Shonda Rhimes Talks Scandal’s Brutal Season 3 and the Issue of Likability

Kerry Washington in Scandal Photo: Richard Cartwright/ABC

Shonda Rhimes loves to make you identify with Scandal’s characters, and then remind you over and over again of how low they can go. (You think Fitz and his puppy-dog sad eyes and willingness to throw out the presidency for Liv is sweet? Well, he also cheated on her with an intern and murdered a judge.) And the show’s creator and executive producer one-ups the competition by tearing through story quicker than all of them — in the first half of the show’s third season, she’s raised the stakes and made some of her biggest creative gambles yet. Among the recent revelations: Mellie’s horrifying (and polarizing) past, the terrible new lengths to which Cyrus will go to do his job, and Huck’s handling of a colleague turned suspected traitor. Vulture sat down with Rhimes in her L.A. office earlier this week to discuss everything from hatching those controversial plots to a potential spinoff, and even jam-making in Vermont. And yes, she thought the use of “Ben” in last night’s episode was as rad as you did. Spoilers follow if you haven’t watched last night’s episode:

We should start with Huck and Quinn. He removed her teeth. When did that become an idea, and how in the world do those characters come back from that? If they come back from it.
To me, it felt like the natural progression of Huck’s character. If Quinn’s gonna do these things, then Huck is gonna do what Huck does. I try not to make the characters bend to our will. If I’ve set up a world in which this is what Huck does, and this is the way Huck treats people who are traitors, and this is how Huck protects Olivia, then that’s what he’d have to do to Quinn as well.

But they were so close.  
I think of them as family! And it was very interesting, because I wrote that line for Huck, “I’ve never done this with somebody in the family, with somebody I love.” I wrote it and I thought, in a weird way, that makes it feel special to him. If you go with Huck’s mind-set, it makes it feel more intimate and more special and probably, oddly, more exciting if you think about who he is. For me, it’s a reminder that as much as we all love these people, they’re all still monsters. They’re all still monsters walking around in human skin.

Especially because things move so fast, do you have a barometer for how bonkers you can get with this show? Is there such a thing as “too far” or “going off the rails” in terms of how badly and outrageously these characters can behave?
It sounds really stupid, but I truly trust my gut. Sometimes it’s like, “That’s too much,” or “That’s just right.” Mostly it’s about what we as writers want to see and what we’re enjoying and how the story feels. The pacing has to feel right. When it’s off, sometimes I feel like we’ve told too much or not enough. So you just have to get it to a place where it’s calibrated just right.

So when you say, “Huck’s going to torture Quinn” in the writers’ room, what’s the reaction? Is there opposition?
Everybody in the room accepted it because we’re not watching the show. I feel like we’re fighting against the very traditional idea that we see these people and we identify with them and therefore they must be good. On our show, we see these people and we identify with them — that doesn’t mean they’re good by any stretch of the imagination. Sometimes you love Cyrus, and he is a monster. There are many people who think Liv should be with Fitz, and he’s an adulterer and a murderer. Huck likes to cut off people’s fingers and toes and abuse them with drills and somehow we’ve decided he’s the sweetest one of them all. So, there’s a very, I don’t want to say “basic,” but there’s a very simplistic moral world that people want these characters to exist in and they just don’t.

Any concerns about portraying a man torturing a woman?
Well, what was interesting was, it felt fine. People were emotional about it at the table read because we’re a group of people who get that way. Everyone’s so close. Katie Lowes and Guillermo Diaz were very stressed out about having to play these scenes with one another. I made sure they had a rehearsal where they bound her up and did the whole thing. I asked her, “Do you feel comfortable? Do you feel like your chastity’s been maintained? Do you feel okay?” She was like, “I feel really good. Really safe. Really awesome.” But then I saw it, and it wasn’t until I saw it that I went … Quinn may have done lots of things, but suddenly it was a woman, bound on the floor — it was a white woman, bound on the floor, while a man of color is over her, pulling out her teeth, torturing her. The visual of that I had a really strong reaction to. Now, I often think that the things I have a strong reaction to are the things we should absolutely be doing, but I had a really hard time with it in the beginning.

I also felt like this is the story we’re telling and we’re being true to the characters, and that’s what these characters would do. It wasn’t till I saw it that I felt, This feels more disturbing than Maya Pope chewing her wrists open. And I like that. In a weird way, it places you exactly in Quinn’s hands: a man who she loves and respects, who the audience loves and respects, is doing what is essentially a terrible but in his mind a very necessary thing that he admits to enjoying. You are in this very uncomfortable, squeamish, Please get me out of here place that feels right for the situation. It just happens to be that she’s a woman and he’s a man. The power dynamic for us as women visually in this country, it’s a really uncomfortable thing.

Fortunately, there’s a little relief from it all when Huck goes, “What do the kids say? YOLO, Quinn.”
[Laughs.] It gives you a moment to breathe, yeah, and to remember that you’re watching a television show.

But the wrist-biting was also particularly crazy. Where did that come from?
Originally, by the way, that scene was twice as long. Yeah. It was twice as long. Even I couldn’t watch it. Khandi Alexander, who is an amazing actress, just went for it. The effects were amazing, and the way it was shot was incredible. There were so many wonderful things about it, but it was stomach-turning. So we ended up cutting it in half. Even then, I felt like, Boy, is that graphic. Boy, is that huge. I tweeted before it came on, “Don’t be eating before you see it.” I happen to have been eating before I saw it — the long version — and it was unfortunate.

We talked a lot about the idea of “Can you … ?” You’re trapped in a room, you’re a prisoner — what would get you out? We talked a lot about a lot of different things. Do you ram your head into a wall? No, you get brain damage. What can you do to yourself to harm you enough to get you out of that room, but not harm you enough so that you are totally incapacitated? It wasn’t me who came up with it. It was one of the writers. I thought it was brilliant. I loved it because when you watch it later, knowing who she is, it starts to seem like, Wow, is she calculated, and not so much like I’m a crazy woman who wants to die. She’s thought really hard about how to do this and that is the choice she made.

I thought it was a nice touch later, when she and Rowan are looking at old pictures of Olivia, for her to say, “I could just eat her up!”
[Laughs.] Yeah. Like, yech.

The reveal of Mellie’s backstory — she was raped by Fitz’s father — was pretty polarizing. At what point did you come up with that past for her, and what did you think about how it was received?
Once again, it was about following the character backwards. I was sort of thinking, Who is Mellie at heart? How did she get this way? How did she get from the sweet girl who married this man to the woman she is? What could have happened to her along the way? What are the small betrayals and the big betrayals that she would have had to suffer, and commit, to get where she is? It felt like a very true moment if you think about everything Fitz has ever said about his father, everything that’s ever happened in their relationship, the idea that Mellie has these character traits that make her feel very protective but also determined to stay with him because of what she’s given up. It felt like true character to me, so it was really about that. And then, yeah, people got really, really upset; that was really interesting to me. I felt really confused and disturbed that people thought we were doing it to make people like Mellie.

You retweeted this take, written by my colleague Margaret Lyons, which said as much. That it’s not about likability.
First of all, I’ve always liked Mellie. I’ve always adored Mellie. [Margaret’s] take was true because we’re not making a show in which you’re supposed to like people. That’s not the goal of the show. I think it’s interesting because no one says about Game of Thrones, “Oh, well, now I don’t like this person.” Like, “Oh, you chopped off his hand to make us like him.” It’s not a show about likeability. We’re also not working from that point of view. Really, for us, a lot of it is just about illuminating the characters. I feel like we’ve thrown you this cast of characters, this group of murderers, mobsters, and thieves, and then said, “Here’s who they are.” For better or for worse, this is who they are, and we’re gonna peel back their layers and you’re gonna discover stuff about them, and it’s going to make you feel uncomfortable because maybe you always hated them or maybe you always loved them, but that’s what humanity is.

Having said that, how do you feel about what’s happening among fans when it comes to Fitz and Olivia? The relationship has become a very divisive point about the show. There’s a loyal, vocal section of viewers who want to watch Fitz and Olivia: Tragic Love Story. Is it more difficult to let these two sometimes act like assholes than it is for other characters?
No. No. I love Fitz and Liv, too, but I’m writing them. When we’re writing Fitz and Liv, we’re trying to write them from Fitz and Liv’s point of view. And so from their point of view, it’s true love. And maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s right, maybe it’s wrong. But to them, it’s right. Then sometimes they do stuff that fits who they are. Fitz isn’t the world’s nicest man. He’s not kind. He’s a little bit violent. [Laughs.] He’s murdered somebody. Liv’s fixed an election. There are dark, dark things brewing there. But I don’t worry about whether or not it makes them likable. Traditional network television tries to make our main characters likable because people are afraid if you’re not likable, I don’t know, no one’s going to watch them. I just think it makes people interesting. We’re examining it more than commenting on it. That it’s divisive? I think it’s fantastic! To me, that’s the argument that’s interesting. You should be debating that, and I think you should have been debating it from the very beginning.

How do you personally feel about them being together?
I don’t have personal feelings. I’m too inside it to have personal feelings about them. In a weird way, your characters are you, so I am Fitz and I am Liv. How can I have opinions about them? I love watching what Kerry and Tony do with the words. That always teaches me something more about them. Sometimes that gives me an idea about what’s going to happen next. You know, sometimes I have a moral judgment. Sometimes I hate them. And I think they also have moments where I think This is really beautiful. This is really true. I do believe there is genuine tenderness and love between them — does that make them right for one another? I don’t know. I love the moment at the end of season two where Cyrus says, “This is not a romance novel.” Because that’s the point. For me, that great moment when they’re busy being in love and the world is falling apart around them and Cyrus has to rip them apart, that to me is sort of the essence of the show. They will love each other and fight against all odds to be together, but that doesn’t make it right.

Speaking of people who might not belong together: Cyrus and James! It seems irreparable, even more so than when Cyrus put out a hit on James, which James never discovered.
Yeah, a nuclear bomb went off in the middle of their relationship. What I loved about what was happening was, for a long time, we had the idea that Cyrus was going to set up James, and then we wrote the script, and I thought, James should sleep with him. He just should. That’s the betrayal right back. Like, “You’re not gonna screw me, Cyrus.” And then I loved the cat-and-mouse of what happens between them, and they are very damaged here, and what happens next leaves them very changed. The next episode for Cyrus really challenges who he thinks he is.

I appreciated when James pointed out to Cyrus that he was not only pimping out his husband, but that he was gay-shaming and trying to out another gay man. Because it’s true!
Yeah! One of the things we were talking about in the room is, what are the politics of this thing that Cyrus is about to do? It is so dark. For Cyrus, he’s always willing to go there. He’s willing to go to the darkest places, the places that we, as politically correct people, would never go to. Cyrus just thinks of that as ammunition.

Was any of her mother’s story line inspired by Alias?
Oh my God. You know, we talked about that a little bit, the Alias of it all. After we pitched it all out, somebody said, “You know, in Alias, she’s got this mom … ” and I had seen Alias. We talked about it a lot. I don’t think what we did was inspired by it, but we definitely went, “Yeah, that’s a good point.” Wait, I wanna say one more thing because we were so excited about it.

We used Michael Jackson’s “Ben” in the episode. It was our first use of Michael Jackson, which was really exciting for us.

Yes! Now I realize it was kind of a clue about Olivia’s mom.
Me and my editors were just so excited because it was a song about a rat. A song about a boy who loves a rat! And everybody in the show right now is someone who loves a rat.

Was it hard to clear?
I called Alexandra Patsavas, who is our amazing music supervisor, and said, “We want to use Michael Jackson’s ‘Ben,’ and she’s like, “Give me a minute.” She came back and said, “Not as hard as you think.” Which was great. We’ve had so many different experiences. Stevie Wonder has been incredible to us. Then we approach some people who are like, “Absolutely not.” For me, half the show is about the music we clear and the songs we get to use.

Does it bug you that, according to Nielsen, there are way more women than men watching the show?
I never, ever pay attention to the ratings. I stopped paying attention to the ratings somewhere around season two or three of Grey’s. It’s something I have no control over, so I don’t even pay attention. I think more men should be watching. It’s not a girly show. I don’t know what people think it is. But I also feel like more and more people are picking the show up. That’s what binge-watching is for. That’s a good thing. And I think more women are introducing it to their husbands. A lot of people assume that because I’m the girl who wrote Grey’s Anatomy, it’s going to be a touchy-feely show about touchy-feely things, which is funny because Grey’s is not a touchy-feely show. But in their minds, they think that’s a show about romance and that I can only do one thing.

I’m not sure you even have these discussions with ABC, but do you think there should be an effort to market the show in different ways so that maybe more men do tune in? I watch it with my husband.
I don’t know. I’ll be honest, I don’t even know how the show is marketed. I truly feel like my job is to make the shows. That’s what I’m paid to do. It’s somebody else’s job to market them, and it’s somebody else’s job to pay attention to the ratings, because if I paid attention to all that my head would explode.

It was recently announced that you’re writing a book. And also a screenplay. That’s in addition to Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy, overseeing other Shondaland projects in development. Is the plan to stay as hands-on as you’ve been with Scandal?
I do have a book and a screenplay and shows and three kids. I have no desire to be less involved with Scandal at all. We’re having so much fun and it really is like this amazing theater company of actors who happen to be making a television show. Every episode feels like a little movie. They throw themselves into it and are so enthusiastic, and we’re having a blast together. Also, I have so much more to say about this world! I’d like to see it through to the end.

You’ve been asked about doing a spinoff before, and at the time you said no. Have you changed your mind? Do you think there’s franchise potential here in the same way there was for Grey’s?
I’ve openly thought about — I say openly because I’ve told people at the network about it — doing a spinoff that was just B6-13. I feel like that’s a really interesting world. We don’t know a ton about it yet, but it’s very dark and there’s much to do. But, I’m too busy writing Scandal right now to think about it.

Someone who we still don’t know a ton about is Harrison. Has that slow rollout been deliberate? I was on set while they were shooting additional scenes about Adnan Salif to insert into episode six. What made you want to start there?
We knew we were introducing the Adnan story, we had a whole plan for it, and we had a plan for when we were going to start to introduce it. Then we filmed episode six. Our production schedule is really difficult because in order to cram in all those story lines and move as fast as we do, we have to shoot a lot of scenes — 306 was one of our scripts that had the least amount of scenes. We were all like, “This was so easy!” and then I watched the episode and went, “… and also slow and boring.” The pace was off. So I was like, let’s take the Adnan story and put it in. It will make everything tighter and faster. We just moved it up.

So it was going to take even a little while longer to get there.
Yeah, but we have a plan! I have a long-term plan. I know where the show is gonna end. We know where we’re going. In order to do that, we need to release things at a certain time. If we were laying out everyone’s backstory immediately … like, the one thing I loved about the start of the show was that you knew nothing about anybody. That was purposeful. I remember we got a lot of flak when we aired the pilot. “We know nothing about anybody!” That was so important to us. In episode four, we told you, like, three lines about each person. We’ve been laying out people one by one, and that’s how it’s gonna work.

The election story is really ramping up. First, Lisa Kurdrow’s Josie Marcus was a possible threat to Fitz’s presidency. Now we have Sally — or maybe we had Sally given the final moments of last night’s episode. She’s gone and killed her husband.
Yes, she has.

I consider Sally a main character. How do you make a decision like that for her? Fitz didn’t kill a relative. Cyrus almost did, but changed his mind. Of course, it could all be swept under the rug … somehow … probably.
You’ll have to tune in and see how we handle it.

Is the election meant to run the whole season, or even longer?
There’s definitely more election as we go this season. And as you know with Scandal, what happens at the end of one episode sometimes becomes almost irrelevant by the end of act one of the next episode. Not that I think that’s what’s going to happen with the murder, but yeah, we change course a lot. I’ll say the election story is gonna be a very big one going forward.

What, if anything, do you want to say about next week’s mid-season finale?
It’s pretty shocking, but it’s also going to change the game in the way all of our characters operate. We make some big, big moves so when we leave you at the hiatus, you’re a little bit stunned. I hope.

I have to ask about jam. Is jam an obsession of yours? Where did all this talk of jam come from?
[Laughs.] A long time ago, whenever I was lying on my floor writing a script that I didn’t want to write because I was exhausted or overworked or tired, I would always say “I’m going to run away to Vermont and I’m going to make jam. That’s my dream.” Not that I actually want to make jam in any way, shape or form, not that I’m the least bit domestic, not that I’m even a very good cook. But the idea of running away and having orchards and making jam from the fruit, it just sounded fantastic. It sounded like one of those dreams that could never possibly come true, and I love that Fitz and Liv have this Vermont jam dream. I think that Liv has no idea how jam is made. She’s never used her oven. The only fruit she knows about is the wine that she drinks. So, to her, jam is this very magical fairy-tale-like idea, that she could be a person who makes jam, which is ridiculous.

At the very least, I’m thinking she’d redecorate the jam-making lodge Fitz bought her.
Oh yes, absolutely. She’d probably call her team of misfits to make the jam, too.

Shonda Rhimes Talks Season 3 of Scandal