I’m not caught up yet, but I couldn’t wait another EH-SECOND to EH-BLOG about ESCÁNDALO!
(Scandal. Talking about Scandal here. But I think the Spanish gives it a nice zing).
I live in the real world, okay? And by that I mean, I live on Tumblr. I’m not stupid. I knew this show would get me eventually. It was just a matter of when. And then two weeks ago, on a Wednesday, I knew it was time.
By Sunday, I was done with Season 2 and shopping for cream-colored business suits. #shutitdown
Oh, Shonda Rhimes, you beautiful fucking monster showrunner. With sexy men and powerful women dangling from your soapy puppet strings. How do you do the things you do? This show is the LIVING END! Let me tell you all about why it’s such a significant beacon in our current TV landscape, and why primetime romance-political-thriller-dramas on ABC need not be discounted on the basis of their questionable pedigree.
So many layers going on. “Masculine” vs. “feminine” approaches to political quagmires: the stereotypes, the subtleties, and the frustrations wrought by the power dynamics of gender. Racial fault lines, and their significance in a professional landscape founded on pragmatism and not justice. The curious game of identity: how one’s self-worth and life’s purpose may be manipulated with loyalty, that most lethal of tools. Yeah, there’s a lot of naked skin-slapping and DUN-DUN-DUN plotting going on, but that’s what makes Scandal such a tasty dish. You’re caught up in the fun, and you’re learning some hard truths about women, color, women of color, leadership, and this seedy-ass nation of ours. It’s a wonderful tapestry of intellectual titillation, and pulp of the thickest and finest variety.
For starters, no one but Kerry Washington could have played the part of D.C. “fixer” and White House guardian angel Olivia Pope. Her mouth is always saying no, but her eyes are always saying let’s go. Washington has this rare combination of angular coldness and newborn vulnerability that make her a walking puzzle. Sure, she overacts sometimes, but that’s because the script can be twisty and over-the-top. She’s completely committed to this TWO FUCKING FEET ON THE GROUND character, who I would assert is a lone gunslinger kind of protagonist.
Olivia is a problem-solver, but an emotional cipher, a problem herself, and she refuses to be solved, categorized, and subsumed by anyone. She is first a hero/leader, and second a human being with a backstory. In my mind, that’s classically a man’s role – that’s the kind of hero we see in The Walking Dead‘s Rick Grimes or Justified‘s Raylan Givens. That kind of role grounds a show in simmering steady power. Don’t worry, viewer – your lead character will never let you down, because they do not know weakness like the rest of us. And Lord give me strength, that role is being played by a black lady. WHITE HOUSE? Not so much, anymore, now that Olivia owns its #1 tenant. CAN YOU FEEL THE LIGHT ON YOUR FACE? THAT’S PROGRESS! THAT’S GOOOOOD TV!
That brings me to President Fitzgerald Grant, played to foxy perfection by Tony Goldwyn. If Olivia Pope has one so-called “weak spot,” it’s the President (and as weak spots go, girl I will give you that one). The only time we ever see her resolve shatter is when she’s faced with the awesome love and the tight body of The Leader of the Free World. But this relationship is markedly different, set apart by the flipped power dynamics inherent in Scandal.
We must posit Olivia as the gunslinger, and thus Fitz as the damsel in distress. He is her Achilles heel – a slightly less rounded and complex character whose purpose is often to upset Olivia’s well-laid plans with EMOTIONS. The guy is the girl here, you see? The President is the piece on the side. Our love interest, Fitz, is helpless to do anything but worship Olivia, and he even prepares to give up his position for her. On the other hand, our female protagonist never feels the need to choose between power and love. She just isn’t built that way. Can you pick up what Shonda is putting down?! Refreshing, like a sex shower in the White House!
And the physical chemistry is undeniable, my friends. We’re allowed to have our cake and eat it too with this show. No one’s ashamed of their bodies or their sexuality or their agency or their moral underbellies. It’s a festival of characters just speaking their truths.
Besides the unorthodox and ground-breaking relationship between these two lead characters, there’s also a lot more going on with the background crew. Olivia has a whole team of “fixers” – they’re fine for comic relief and short diversions from the more important plot lines, but I prefer not to write about them because they don’t really exist as signifiers. They don’t really say as much as Olivia and Fitz do, in a meta sense. But you know who does? Fitz’s wife, the First Lady Mellie, who again subverts classic female representations and brings really delicious Bitch game to the trope of The Bitch Wife.
Time and time again, Mellie is confirmed by other characters to be super-intelligent, a clever political climber who realized too late that the post of First Lady is a trap. She never apologizes for her lack of maternal instincts. She manipulates her husband and the White House team deftly and without second-guessing herself. She shows a soft spot for Fitz, but it’s minute in comparison to her many hard spots, and she never hesitates to use her position. By this, I mean she knows very intimately the intersection between her femaleness and her thirst for power. She knows the public function of her image, evidenced by her ruthless use of a fake miscarriage story and her stellar ability to perform marital affection for the press. She’s kind of the only character who gets that EVERYONE in politics has to be a whore, and she gets shit on by the more idealistic characters for it. Mellie is a straight Queen Bee, who is again a female character more nuanced than the President. She really gives Olivia a run for her money in terms of mettle and moxie. A fascinating anti-hero, or villain, depending on the angle from which you look at her.
And then there’s Cyrus, the right-hand man of the president. Just wanted to touch on him briefly, as his sexuality is quite significant as well. He is perhaps the darkest character, a man who is completely addicted to the rush of running a country behind the scenes, and he does not hesitate to order the odd assassination or shakedown when necessary. Cyrus is a total grey area – we see him feel loyalty and affection for his husband James, and his best friend Olivia, but we also see him drink in violence like a fine wine, and betrayal like a yummy aged cheese. He is tortured by his gayness, as well, and always seems to be one step shy of accepting himself and allowing his marriage to deepen in trust. Cyrus sees himself as a monster, and is thus a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I think it is SO FUCKING INTERESTING to watch the interplay between Cyrus’ human urges to protect those he loves, and his more buried, fiery urge for power and immortality. This here is another character who helps unveil the great complexity of “making history” – he feels, in large part, that his sexuality has much to do with his inability to live forever as a Great Man, so he contents himself with doing the darkest deeds possible so at least he has a hand in the making of Fitz as the Great Man. And his status as a man who loves a man isn’t really beaten to death in storylines about anti-gay protests or bullying or all that tired poop, which I really appreciate. This is just another relationship, with its creepy nooks and crannies and its painful realities and its sometimes epic, sometimes clumsy romance.
ALSO really interested in the race conversations that seem to be ramping up as we move into Season 3. What I like about Scandal is that Olivia’s blackness is a significant, but not end-all-be-all facet of her identity as a character, her place in the show’s universe, and her position in the great pantheon of TV heroes. We must address it, but not dwell on it, because it would be a disservice to this strong character to dissect the ingrained self-doubt and trauma that racialized society can rain down. There is, of course, this infamous scene between Olivia and her dad, which gracefully bring to the forefront a theme that we viewers need to be reminded of.
Lest we forget, Olivia Pope is TWICE as impressive as you thought she was, because the shit she’s dealing with goes way deeper than presidential sexytimes and misogyny. I feel like I don’t need to expound more on the point – this is just another beautiful instance of Shonda Rhimes’ artistry as a “showrunner for the people.” She’ll tickle your naughtybone, but she won’t let you get away with the pleasure scot-free. Characters, especially black female characters, do not simply exist on Scandal to entertain, but to forcibly illustrate the complex matrix within which we all operate and fantasize.
Am I glad I hitched my wagon to this star. ESCÁNDALO SIEMPRE. Can’t wait to see what juiciness awaits us in the coming episodes! Any thoughts? Comment me, gladiators!