no more white hats, if the deck is always stacked, and if everyone you love is a monster, there is, in fact, someone worth saving.
Olivia Pope: Who?
Rowan: Everyone! Everyone is worth saving! Even the monsters, even the demons. Everyone is worth saving. In the face of darkness, you drag everyone into the light. That is the point. At least, I like to think that is the point of you.
Every April we mix things up here at the Gutter, with each Editor writing about something outside their domain. So this month I’m visiting Shondaland and taking in its attractions, specifically Scandal, for which Shonda Rhimes herself is the showrunner. It’s a show I enjoy a lot, though it has no monsters and few explosions or car chases. All its monsters are metaphorical. I watch Scandal two or three episodes at a time, and when I’m not completely absorbed, I think, “How does Scandal work?”
Scandal and its protagonist, Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) are inspired by real world person, Judy A. Smith. Smith is a crisis manager who I am entirely certain does not live the Scandal life beyond managing her clients’ crises and wearing amazing outfits. Or, at least I don’t think she does. Scandal follows Olivia Pope , an African-American woman who uses her law degree, skills and connections to fix powerful people’s problems. Are you a candidate with a sexytime affair about to be leaked? Liv will handle it. Dead body in a hotel room? Liv can make it disappear. Olivia started her firm after running the successful presidential campaign of Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn). Liv and Fitz fell in love, but Liv had a hard time seeing who she would be as the president’s mistress working in the White House. So she left to make herself something that was her own. The thing is, after the first season or even not even before the first season is over, the show becomes less about a client of the week and more about Liv’s attempts to navigate her very deadly world while still doing good, or at least the best she could. It is well-acted, nicely made and excellently diverse like all Shondaland shows. And there are amazing outfits and fine musical choices.
Scandal is full-on melodrama, fashion, music, white hats and black hats and all, but Scandal is also complicated and hard to explain. So, I’ll do some explaining by sharing some plot points of note. (This means Spoilers):
- Before he was president, Fitz worked for a secret national security organization, B613. This organization was run by Liv’s father, Rowan Pope (Joe Morton), who she had always believed was a scholar at the Smithsonian. Rowan ordered Fitz to shoot down a passenger flight. Olivia’s mom, Maya Lewis (Khandi Alexander), was aboard that flight. It also turns out that Liv’s mom was a terrorist.
- As president, Fitz throttles a sitting Supreme Court justice in her hospital bed. He does so to ensure her silence about the vote rigging that had made his election possible.
- When former First Lady Mellie Grant (Bellamy Young) becomes a Senator, she pulls a Wendy Davis on the Senate floor, fillibustering in support of continuing to fund women’s health care. She does this as a Republican.
- Fitz has three vice presidents in the course of eight years in office. Two of them do terrible things. The current one, Susan Ross, is one of the show’s current nice people in public office. For now.
- One of Fitz’ vice presidents, Sally Langston (Kate Burton) murders her husband after she sees photos of him having sex with Chief Of Staff’s Cyrus Beene’s husband, James (Dan Bucatinsky). She does not know that he was set up by Cyrus (Jeffy Perry)so he could blackmail her. She goes on to host “The Liberty Report” on Scandal‘s version of Fox News.
- One of Olivia’s partners and current NSA director, Jake Ballard (Scott Foley), ultimately kills Cyrus’ husband because he threatens to reveal the secret national security organization. This season he’s often in the background eating something in Eli Pope’s house.
- Another former vice president orders Olivia kidnapped and sold. In retaliation, one of Olivia’s associates at Pope & Associates, Huck (Guillermo Díaz), induces a stroke to silence him. He feels pretty positive about this choice because he had been a torturer and killer for B613.
- Liv’s former fiance Edison Davis (Norm Lewis) is running for president and, if he wins, will be the first Black president in the Scandal universe.
This is scratching the surface.
All the characters are well-rounded and compellingly presented, if all sharing some fondness for urgent speechifying, but most everyone is kind of a terrible person. I have lost track of who has not personally murdered someone or tortured someone in an apartment. I feel like Scandal is 21st Century Washington set in Star Trek’s “Mirror, Mirror” universe. In our universe, Spock doesn’t have a goatee, the Bajorans aren’t an imperial power and Olivia Pope wears a black hat. It’s a universe where being a violent psychopath is normal. I suppose the few people who are not are the universe of awful people’s version of serial killers. Except in Scandal, the awful people want to protect the non-awful people’s innocence, even while giving them speeches about the awful sacrifices they make so you can sleep safe and non-awful in your non-awful bed. But it is still compelling and still believes in the power of speech and change in a terrifying violent world.
I’ve talked to other people and they have also had a similar experience. You either continue watching afterwards, understanding that you are watching the lives of kind of terrible people and that’s okay, or it is just not. Though to be honest, I am less “okay” with it than I continue to wonder about it and then things happen that are amazing—Liv attempts to escape her kidnappers by picking a lock with the underwire of her bra. Or Papa Pope runs down the racist realities of the power structure all around us. Or there is an amazing episode which aired during the height of the attacks on Planned Parenthood in which Olivia chooses to have an abortion and it is represented in the show. I can’t remember the last time a character chose to have an abortion, rather than considering it (cause you know the showrunner believes it’s a woman’s choice) and deciding to go to term with her pregnancy or having a convenient miscarriage.
The point is, Scandal is not a conventional narrative. Scandal is its own thing and Scandal is complicated. Scandal does not give a crap about our ideas of too much or how narratives should work or the clear distinction between the white hats and the black hats*. Scandal has a lot of people who do terrible things, but it also doesn’t embrace grim and gritty ideas about what “realistic” is. Scandal cares about speeches and clothing, music and motion. And Scandal does care about its characters. Once you understand that you are not supposed to root for a hero in the conventional way, that you are supposed to think, “My God, what a terrible thing to do!” you are a step closer to almost apprehending Scandal. It’s like House Of Cards, in that it is set in a very corrupt Washington with a compromised president and first lady, but there isn’t the thrill of seeing them fight their way through and pull of the nefarious scheme that also gets an education bill passed. We don’t get that look from President Frank Underwood, like we do in House of Cards, or the internal monologue of serial killer-hunting serial killer Dexter Morgan or Hannibal‘s resplendent and seductive Hannibalness inviting us to “eat the rude.” We’re not in on the plan. We’re along for the ride in Shondaland. Scandal has no knowing look, no Kerry Washington turning to the camera and telling you what to do with the fact that the President, when he was President, strangled a justice of the Supreme Court in her hospital bed.
Olivia Pope’s outfits are the closest thing the show has to Frank Underwood’s breaking the fourth wall. Until the fifth season, Liv wore only black, white and gray. And you could tell at least where Olivia thought she was on the moral spectrum based on her ensembles. More recently, after dealing with having been kidnapped and sold to terrorists, Liv has added color to her wardrobe. Mostly red and blue. I have been wondering what the colors means as it becomes ever more clear that she’s suffering from PTSD. After the last episode, “Thwack!” it seems the red is less romance and more blood.
House of Cards is going for Shakespearean drama, with its mix of Macbeth and Richard III. Hannibal and Dexter are more Grand Guignol. Scandal is melodrama–once legally defined in the UK at least as “illegitimate theater.” From the late 17th Century through the 18th Century, “legitimate theater” was serious drama in which the spoken word was not accompanied by music. Any drama without music could not be performed outside of licensed theaters. So by sticking those songs and musical themes in the plays, playwrights, theater owners and performers could be pretty much left alone, as long as they successfully entertained their patrons. Melodrama used music to evoke feelings or to communicate or gesture towards character or character conflicts. Melodrama was a popular dramatic form in the Nineteenth Century, one that influenced traditions and arts outside the theater well into our own time. Melodrama became weepies and women’s films; on television it became soap operas and has has tremendous influence on everything from the WWE to The Walking Dead and Dr. Who. Melodrama is the secret ingredient that has so many fandoms posting clips and gifs from favorite movies and tv shows. Melodrama celebrated feelings more than the virtues or at least warnings one could take from more respectable dramatic forms, like, say, tragedy. (Someone cover Aristotle’s eyes). Although, melodrama does have a concern with virtue and morality, even if only in structure, it also relies on typical characters and conventions. A melodrama usually has a clear hero and villain, a love interest and a clear dispute between the hero and the villain.
Scandal plays with these conventions of heroes and villains. Everyone is a hero, if only in their own story, and everyone is a villain, though maybe one who occasionally shows regrets or weaknesses. Most of the characters of Scandal think they can walk away from their actions and choose to be better people. Some of the sympathy Rowan Pope and Cyrus Beene accrue is in their own willingness to own being terrible. Cyrus calls himself a monster. Rowan believes he is necessary so the rest of us can live our safe, deluded lives. But he is disgusted at the idea of his exceptional daughter, his daughter he raised with the reminder that she would always have to work twice as hard as white people, being one of those deluded people. He urges her to take power. And while power is kind of unclear in Scandal‘s universe, beyond having the White House or having no one who can order you to shoot down a passenger jet, it often involves murder.
Another Shondaland show, How To Get Away With Murder feels like a reflection of Scandal. Bisexual African-American law school professor and defense attorney Annalise Keating (Viola Davis in an incredible performance) will do anything necessary to protect her clients. When protecting her students embroils them all in a murder, she helps cover it up. If Scandal is set in an alternate universe where being a murderer isn’t all that unusual, How To Get Away With Murder is set in one more like our own. A single murder is incredibly corrosive and eats away at the lives and relationships of five students Keating chooses to work closely with her. Annalise suffers for her choice to protect her students from the consequences. She drinks. She becomes impossible in her personal relationships. She pushes people away. The body count (so far) in How To Get Away With Murder is much lower and the consequences so far are much more devastating for the characters, their relationships and their emotional health. (I would love to see Viola Davis and an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea).
A while ago, friend wondered after some particularly amazing plot twist, if Scandal had jumped the shark. And in pondering that, I realized that I believe Scandal can never jump the shark. Scandal is made of moments that might devastate other shows. It uses them and it thrives. Can a show be over the top when there is no top to go over? Scandal works because it keeps moving. Scandal flies the through air eternally, always jumping. Or swims eternally in the depths, unfindable, unknown, unjumpable. Generic elements can be determined–the use of music and fashion; the conventions of heroes and villains; romance–but never quite the show’s whole. There is always another revelation or brutal betrayal or another amazing outfit. We’re all just soaring through space forever–a shark and Shonda and me and you.
*I still love that speech in The Good Wife’s gritty show-within-a-show, Darkness At Noon, that refers to Olivia’s white hat speeches, while blending it in to the speeches more typical of True Detective and Low Winter Sun: “People just think there are black hats and white hats, but there are black hats with white linings, and white hats with black linings, and there are hats that change back and forth between white and black, and there are striped hats. Evil rests in the soul of all men… and there is nothing you can do but curse God.”
Carol Borden hopes House of Cards‘ third season is a big crossover with Scandal and The Blacklist. also, it needs more robots and/or yetis. I will also accept Reptilians and trade negotiations with the Hollow Earth aliens. She also has a lot ot say about How To Get Away With Murder.