How “Scandal” Turned Into An Exploration Of Free Will

Season 3 of Shonda Rhimes’ addictive ABC drama offers not only a pulse-pounding thrill ride each week, but also a canny exploration of self-determination. Spoilers ahead, if you’re not caught up.

Chris Ritter for BuzzFeed

Scandal’s seven-episode first season, which aired in early 2012, gave very little indication of just where this riveting drama would go by its third and current season. At first glance, it appeared to be a legal drama centering on Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) and her team of misfit lawyers, a group of very damaged people lured into the arena by Olivia’s gritty strength and forged into self-made gladiators. Their elite crisis management firm operated in Washington, meaning that the show’s title came into play fairly quickly via a slew of high-profile cases.

Olivia had ties to the fictional Grant administration, and in particular to the POTUS, Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn), for whom Olivia had worked and with whom she’s been having an extra-marital affair. Oval Office intrigue, horrific murders, and tales of jaw-dropping corruption soon followed as Scandal quickly became the sort of show that in years prior would have been referred to as a “watercooler drama,” a series that exerts a gravitational pull on the viewer so strong that they need to dissect every moment with their co-workers the following day. But thanks to the prevalence of social media in 2013, the Shonda Rhimes-created Scandal became that show for a new generation of obsessive viewers who took to Twitter and Facebook instantly to analyze the latest twist in television’s most serpentine drama.

Season 3 of Scandal, which wraps up the first half of its run on Dec. 12, has amped up the stakes in a show that already required Dramamine for those who found the roller-coaster plots moving at too high a velocity. While prying into the marriage between Fitz and his Lady MacBeth-esque first lady Mellie (Bellamy Young), and the complex dynamics between Fitz and Olivia, the show had wisely avoided giving away too much of Olivia’s tragic backstory. She was, after all, a gladiator. Donned in her white hat — sometimes quite literally — she stormed into the ring and took no prisoners. Olivia Pope was a blood-soaked warrior, unafraid of getting her hands dirty. But, ultimately, she was just as damaged as those she saved.

In exploring her complicated backstory, Scandal has once again revealed new facets of Olivia’s character, one that refuses to be pigeonholed in the category of Strong Black Woman. Her father, Eli Pope (Joe Morton), oversees B613, a deadly black ops division of the nation’s intelligence forces whose very ruthlessness has smashed up the psyches of several characters, including Huck (Guillermo Díaz), Jake (Scott Foley), Quinn (Katie Lowes), and even Fitz himself. While on a covert operation for the Navy, the future POTUS was given an order by “Command” to shoot down an American passenger jet carrying 300-plus people aboard, including, it was believed for a while, Olivia’s own mother.

 

Olivia (Kerry Washington) comes face to face with her mother (Khandi Alexander), long believed dead.

B613 has been hiding in plain sight since the pilot episode of Scandal and certainly throughout its Amanda Tanner plot in Season 1; Eli Pope — or “Rowan,” as he’s sometimes known — has seemingly been in cahoots at times with Fitz’s Machiavellian chief of staff, Cyrus Beene (Jeff Perry), who has called on the clandestine group to deal with certain problems. Olivia and Eli are actually two sides of the same coin, dealing with capital-C crises in their own particular fashion. From Eli, Olivia gained not only her love for fine wine — full-bodied reds fill her elegant stemware on a weekly basis — but also the circumstances that made her who she is today: suspicious, distant, and closed-off. She’s an island, populated by the tragedies that defined her: the presumed death of her mother, the realization of just who her father really is, her inability to fulfill the fantasy she shares with Fitz (jam-making and all), and the terrifying notion that everyone she loves will betray her in the end.

Betrayal has been and continues to be at the heart of Scandal; Mellie might as well be the poster child for secrets and lies. But Olivia too has blood on her hands, having colluded with Mellie and several others to win Fitz the election and put him in the White House. Season 2 was largely about subverting the will of the people via this scheme, which centered on the small and aptly named town of Defiance, Ohio, where this cabal rigged the election, a decision that haunted Olivia and several others. And, it also led Fitz to actually kill an ailing Supreme Court justice before Olivia could spill her secrets to David Rosen (Joshua Malina) and thus bring down an administration. Secrets damage, Rhimes reminds us, even years after they’re buried away. They continue to rot from the inside out, destroying all good works. What happened in Defiance — a play so big and yet so defined by something so seemingly insignificant as a single Cytron card — has echoed outwards because of the larger issue that it reveals: that the will of the people is something so easily subverted; that there are forces at play, whether it be Olivia’s secret syndicate or B613, that are operating in the shadows, making decisions that define us. Secrecy, Scandal argues, breeds corruption, and institutions of power that thrive on concealment and suppression are corrupt by nature.

If Season 2 of Scandal was about the will of the people, Season 3 has thus far been about the will of the self — the need to break free from the seen and unseen puppet masters pulling the characters’ strings: Olivia attempts to find her footing after being outed as the president’s mistress and coming face to face with the father she so thoroughly despises; Abby (Darby Stanchfield) escapes her abusive husband and grinds down her despair into sharp knives; Huck attempts to free himself from the psychic damage perpetuated by his captors in B613; Jake is physically shackled and then released by the same cold-blooded overlords who then sink their claws into poor Quinn, previously a pawn in the cover-up from Defiance; and Quinn, who has tried to find her own agency these past two seasons, discovered unexpected meaning in doling out torture and pain. After inadvertently murdering a security guard at the behest of the inscrutable Charlie (George Newbern), Quinn too became owned by the same people that Huck was trying to keep her from becoming.

 

Pandora’s box opened: Huck (Guillermo Díaz), meet Baby Huck (Katie Lowes).

And that can be applied to many of the characters: In fighting monsters, they run the risk of becoming monsters themselves. Olivia fights against becoming her father, only to bend the law with the same ease as Eli. She wears a white hat and fights for the forces of good; he does evil to preserve the Republic, or at least his version of it. (Is this not the perpetual struggle of the adult: an effort to not become your parents, only to realize that you already have in subtle, unchangeable ways?) Mellie is raped by Fitz’s father (Barry Bostwick) and conceives a child…only to sweep it under the rug in service to a higher calling: attaining the White House. (While it sheds light on Mellie’s character, the rape itself isn’t intended to make the character more sympathetic; Mellie refuses to be victimized by it, in fact.)

Those shackles aren’t always in plain view, either. Some are societal: Scandal cannily explores issues of race without resorting to exemplars or tokens, a lesson that other dramas — both broadcast and cable — ought to learn. And recall Eli’s words to Olivia, which have been said again and again to many people of color (and yet, also recall the words said to Fitz by his own overbearing, monstrous father): Be “twice as good as them to get half of what they have.” It’s a bitter pill that Olivia swallowed, yet also a manifesto for self-determination, ironically uttered by a man — code-named “Control” no less — who represents the very antithesis of free will.

 

Eli (Joe Morton) spits out pearls of wisdom at daughter Olivia (Washington).

If Season 3 is about self-determination — and it does seem to be in a big picture sense — then it makes sense to “resurrect” Olivia’s mother, Maya (Khandi Alexander), who has been kept locked away in some dank sub-basement and who — in the season’s most gasp-inducing moment yet — gnaws off her own wrist in order to launch a desperate escape plan. The previous episode (“Vermont is for Lovers, Too”) had Olivia and Maya (who Olivia had believed to be dead for decades) finally coming face to face. Is Maya another victim here? Or is she another monster to be slain?

That remains to be seen, but what is clear is that Rhimes wants to take us down into the dark recesses of these characters, to show us in what white-hot fires they were forged and the root causes of their psychological damage as they strive to regain their free will. With one episode left before the mid-season finale of Scandal on Dec. 12 (it returns on Feb. 27), it is a given that Rhimes and Co. will pull out all of the stops and offer a gut-wrenching cliffhanger to tide us over until next year. Given the narrative stakes that the show has raised thus far (and successfully pulled off), I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Scandal airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on ABC.

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