Scandal’s speeches are singular and blistering. Characters mark their territories with them, usually repeating some refrain — “You are a boy,” “Are you stupid?” “You own me,” etc. — that draws blood even when whispered. They are loud and literary and hyperbolic, knocking the wind out of whoever is on the receiving end. Kate Burton, who plays Vice President Sally Langston, compares Scandal creator Shonda Rhimes’s dialogue signatures to Aaron Sorkin’s West Wing monologues, only without policy chatter. “We’re sort of the second cousins once removed,” she tells Vulture. “Our show takes them to Greek and Shakespearean heights, fueled by threats, betrayal, and sex, which also makes them personal and passionate.”
For all the screentime given over to breathless plot-burning on the show, characters still take the time to pour their hearts out in anger and broken-heartedness; even declarations of love come with veins bursting. “It’s fun to learn what someone’s soul feels like in a moment,” says Bellamy Young, who plays the bitter First Lady Mellie Grant. “So seldom are we given that breadth on TV, and we pay for it on this show. We purchase it with speed in all other arenas. We’re not dragging our feet. We buy our moments, but when they come? They’re elegiac and epic. They soar.” With Scandal’s season finale airing tonight, Vulture asked Burton, Young, and their series co-stars Joe Morton and Jeff Perry to walk us through their most memorable Shondalogues, from the poignant to the ridiculous.
Joe Morton (Rowan Pope): “And Nero fiddled while Rome burned.”
At one point, Joe Morton sang his lines. His character, Rowan Pope, head of a covert government assassin agency, was putting the President of the United States in his place … by quoting Porgy and Bess. “For you, it’s always summertime and the living is easy and daddy’s rich and your mama’s good-looking.” To avoid paying music royalties, the version that made it to air was more of a mocking growl, but Morton says Rhimes’s arias often invite experimentation. “A black man, in chains, only a T-shirt on, talking to a Southern Republican president of the United States and calling him a boy — repeatedly,” says Morton. “That alone was enormous. You just have to figure out how to hit and ground every note.”
Rowan communicates almost exclusively in eloquent two-to-three-minute intervals, working himself up to a rolling boil while lecturing his daughter Olivia or reminding a subordinate — like the president — who’s in charge. You can see the steam coming from his ears even when he’s telling Olivia in the most poetic way that he’s going to kill her boyfriend, President Fitzgerald: “Start grieving now, Olivia. Rend your garments. Curse the heavens. It will save you time down the road.” Morton says, “He’s someone who loves language and knows how to use it.” Rowan’s final presidential put-down in his “I’m a man, you’re a boy” speech is simple but damning: “You disappoint me as a suitor for my daughter’s hand.”
Bellamy Young (Mellie Grant): “I’m celebrating.”
No one rages like the First Lady. Mellie Grant is at once furious, sad, jealous, self-pitying, disappointed, and, above all, determined to remain in the White House, which makes her liable to combust at any moment. And she often does (“I usually have that giant furrow brow, and I get squinty,” Young laughs), but not when she’s half-gone on her daddy’s hooch. Olivia, her husband’s mistress, had avoided being blown up by a suicide bomber and Mellie was celebrating. Why? “Honey,” the First Lady told Fitz, “the nails, the wood, the cross you would build and hammer her on, the worship you would feel for the rest of your days, down on your knees, praying to Saint Olivia Pope … I’d lose.”
“That was my best buzzed Tennessee Williams,” says Young. “Mellie never has the stereotypically appropriate emotional response to things. It’s always oblique, which makes her so fun to play.” In this case, Mellie’s chill. Young kicked off her shoes and shed her pearls to get comfy with having the upperhand. “She’s always coming at Fitz like a pitbull, and this time, the booze just lets her kick back. It’s dirtier in a way, more open, real. They both know Olivia is his weak spot. It’s so easy to deflect and dismiss someone screaming at you, but when someone just relaxes back with a cocktail in hand and lays your truth down? That’s sobering.”
Kate Burton (Sally Langston): “Yum yum, crispy piggy. Yum yum!”
Almost everyone on Scandal is a murderer, so someone was bound to feel guilty about it and, to borrow a term from Mean Girls, their word vomit was bound to be glorious. Tea-party-line-towing Sally Langston discovered her husband had slept with another man and stabbed him in the back with a letter opener. She goes just bonkers enough to blame the devil for it and press forward in her campaign for the president’s job. Cue the debate prep: Sally proselytizing to the corner of a room and an imaginary president. “Time for the slaughter, piggy piggy. Time for the slaughter, you filthy, cloven beast!” The actors on Scandal don’t see their scripts until the table read, and despite the show’s many over-the-top tirades, this one gave Kate Burton pause. “The table reads are such enervating events because it’s not like we all get together and read pleasantly. We’re all seeing what the writers have come up with,” she says, “and frankly, nothing could prepare me for this. When we got to ‘crispy piggy,’ I literally went, ‘Wh-what?’ I looked up at Shonda like, Really? Okaaay. I mean, oh my God.”
Then her theater background kicked in. The actress wasn’t fazed for long. “The themes in this show are huge. The passions are enormous, the betrayals are enormous, the stakes are enormous, which, guess what, is exactly like classical theatre,” she says. “Having done all that kind of work, when I step into Sally Langston, it’s not such a shock.” But she didn’t want to linger there either. “I remember standing at that podium and just saying to the director, ‘I can’t spend all this time thinking about it because if I do I’ll never get through it. When the camera comes on, I’ll really bust it.’”
Jeff Perry (Cyrus Beene): “You don’t have to worry about that sex tape. Who needs a sex tape when you’ve got a fetus full of presidential DNA? It’s a win win.”
As ruthless presidential aide Cyrus Beene, Perry pored over Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail when it came time for his first monstrous haranguing of the president in season one. “Hunter’s funny, deeply dark, burnt-to-a-crisp voice meets Shonda’s was in my gut,” says Perry. The president had gotten an intern pregnant, and it becomes the first fire Cyrus can’t put out. “I remember Shonda’s note,” Perry recalls. “She said, ‘He’s done.’ He’d played all his chess moves. That was it.” When Fitz asks for a plan of attack, Cyrus spins a seemingly low-key bedtime story that begins with the president’s impeachment and ends with a revolver in his mouth. And for Cyrus, a post-funeral interview with Barbara (“because Oprah’s retired”).
At his most soul-baring, Cyrus asks his husband James not to forgive but get past whoring him out to the husband of the vice president just to get her out of the race. “Maybe you never noticed the 666 on my forehead before? But now you see it. I’m hoping you’ll love me anyway. I’m hoping for better or worse means something to you.” Perry laughs. “Talk about mixed messages. That’s how it always is with Shonda, messy, complicated, contradictory. You see them trying to sort themselves out every time they give one of these crazy, beautiful speeches.”