When Scandal premiered, I never imagined that I’d one day tell people that it gives me the same kind of crazy rush that I used to get from 24.
There’s a lot less gore, of course; people get killed on Shonda Rhimes’ ABC drama, which ends its second season tonight, and there have been a few intense scenes of torture, courtesy of a subplot involving Guillermo Diaz’s former Black Ops soldier, Huck, and bits of Homeland-style, anything-for-a-gasp preposterousness. (The president was shot in the head during an assassination attempt, recovered rather quickly, but became unbearably sour and scatterbrained, started drinking, basically murdered a sitting Supreme Court justice, and is now considering not running for a second term because he’d rather spend time with his mistress.) But for the most part the show’s action is more of the West Wing variety: executive branch power plays, bloodthirsty declarations (“We chop up the Judases into little pieces, and we dance!” snarls the president’s chief of staff Cyrus Beene, played by Jeff Perry), riot-act readings, and two-minute monologues so unrelentingly intense that they become athletic events for the actors – Olympic exercises in breath control. (I imagine Aaron Sorkin hurling handfuls of periods and commas at the screen, crying uncle.)
But even though Scandal is mainly about people talking in rooms, it’s got that 24 intensity, and it comes from the same power sources that fueled Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran’s action show: a mix of soap opera melodrama, airport thriller-style conspiracy plots, and unrelenting pressure, all woven together via plot-counterplot storytelling that makes sections of each season feel like self-contained pulp novels that happen to feature recurring characters. The damned thing moves on fast-forward. Nobody ever relaxes on Scandal. The show keeps your pulse racing during reflective moments with anxious, burbling synth cues that sound like the sort of music that might play while a Michael Mann criminal cracked open a vault.
Dedicated fans are understandably irritated by the recent praise the show has gotten, partly because its addictiveness isn’t recent – it began to get really focused and good around the end of last season – but mostly because the kudos misrepresent the show as being wholly dedicated to the relationship between its heroine, Kerry Washington’s PR fixer Olivia Pope, and her main client, President Fitzgerald Thomas Grant III (Tony Goldwyn). Their agonized love story is the most original element on the series, to be sure, and bait for think-pieces on TV’s treatment of race and female empowerment: Rhimes got raked over the coals a bit early on for serving up a rare network drama starring a super-competent, powerful African-American woman, then revealing her as the still-lovestruck mistress of a married, white president, which seemed to burden an intriguing anti-heroine with a very traditional strain of romantic victimhood.
But that plotline has been through so many iterations that it’s inaccurate to write off the show that way; and at every step, Rhimes and her writers have seemed to know what explosive material they were handling, and found a way to analyze its components without turning every episode into a Jezebel editorial. (The high point for me was “Happy Birthday, Mr. President”, which let a Thomas Jefferson–Sally Hemings comparison just sort of pop out during a flashback argument – as if both characters had already been obsessing over the parallels but were afraid to discuss them.) And there’s a lot more to Olivia and Fitz, and to Scandal generally, than this central relationship. This is not just a series about relationships or power, or powerful people in relationships; it’s about how emotions and psychology color the choices that everybody makes, regardless of their influence, or lack of influence.
This season’s so-called “Defiance arc” – which revealed the 2000-like theft of the presidential election by Fitz’s team, which included Olivia – is but one example. The outrage wouldn’t have happened if Fitz’s people hadn’t become convinced that Fitz couldn’t win the election on his own, and they had good reasons for thinking so. Fitz was a political legacy living in the shadow of his horrible narcissist senator dad (Barry Bostwick); Fitz was running to both impress the old man and escape his shadow, not because he really wanted the job – and the old man was pressuring him and trying to control his campaign because he felt unmanly for having grown old without running for president himself. So the whole crime and cover-up came out of masculine insecurity, coupled with a desperate attempt by Fitz’s team to save face and preserve the power they’d gain if he won.
There’s a lot of this kind of thing going on in Scandal, on the main stage and in the margins: people acting strong because they feel weak, and doing things that are brazenly illegal, and sometimes emotionally sadistic to boot. They make politics personal in the most mortifying ways. Cyrus has spent much of this season alternately pandering to and manipulating his young journalist husband, James Novak (Dan Bucatinsky). He got James the baby he wanted, not because Cyrus wanted a baby (he hates kids) but to keep James from investigating the Defiance scandal. Late in the season, when Fitz’s wife Mellie Grant (Bellamy Young) decided to go public and reveal that her husband had been embroiled in a long-term adulterous affair, she chose James to break the news, symbolically hurting her husband’s enablers, and by extension the entire administration.
The show is as concerned with the unconscious reasons behind people’s decisions as Mad Men; but because it’s mainly a political soap with case-of-the-week elements (Olivia’s firm is often called on to clear wrongly-stained reputations), and because the plots are so knowingly outrageous, it rarely gets credit for its astuteness. As the A.V. Club’s Ryan McGee observed, “This is a series filled with hyper-competent people that can fix anything except the gnawing feeling they deserve the pain heaped upon them.” The show’s characters all put up steely facades, but we’re aware of how much fear and misery they’re hiding. The show’s filmmaking builds this idea right into the visuals. In every episode there are dozens of shots that put a speaker in the same frame as his or her reflection, as glimpsed in a mirror, a windowpane, or a bit of foreground door glass: the image and the reality uneasily coexisting.
It’s surely no accident that Olivia herself seems like a broken person, and alternates between helping and manipulating other broken people. The show has gradually revealed that her cultishly loyal employees were all, in some sense, cast off by life, or made to feel ruined or small. Her relationship with Huck, a man who attends AA-like meetings because he’s addicted to violence, might be the most extreme, fascinating example of her still-mysterious psychology. She gave Huck a sense of purpose and a new identity, but she also established a hold on him that will be very hard to break, and his activities on behalf of her firm are often disturbing: stalkings, intimidations, burglaries and the like. Olivia is a savior and destroyer, in some ways as cold and controlling a mother figure to her workers as Fitz’s father was to him. She only seems as though she humanized him; what she really did was treat an attack dog with enough kindness to turn him into her pet. Does she really love Huck, or any of her employees, or any of her colleagues? Does she really love Fitz? Does Fitz really love her? Or is every kind of affection expressed on this show just a different flavor of need?
Nearly all of the major characters are fascinatingly screwed up. You feel for them even when they treat each other cruelly. Their private pain, which periodically erupts during arguments and confessions, lends what might have been a forgettable nighttime soap a touch of tragic poetry. These people are all their own worst enemies. It’s not their fault, but it’s their responsibility. Stand close enough to the TV screen and you can see one more reflection in it.