Every Season of Scandal, Ranked

“Happy Birthday, Mr. President,” the best episode of the best season of Scandal. Photo: Randy Holmes/ABC via Getty Images

With ABC’s Scandal coming to an end, the hardest part of saying good-bye to Olivia Pope and her merry band of fixers is remembering what the hell happened in the famously twisty political thriller. With the series finale set to debut tonight, there’s no better time to revisit Scandal’s seven seasons and to recall why the show became so beloved in the first place, and why it eventually became so frustrating.

Without further ado, the definitive ranking of Scandal seasons, from worst to best:

Season 4

If you ever put Scandal on probation, the fourth season is probably when you first got the urge. Season four was the closest the show ever came to a clean reboot, following a cliff-hanger that saw Olivia fleeing to a remote tropical island with Jake to leave her life of D.C. treachery behind for good. Perhaps that’s why this batch of 22 episodes initially feels so fresh and promising following the back half of season three, which leaned too heavily on the wild-card presence of Olivia’s unhinged mother. The premiere follows a lengthy time jump during which Olivia was missing in action, so when she returns to D.C., all her relationships have shifted. In the most promising development, Abby has assumed the role of Fitz’s press secretary, putting her fully at odds with Olivia for the first time.

But it’s all downhill from there, as the season leans hard into the suffocating mythology of B613 and a ludicrous insurrection within Fitz’s administration. The first half of the season, which sets up the coup by Fitz’s treasonous vice-president, devolves into nonsense. The back half is dominated by Olivia’s kidnapping and its emotional aftermath, a potentially interesting story that gets crowded out by the full-force return of Rowan Pope as Scandal’s Über-villain. Neither half is satisfying on its own, and they make for a baffling whole, culminating in the show’s worst-ever season finale. Worse yet, there’s very little Olitz, and for good reason. Their affair is usually the show’s fun, sexy leavening agent. But at this point, Fitz and Mellie’s son has been murdered by Olivia’s father, while Mellie has disclosed having been raped by her father-in-law. Those are pretty potent mood killers.

Big Bad: Vice-President Andrew Lincoln, who seduces Mellie, romances Elizabeth North, and wrests control of the Oval Office in one fell swoop.
Season MVP: Mellie, whose maternal grief fueled a terrific arc.
Best Episode: “Run,” the bottle episode about Olivia’s post-abduction captivity, which is ironically among the show’s best episodes ever.

Season 6

What ultimately doomed Scandal is the Constitution, which is pretty adamant about limiting U.S. presidents to a pair of four-year terms. Scandal was never about the presidency, it was about a particular president and his tumultuous romance with his chief political strategist. So there was always a question of what would become of the show once the Fitzgerald Grant administration came to an end. Season six shows that the writers were just as anxious about the post-Fitz phase as anyone else. After a cliff-hanger pitted Olivia and Mellie against Cyrus and Frankie Vargas for control of the White House, the next batch of episodes takes its sweet time deciding whom the Oval Office should go to. In fact, the first few episodes barely move past Election Night and the immediate aftermath, but all the time shifting and perspective switching lends Scandal the same off-kilter energy of How to Get Away With Murder at its best.

Once the season gets into full swing, it becomes clear why the writers hung on for dear life to the drama surrounding the transfer of power. Frankie Vargas’s post-victory assassination makes the Oval Office a loose ball, but once Mellie manages to secure control of it, the wind is sucked out of the season. That conflict is supplanted by yet another grand conspiracy to take over the White House, this time executed by a pair of mysterious mustache-twirlers named Peus and Ruland. By the end of the season, the villains have gone full-blown Boris and Natasha, parking explosive drones over major American cities without so much as articulating a reasonable motive. Factor in the return of Liv’s inscrutable, crazy mama and season six adds up to less than the sum of its parts.

Big Bad: Luna Vargas, who went to a whole lot of trouble to land the vice-president role after the assassination of her husband.
Season MVP: Cyrus, who becomes mysterious again as we’re forced to guess whether he’s the pawn in the latest conspiracy or the chess master.
Best Episode: “Hardball,” which splits time between the assassination investigation and the unlikely romance between Mellie and Marcus.

Season 7

Scandal is always a grab bag, but never more so than in the final season, which easily represents the smallest incremental leap from one season to the next. The prior season concluded with Olivia assuming control of B613, essentially becoming a power-hungry monster so she would never again find herself at the whim of one. And while “Dark Side Olivia” is an amazing idea in theory, the show waited until the final season to try it, leaving only a limited opportunity to explore the Olivia-as-Command dynamic before figuring out how to redeem Olivia in time for the series finale. Meanwhile, her former firm — now with Quinn at the helm — is less consequential than ever and has to be shoehorned into the plot, along with a lion-in-winter Fitz.

On the other hand, Kerry Washington makes the most of her limited opportunity to play Olivia as a black hat, and the rest of the cast also rises to the occasion for a season buoyed by its try-anything-once playfulness. Season seven delights in the kind of unexpected character pairings a show can’t resist when there are only a few hours left until the conclusion. Jake as Mellie’s chief of staff? Go for it! Rowan and Quinn basically co-parenting a baby together? Sure, why not? There’s even the rousing crossover event that introduced Olivia to HTGAWM’s Annalise Keating, a cheap stunt that worked much better than it had any right to.

Big Bads: Cyrus and Jake, who abruptly step over to the bad side with a ludicrous (but, naturally, effective) plot involving a remotely hijacked plane.
Season MVP: Olivia, probably the only character still revealing new emotions and facets.
Best Episode: “Allow Me to Introduce Myself,” the first half of the two-part crossover event.

Season 5

After four years of dithering, season five forced Scandal to consider for the first time what the end of Fitz’s presidency would mean for the show. The fourth season, easily the show’s nadir, concluded with Olivia and Fitz being slapped back together, finally free to explore their relationship without the specter of Fitz’s marriage hovering over them. Olivia even moves into the White House full time, but the domestic routine wears her down quickly, and when an unplanned pregnancy forces her to consider what her future with Fitz will look like, she terminates the pregnancy and breaks up with him. The audience came to the same conclusion as the characters: Olitz is an important part of the show, but their relationship can’t possibly work until they’re ready to walk away from the life that fuels the storytelling.

The second part of the season picks up after Olivia turns back toward her career and the election for Fitz’s successor takes focus. Scandal is a political thriller at its core, so the election cycle breathes new life into the story, capitalizing on Mellie’s presidential ambitions and exploring the nuances of her professional relationship with Olivia, her former romantic rival. The season also sees the rise of Vice-President Susan Ross, the unlikely second-in-command who unexpectedly grows into the show’s most charming and principled character.

Big Bad: There wasn’t one in the traditional sense, but Hollis Doyle comes the closest with his nativist political rhetoric during his presidential run.
Season MVP: Abby, who becomes a true rival to Olivia for the first time.
Best Episode: “Dog-Whistle Politics,” in which, for the first time, Olivia is sidelined while her team works to clear her name.

Season 1

Scandal’s trial-size, seven-episode debut season doesn’t fully represent what the show eventually became, leaning heavily on episodic stories back during the early days, when “Wait, the congressman is gay!” was considered a curveball. It’s also the only season where Olivia Pope and her team (which then included Harrison Wright and the even shorter-lived Stephen Finch) are working in total opposition to the White House. Meanwhile, David Rosen, who had yet to become a series regular, solely exists to show up at OPA with a search warrant at the most inopportune moments.

But as a show that thrives on novelty, Scandal was at its best early on, before the weight of its breakneck plotting inevitably caught up with it. The case-of-the-week format lent the show a procedural rhythm that felt comfortable and familiar, like a cop show where the cops are indifferent to justice. That rigid structure kept Scandal on the rails even as it casually introduced insane elements like Huck’s addiction to torture-heavy interrogations. It also lent itself to episodes like “Enemy of the State,” which uses a case of the week to delve into Abby’s past in an abusive relationship. This version of the show is barely recognizable at this point, but season one is a solid appetizer that lays a solid foundation for Olivia’s future, and it delivers one of the show’s greatest finale twists.

Big Bad: Cyrus, Fitz’s chief of staff who hires Charlie to eliminate his intern problem.
Season MVP: Huck, whose obsession with wet work made him the show’s early wild card and most intriguing supporting character.
Best Episode: “The Trail,” which flashes back to the earliest phase of Olivia’s relationship with Fitz and delivers the show’s first killer cliff-hanger.

Season 3

The third season of Scandal looks shabby in hindsight, since it was the first one to dive deep into the shadowy world of B613 and Olivia’s all-powerful father, the elements that turned the show from a great political thriller to a mediocre spy thriller. But as it aired, season three looked like it had finally figured out the perfect combination of romance, treachery, twists, and emotional character moments the show became known for. It also benefits from some amazing additions to the cast, including Lisa Kudrow’s extended arc, as well as expanded roles for Joe Morton and Dan Bucatinsky, who plays Cyrus’s long-suffering (and eventually murdered) husband.

The biggest cast addition is Khandi Alexander as Maya Lewis, Olivia’s mother and a pure agent of chaos. Maya is an electrifying addition, perfectly balancing the maternal affection Olivia craves with the megalomania that makes her so dangerous. The season definitely got too hectic for its own good, between the introduction of Olivia’s mother and a convoluted plot point in which Olivia mistakenly believes her mother is dead, killed by Fitz during a decades-old military operation. But the full-on crazy incarnation of Scandal was never better than in season three, which managed to frame Maya’s decision to chew her own wrists open as a decision made out of a mother’s love for her daughter. No easy feat.

Big Bad: Maya Lewis, who wrist-chews her way to freedom before executing a terrorism plot.
Season MVP: Rowan Pope, who first emerged as the scenery-chewer-in-chief.
Best Episode: “A Door Marked Exit,” which introduced the epic Rowan monologue as a recurring element of the show.

Season 2

The second season is every show’s best opportunity to break through, after the hubbub around an auspicious debut season has piqued the audience’s curiosity. Scandal became a hit because it made the most of its second season, which perfectly marries Fitz and Olivia’s complicated relationship to its best season-long mystery. In that arc, Quinn is framed as a terrorist bomber and OPA has to work to clear her name, a process that reveals Olivia’s original sin: her involvement in a plot to rig the presidential election to ensure Fitz’s victory, unbeknownst to Fitz himself. Subsequent seasons had to find more outlandish ways to drive a wedge between Olivia and Fitz, but season two found the most emotionally intelligent way to put them at odds. Once Fitz knows the truth behind his election, he can’t bear the knowledge that Olivia didn’t believe he could win without cheating.

Meanwhile, Scandal won without cheating, pulling off the insane twist of revealing Huck as the shooter behind the assassination attempt on Fitz, then credibly explaining how Huck found himself behind the gun. Season two also found the best use for Rowan Pope, keeping him on the periphery of the story before revealing him as Olivia’s father in the final moments of the season finale. But Scandal’s greatest storytelling achievement is the Defiance arc, the most moving chapter of the Olitz love story and the deepest exploration of the show’s themes about the corrupting influence of power.

Big Bad: Billy Chambers, who returns from exile and is revealed as the mole who’s been bedeviling the OPA team all season long.
Season MVP: Fitz, who goes from being a shady scoundrel in season one to a credible, if complicated, leading man.
Best Episode: “Happy Birthday, Mr. President,” which boasts a Shonda Rhimes script establishing the origin story of Fitz and Olivia’s doomed romance as the mystery around Fitz’s attempted assassination intensifies.

Scandal: Every Season Ranked