Scandal Was a Show That Broke Ground With Ease

Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope. Photo: Mitch Haaseth/ABC via Getty Images

Shonda Rhimes’s Scandal, which ends its seven-season run Thursday night, is a rare revolutionary TV drama that never became full of itself. It dealt in controversy on the regular, tackling everything from racial politics and sexual power dynamics in a workplace to PTSD, executive privilege, and the efficacy of torture, even letting its heroine have a rare TV abortion that was entirely elective and presented as no huge deal. (Legendary pot-stirring TV producer Norman Lear, who brought abortion to prime time in 1972 on the sitcom Maude, watched the episode and said he was shocked that it was “so matter-of-fact.”) But this material was always woven into a larger fabric of unabashed melodrama, which meant that during all the years when it ran concurrently with Netflix’s House of Cards, there was never any question which series had a more clear-eyed view of what it was doing, and what the audience wanted from it.

Scandal was also a little miracle of genre fusion, somehow managing to be several seemingly incompatible shows at the same time. Rhimes’s Washington potboiler was a political procedural; a workplace drama (centered on the heroine’s damage-control firm and the White House that it frequently helped); a swaggering Washington techno-thriller in the vein of 24 and Homeland (often focusing on the nonexistent, ultrabrutal, super-covert spy agency B613), and a juicy nighttime soap in the vein of DallasDynasty, and other series that were an inescapable part of the fabric of TV in the 1970s and ’80s, when Rhimes was growing up and must have formed her sense of what the medium could be.

This was the sort of series where high-powered PR wizard Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) could carry on a torrid, ongoing affair with the president of the United States, Tony Goldwyn’s Thomas Fitzgerald “Fitz” Grant III, driven mainly by the kind of overwhelming sexual chemistry that brought nations to ruin in ancient tragedies, and ultimately go public with it. It was the sort of show where the tumultuous love life of Fitz’s ultimately deposed chief of staff, and later vice-president to Mellie Grant (Bellamy Young), Cyrus Beene (Jeff Perry), a gay man, could have the sorts of fantastically fraught relationships with men that male-female couples had been having on TV since the medium’s inception, and treat them with specificity, yet also with a refreshing lack of special care (to Olivia, any complications that Cyrus posed were just one problem among many that would need to be dealt with).

It was also the sort of political series where the use of covert operatives and professional torturers to solve foreign-policy problems (and settle personal grievances that had nothing to do with politics) was accepted as a horrendous given, never as a pretext to wring hands and pretend to be shocked that the United States of America would stoop so low when it had been doing that kind of thing since the 1700s. (Guillermo Díaz’s Huck, a B613 operative with a disturbing knack for torture who was discovered homeless on a subway platform by Olivia, was the focal point for many of these stories.) On Scandal, grand jury investigations were quashed for no other reason than to prevent government accountability; secrets were maintained through blackmail and threats of imprisonment, kidnapping, torture, and murder; and the inner workings of government were shown to be driven largely by fear, pride, and personal grievance. It all seemed profoundly cynical, perhaps fashionably so, when Scandal debuted, but it now seems prescient. The show captured the national mood of 2018 in 2012, a neat trick.

Perhaps most significantly, in terms of Rhimes’s biography, it was a series that could put a black woman front and center, then assert the same writing privileges that had been accepted on shows driven by white men for 20 or 30 years: You don’t have to like lead characters as long as you find them interesting. And Olivia, a lawyer and former White House aide turned master of spin, was fascinating.

There was a familiar core aspect — “great at what they do, but emotionally a train wreck” – that is the model for a lot of memorable TV leads, including Andy Sipowicz, Tony Soprano, and Don Draper. But once you got into the fine brushwork, you saw that there was nobody like her on TV, and never had been. That Olivia was a black woman in a white-dominated world was never lost on Scandal, and there were times when the show commented specifically on the issues that someone like her would face (the first season leaned into Liv and Fitz’s affair and acknowledged the vast power differential by sardonically comparing them to Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings). Many more aspects of her biography did her the courtesy of freighting her with neuroses that anyone would have if they’d grown up with a father (Joe Morton’s Rowan Pope), who was the former boss of B613, and a mother (Khandi Alexander’s Maya Lewis), who was wrongly presumed dead in a plane crash, and turned out to be such an agent of chaos that she plotted to kill the president by planting a bomb at a senator’s funeral.

Like House of Cards and HomelandScandal was less a fictionalized real world than a dream world with real-life accents and issues, stirred into stories that were largely driven by the psychology of the main characters. The extreme trauma of Olivia’s high-achieving but emotionally dysfunctional childhood was never far from the series’ mind, and Scandal’s attentiveness to her psychology was one of the only things that allowed the anything-goes plotting to seem even vaguely coherent. Olivia’s hard-charging demeanor and frequently masklike expressions synced up with her tendency to compare herself and her staff to gladiators. She always seemed to be wearing armor and helmet even when she was clad in a $4,000 gown and Gucci pumps, or a fabulous long jacket with Dorothy Gaspar gloves and a Prada purse (her clothes were her armor, really). The arena was Washington and the wider world, and it’s striking to look back on the full run of the series and realize how many of her decisions, political and personal, were driven by angsty binaries: either hurt someone or get hurt.

Rhimes’s great triumph here, ultimately, lies in creating a show that was blatantly an expression of her sensibility, yet populist enough in its storytelling rhythms that it could reach a wide popular audience that loved the show enough to go wherever it led them. A lot of what Scandal did could be boiled down to the conceptually simple yet logistically complex act of making the show you’d been fantasizing about your whole life but had never been able to watch before, because the industry didn’t used to allow for that kind of vision. She kicked open a lot of locked doors — so many that we’ve only begun to count them all. The totality of her achievement, from Grey’s Anatomy to Scandal to How to Get Away With Murder and the Grey’s spinoffs, and whatever she makes to fulfill her Netflix deal, is staggering, and it seems clear now that Olivia Pope’s first entrance marks the moment when Rhimes went from being a formidable showrunner to an institution.

Scandal Was a Show That Broke Ground Like It Was No Big Deal