The Long Shadow of Scandal

Over seven seasons, the show sometimes lost the (insanely complicated) plot, but it changed TV for good.

Kerry Washington in Scandal.
Kerry Washington in Scandal. ABC/Eric McCandless

As with so many things on the endlessly twisty Scandal, the show was not what it at first appeared to be. Created by Shonda Rhimes, at that point best known for the medical shows Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice, Scandal premiered in 2012 as a political procedural starring Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope, a terrifyingly efficient and glamorous D.C. fixer taking on the case of the week while also having an affair with the white Republican president of the United States. It was the latter, wilder plot point, rather than Olivia’s string of cases, that presaged the show to come. By Scandal’s second season, the procedural element began to recede and the gonzo shenanigans increased. As the plot picked up, so did the ratings.

At a time—like now—when networks were having trouble creating hits and growing a show from season to season, Scandal was a sleeper smash, starting modestly and then becoming a phenomenon. By embracing social media, bold, operatic hijinks, and a radical romance, Scandal turned itself into event television, the rare show you had to watch in real time. For a few seasons, come Thursday night, Twitter would essentially turn itself over to Olivia Pope and Associates—as it did, in a low-key way, for last night’s #ScandalFinale.

Scandal couldn’t quite maintain its buzz for its full seven seasons. I lost track a few years ago, then caught up the other day on Wikipedia, cackling all the while. That happened? And then that happened? Sorry, who is the vice president now? Olivia did what with a chair? It’s hard to stay a sensation in such a crowded pool, especially when you’re churning through plot like a hungry shark through chum.

The kind of passion that Scandal inspired was rare—and influential. When it premiered, a black woman hadn’t had the lead role in a network drama for nearly 40 years. Scandal decimated the idea that a black female lead would alienate audiences, proving, instead, that it would energize them. Prior to Scandal, anyone looking at television could have seen that there was a dearth of characters of color in meaty, leading roles, but Scandal demonstrated it in a way that made executives take notice: by making money. A passionate and largely black female audience made Scandal a sensation, a sensation whose aftereffects are all around us, even as some of the hubbub around Scandal itself has died down. Scandal and Rhimes’ example contributed to the greenlighting of everything from Empire to Black-ish to Atlanta to Black Panther.

The show itself was relatively circumspect about race at its start. It was always the subtext of the series, but it became much more explicit over time, first with Olivia remarking to Tony Goldwyn’s Fitz that she was feeling “a little Sally Hemings–Thomas Jefferson” about their romantic dynamic, and then with the arrival of her father, Rowan (Joe Morton), whose grand speechmaking included a barnburner of a reminder that she would always have to be twice as good as any white person to succeed in this racist world. In the finale, Rowan again scolded Olivia, who was trying to bring down his nefarious covert agency B613 one last time, for behaving like a “slave.” Later, he told a closed Senate meeting that, despite his murderous, anti-democratic, torture-ordering behavior, he and his organization had bulwarked and protected America from the likes of his interrogators—“white men whose complacency, privilege, left this country, this republic in a state of neglect.”

Rowan’s speech was a Rhimes-ian take on Jack Nicholson’s famous A Few Good Men breakdown—Rowan, like Nicholson’s character, was saying, “You can’t handle the truth!” He does awful things so that Americans can continue sleeping safely at night, or as Rowan said, “I kept the stock market afloat, our shores at peace. I am responsible for the fact that this nation still stands … I make America great.” But unlike in A Few Good Men, this is not supposed to be the self-justification of a villain. It’s a truth-telling jeremiad.

Scandal, for all its influence, has always had a deep and abiding love for its evil characters. Talking to Vulture just before the finale, Rhimes said, “I think anybody can do anything and you can still love and forgive them.” And when she says anything, she means everything. Her characters have been operatically, gargantuanly evil. This always made Scandal slightly disorienting: Are we supposed to enjoy all these machinations, even when they involve torture, the abnegation of democracy, and murder, so long as they are set to classic pop? When Olivia says one last time that she and her friends are “the only white hats left” are we really supposed to cheer, even though we know, on some level, that we should shiver? It’s not that Scandal didn’t know the difference between good and bad, it’s that good and bad didn’t interest it very much. Bad was more fascinating, bad and lovable most fascinating of all.

In the finale, Scandal’s only half-decent character was killed. The rest—immoral scoundrels to a one—walked away from their crimes scot-free, except for Jake (Scott Foley), who took the fall but didn’t seem to mind, left smiling in a jail cell. B613, the big, odious, extragovernmental killing organization, did not seem to be irrevocably ended, insofar as everyone in charge of it, most especially Rowan, was still free to do as they pleased. Scheming mastermind Cyrus was punished, but only by being forced to resign the vice presidency. Republican President Mellie passed gun control legislation. And Olivia Pope got to be free, free from fixing and advising, free to do what she wants, which is probably Fitz and then, eventually, realizing she’s bored just in time for the reboot. The show ended with two black girls walking into a D.C. museum and staring up reverently at Olivia’s official portrait with “We the People” painted on the side: a role model, an icon, an inspiration.

Olivia has, as I previously mentioned, beat a disabled man (who, to be fair, was also an evil child killer) to death with a chair. She’s rigged an election. She was, briefly, the head of B613. She’s done awful things I don’t even remember and awful things I stopped watching. Her bad deeds are innumerable. But the deification of Olivia Pope make sense if you consider Scandal extratextually—if what those girls are looking at is an Olivia Pope–Kerry Washington hybrid, where the thing to admire, to stand in awe of, is a black woman permitted to do very horrible things and be loved anyway: not a role model, but a shining example of the power of representation.

This is how I read Rowan’s speech to the Senate committee as well, a bit of extratextual communication from Shonda Rhimes herself. “I want my name on the lips of every patriot from sea to sea,” Rowan tells the committee. “I want to see with my own eyes the face of every white, complacent, privileged man who believes that he is in a position of power when he hears the news that a black man has been running this country for the last 30 years. That he only wields his power because my black power allows him to.” Rowan is, again, a deeply nefarious character who has done absolutely nothing to advance democracy, whatever he says. He’s not even telling the truth here: He shortly thereafter suggests Jake be arrested instead, keeping his own name and face a secret. But the speech isn’t really operating within the world of Scandal. It’s operating in our world, the real world, as a reminder of all of the invisible contributions black people have made to America’s wealth and power, and acting as an intimation of a future when these contributions will be plain to see. Scandal, itself, was an over-the-top, convoluted, gruesome, and ethically all-over-the-place TV show, but like Olivia and Rowan, it represented something bigger.