At first glance, Rhimes's latest series Scandal, which debuted with a short, seven episode season last spring and returned for a full, triumphant second season in the fall, seems cut from the same cloth, a Grey's Anatomy in the beltway, minus the doctor slant. High-powered DC fixer Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) is the person you call when you're in the middle of a PR disaster. Along with her team--smooth-talking lawyer Harrison (Columbus Short), high-strung investigator Abby (Darby Stanchfield), creepy tech guy and leg-breaker Huck (Guillermo Díaz), and new hire Quinn (Katie Lowes)--she massages the truth, spins the message, and keeps dirty little secrets tightly under wraps, employing methods that are just this side of legal--and which sometimes cross that line, to the repeated consternation of her foil in the US Attorney's office, David Rosen (Joshua Malina). The pilot also sets up the show's requisite central couple. Before she went into business on her own, we learn, Olivia worked on the campaign, and later in the White House, of the current president, Fitzgerald "Fitz" Grant III (Tony Goldwyn), with whom she had an affair. She left in order to put a stop to the affair, but when the two are reunited in the pilot--after Olivia is called in to quash rumors that Fitz has been sleeping with a White House aide--it's clear that the spark is still very much there. As Olivia investigates the aide story over the course of the first season, she and Fitz move back and forth from recrimination to yearning, from "no, we mustn't!" to "yes, we can," in the process running afoul of Fitz's ambitious wife Mellie (Bellamy Young), and his dirty-dealing chief of staff, Cyrus Beene (Jeff Perry).
The familiar Rhimes tics are all here. The characters are all the very, very best at what they do and prone to announcing this at the drop of a hat, the emotions are always turned up to 11, epic speeches are delivered with clockwork regularity, and supposedly professional adults behave like high school students in thrall to their raging hormones. If we've grown accustomed to doctors and lawyers who behave like soap opera characters, however, there's something quite jarring about porting these tropes to the corridors of power, which can make the Scandal pilot rather hard to swallow. Not that a president would never take a mistress, or that TV isn't prone to taking even the most interesting settings and telling stories in them that revolve largely around who's sleeping with whom. But what Rhimes has done with Scandal is something much more audacious--she's turned the White House into the setting of a romance novel, and the president into its hero (which is to say, its object). Like all romance heroes, Fitz is focused, one hundred percent, on his heroine. He's the sort of character who says things like:
You own me! You control me. I belong to you. You think I don't want to be a better man? You think that I don't want to dedicate myself to my marriage? You don't think I want to be honorable, to be the man that you voted for? I love you. I'm in love with you. You're the love of my life. My every feeling is controlled by look on your face. I can't breathe without you. I can't sleep without you. I wait for you. I watch for you. I exist for you. If I could escape all of this, and run away with you...That's some serious, Edward Rochester-level shit there, and it is more than a little ridiculous to put it in the mouth of a character who is allegedly the most powerful man in the world. But Scandal leans into that ridiculousness, doubles down on it when it situates all power in its political system within the bond of marriage. When Olivia joins Fitz's campaign, her first piece of advice is that he and Mellie seem like a cold couple, and that making their marriage seem viable on screen is crucial to his success. "[Voters] put George W. in office because he and Laura seemed like a fun couple to have a beer with," she says, in brazen defiance of the fact that no one in the entire history of her political career has ever thought such a thing about Laura Bush. In reality, what American voters mainly seem to want from their first couples is that they not be the Clintons--that his philandering, and her ambitions, stay on the down low. It was only once the Obamas reignited the myth of Camelot that presidential marriages became a story again, and Scandal takes that newfound preoccupation and spins it into a political system in which it is the only thing that matters. Fitz can get things done, as a candidate and later as a president, because he and Mellie seem like a strong couple. When their bond weakens, so does his power.
The result is a political system that more closely resembles a royal family than a democracy. Though the show offers comparisons like Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings (in one of the few overt acknowledgments of a fact that the characters are clearly always cognizant of, that Olivia is black while Fitz and Mellie are white), its central triangle is actually more reminiscent of Diana, Charles, and Camilla. The second season even features a presidential pregnancy plot, whose handling feels eerily prescient of the media circus that surrounded the royal baby this summer--the baby is even dubbed "America's Baby" by the voracious media. At least, that is, until you realize that in the world of Scandal, the political elite, just like the British royal family, are merely another variety of celebrities, engaged in what is essentially a lifelong reality show. When Mellie hears Olivia's critique of her and Fitz's marriage during the campaign, she stages a "spontaneous" breakdown during a campaign event with Fitz, tearfully telling a crowd of listeners that the reason she's been so distant is that the stress of the campaign caused her to miscarry a pregnancy (a miscarriage that, of course, never happened). In the real world, no one would believe that such an outburst had really been unrehearsed, and Mellie would be seen as calculating and manipulative. But in the world of Scandal, the voters are romance readers. If they believe the performance--if it makes them go "awww" and hope that those crazy kids can make it work--then you'll get their vote.
As different and unusual a choice as this is, what it ultimately comes down to is that Scandal puts all its eggs in the romance genre basket, and if that's not the sort of story that appeals to you--for the most part, it doesn't appeal to me--then the show's first season will quickly rub you the wrong way. "What kind of a coward was I, to marry her and not wait for you to show up?" Fitz asks Olivia shortly after they meet. That's a very romance novel thing to say, but to me it just makes Fitz seem either unreal or unappealing. No matter how utilitarian or unloving, a marriage is still a marriage--a shared life, full of intimate moments and secrets. A man who can just wish away twenty years of successful, albeit cold, marriage doesn't come off as terribly sympathetic in my book (certainly not when you consider that said marriage has also given him two children; but then, Scandal tends to ignore the older Grant children, who have never even been seen). But the show clearly intends for me to take this line as deeply romantic (and, to its credit, works hard on both the acting and production levels to sell that viewpoint), and to engage deeply with the Olivia/Fitz romance. If you're not rooting for them to somehow find a way to be together despite their impossible situation, the first season doesn't leave much space for you.
Which is why Scandal's second season comes as such a shock. It is essentially Rhimes piling high the tropes and conventions that have made her super-successful, dousing them with gasoline, and lighting a match. The hints planted in the first season about the real reason Olivia left the White House and the dirty secrets that lie in her own past come to fruition when it's revealed that she was part of a conspiracy to steal the election for Fitz, which was followed by a cover-up in which several people died. As David Rosen and members of Olivia's own team investigate this cover-up from different directions, and as Olivia and Cyrus Beene, who was also part of the conspiracy, race to conceal evidence of their wrongdoing, Rhimes methodically dismantles the assumptions that lie at the core of all of her work--assumptions about love, about her characters, and about who we're expected to root for. Rhimes shows are characterized, as I've said, by outsized emotions and big speeches that extoll the characters' virtues. Scandal is the show that takes those big feelings and bigger words and asks: what if those emotions are twisted and unhealthy? What if those big words are nothing but spin? What if the characters who we've been told are heroes are just selfish, clueless cowards?
"That man was born to be a leader. He was born to do this. Anything else would diminish him and deprive this country." Cyrus tells Olivia. "Some men aren't meant to be happy; they're meant to be great." But if there's greatness in Fitz, the show is slow to let us see it. He is, after all, a man who ascends to the highest office in the land and then immediately turns around and complains that it prevents him from being with his girlfriend. And while marriage, and love, are the source of power in Scandal, that love is more often corrupting than it is nurturing. Fitz and Olivia's love brings out the worst in them. It undermines Olivia's judgment, her frequently referenced "gut" which unerringly points her towards the right choice, and causes her to betray herself and her principles when she agrees to steal the election in order to give Fitz what he wants. It turns Fitz into a whiny brat, who crawls into a bottle when he and Olivia are on the outs--as it turns out, depriving him of happiness is not the way to bring out his greatness. This is love as an addiction, one that reveals its sufferers' weakness and ugliness; even when they're together, Olivia and Fitz are toxic as often as they are loving--Fitz, for example, has a nasty tendency to treat the word "no" as an invitation. Cyrus, meanwhile, deeply loves, and is loved by, his journalist husband James (Dan Bucatinsky), but their marriage is rife with lies and manipulations, as the two of them hold James's investigation into the vote-fixing conspiracy, and Cyrus's promise of an adopted baby, over each other's heads. The only relationship that seems healthy and honest, between David Rosen and Abby, is also the one that is most easily destroyed, when Olivia, deciding that Abby represents a security leak, plays on her friend's history of spousal abuse to sow doubts in her mind about David.
That act of manipulation is one of several that cast a pall on the alleged bond between Olivia and her people. Among TV writers, Rhimes is far from alone in elevating the team--that found family of people from different and often difficult backgrounds who come together for a common cause--above all other bonds, and in extolling the values of loyalty and friendship that bind it together. But as the show's second season draws on, it increasingly seems to suggest not only that that loyalty might be misplaced--as in the case of Olivia breaking up David and Abby for her own purposes--but that what the characters think of as loyalty is actually dysfunction and codependency, that Olivia's team are loyal to her not because they've freely chosen to be, but because they desperately need her to define them and give their lives meaning. The more we learn about the team, the more obviously damaged they seem--Abby's brittle strength conceals a self-loathing bred by years of abuse, Huck is a psychopath with a proclivity for torture and murder who hangs all hope of his salvation on Olivia, Quinn is one of the victims of the vote-fixing scheme who has nothing left in her life but the guilty generosity of the woman who destroyed it, and Harrison, who crows about being a "gladiator in a suit," is driven by the near-crippling fear that, in reality, he's just as powerless as everyone else. Though the characters all view Olivia as their savior, as the season progresses the show increasingly seems to suggest that far from saving them, Olivia has, however unwittingly, trapped them in bonds of obligation and dependence--as when Abby, despite learning about Olivia's manipulation of her, steals evidence from David because she knows that it could hurt Olivia.
None of this, of course, would work if Scandal were not impeccably well-made and a hell of a lot of fun to watch. The plot, which rollicks along like the better seasons of 24 (and is often just as absurd), is compelling and beautifully constructed. The show is stylishly shot and edited, its frequent use of still photographs and split-screens amplifying the tension of its storytelling without ever becoming hectic or confusing. Though the character work occasionally leaves something to be desired--Quinn, for example, feels more like a plot point than a person; the decision, in the second half of the second season, to make her Huck's enthusiastic wetworks trainee feels like a last-ditch effort to make her interesting, rather than something organic to the character--where it truly matters, Scandal gets the job done. In particular, the show wouldn't work if Washington and Goldwyn didn't have terrific chemistry, not just as lovers but as partners. Goldwyn can sell overheated speeches like the one above, as well as the less savory aspects of Fitz's obsession with Olivia. But the reason that Scandal's handling of their relationship is so deliciously ambiguous is that for every overwrought, dysfunctional scene between them, there's another, quieter exchange in which Fitz and Olivia come off like an old married couple and a great partnership, in which it is easy to imagine what a great First Lady Olivia would make for Fitz.
But if it was perhaps to be expected that Scandal would put the effort into making its central couple appealing to the audience, putting a similar effort into the show's two most marginal, antagonistic characters was less predictable, and ends up paying great dividends. As David Rosen, Malina plugs into his Sorkin-honed schlubbiness, squawking "I am the law!" at Olivia's casual flouting of it and him, and growing increasingly frustrated as she runs circles around him and his investigation of her. Another show might have made David into a caricature, but Scandal instead reveals more and more of his dignity even as Olivia chips away at his professional standing, using him to suggest that Olivia and her team's obsession with the appearance of strength misses out on the reality of it. When a seemingly defeated David uses his facade of weakness to outsmart Olivia at the end of the second season, it's both a triumphant moment and a worrying one, signifying that he may have learned too much from his former enemy. Even more interesting is Mellie, who is both the castrating, harpy wife that her story casts her as, and so much more than that. If every other character on the show is spun around by love, Mellie is immune to it. What she wants--what she had with Fitz before Olivia turned up--is a partnership, two people striving towards a common goal, in this case power, and she is genuinely puzzled and distraught by the way that love seems to destroy Fitz and Olivia. In her own way, Mellie is the most honest character on the show (for a value of "honest" that takes into account the fact that she habitually lies to three hundred million people when she assumes her doting, devoted First Lady persona), the only one willing to say what she feels and what she wants, who is then frustrated because the more romantic characters on the show dismiss her words as cold and calculating.
Despite all this, what's most intriguing about Scandal's undermining of its own tropes is that I'm still not entirely convinced that it's intentional. The show plays its tropes with such a straight face that, though it seems impossible that we're not intended to see how toxic they are, there's rarely anything in the show that confirms this interpretation. The cues that tell us to root for Olivia and Fitz's reunion, for example--the music, the lighting, the dialogue, and of course the actors themselves--are never allowed to let up, even when the things that Olivia and Fitz do to themselves and each other cross the line into abuse. And when Harrison tries to convince Abby not to leave after she finds out about his and Olivia's interference in her relationship with David, he delivers a classic Rhimes speech:
She had a reason! I don't know what it is. I don't need to know. She asked me to do something; I did it. You know why I did. There's a problem, you fix it. You and David Rosen were a problem. You know who we are, you know what this is, and don't pretend you don't. We do what needs to be done and we don't question why. You put the personal to the left. It doesn't matter who gets hurt. It doesn't matter what gets broken. If it's not the thing that needs fixing, it does. Not. Matter. You want to cry about your feelings, huh? Really? Here? You don't get to have feelings. That's the job. Gladiators don't have feelings. We rush into battle. We're soldiers. We get hurt in a fight, we suck it up and we hold it down. We don't question.It seems impossible that we're meant to watch this scene and not think that Harrison is either a blowhard or seriously messed up. His speech encapsulates how much of Olivia and her team's shtick is empty posturing. Throughout the series, they swoop onto the site of the latest PR disaster, barking orders, frantically placing calls, and assuring everyone around (including, it often seems, themselves) that they're the only ones who can save the day. Harrison's speech throws a light on how much of that behavior is simply self-aggrandizement--to which end he's willing to valorize even blind loyalty to people who manipulate and lie to you (or who ask you to hurt your friends). But the delivery, and Abby's reaction, are completely straight-faced, and in line with a million other speeches in other Rhimes shows (and in other shows in general) which do seriously extoll these virtues. It still seems possible to me that Scandal wants me to root for Olivia and Fitz to get together, for her team to remain loyal to her, for more and more characters to recognize Olivia's awesomeness and give in to it, even though the show as it is written has in fact convinced me of the opposite. (In reality, I find Olivia sympathetic enough that I don't want bad things to happen to her, and I want her and Fitz to be together because clearly they're not fit for anyone else's company. But I also want them to go off where they can't bother or hurt anyone and leave Mellie to be president, and for Abby, Huck, Quinn, and Harrison to disentangle themselves from their boss and find healthier, more rewarding relationships.) When Cyrus, in the second season finale, lambastes Olivia for her determination to have a future with Fitz (which at that point extends to ignoring credible threats to her life), and insists that "Life is not a romance novel," it's not at all clear to me whether he's delivering the show's mission statement, or protesting too much.
And then there is the simple fact that, even if she is engaged in a wonderfully subversive act of trolling her audience, Rhimes may not be able to keep it, or the show's quality, up for much longer. Already at the end of the second season there are signs of material fatigue--the overarching plot of the season's second half is weaker and less purposeful than the first, and the constant back and forth between Fitz and Olivia as they veer from vowing to stay together no matter what to breaking up forever has already started to become tedious. Grey's Anatomy is famous for having two generally beloved seasons and then collapsing into a still-satisfying but increasingly ridiculous mess, and Scandal, which already rates pretty high on the ridiculousness scale, is obviously in danger of falling into that trap. So it's possible that I'm recommending Scandal just as it's about to go sour, and that in a few months I'll go back to admiring Shonda Rhimes but not liking anything she does. For the moment, however, Scandal is one of the most intriguing shows on TV. It's certainly one of the most fun.