Most fans of Shonda Rhimes' Scandal will tell you that the illicit relationship between fixer Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) and President of the United States Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn) is one of the sexiest, most thrilling, and captivating pairings on television.
But fans of Mellie Grant, the president's better half on Scandal, might have a slightly different perspective: Olivia and Fitz, in their brazen displays of adultery, show a selfish disregard for everyone around them — particularly Mellie, who has, by necessity, tolerated her husband's infidelity for years. As played by Bellamy Young, Mellie is a scene-stealing force of nature whose Stepford wife smiles mask political ambition that dwarfs everything else in her life, including her capacity for personal happiness.
"With the pilot, [Rhimes] started in a pinhole, super extreme close-up of just Kerry and Tony, and they were in love, and their love was so perfect, and they're so clearly meant for each other, and my god, you're pulling for them," says Young, flashing a broad, sincere smile. "And then she slowly pulled back, and she gave you, Oh god, it's adultery. Oh, god, it's on the world stage. She just kept pulling back like it was a camera shot, and it's genius, because it makes you question your emotional allegiance. Like, Oh, I'm pulling for what?"
When investigating a character as complicated as Mellie, you become very aware of perspective.
Warm and overwhelmingly gracious, Young is very little like the character she portrays as she sits at a relatively empty Beachwood Canyon restaurant, not far from the fabled Hollywood sign. Her mannerisms are similarly inviting — she could easily take the stage at a press conference — but there's an authenticity to Young that Mellie could never quite manage. She goes out of her way to thank everyone at the establishment.
It's a tribute to Young's acting skills that she's so convincing in her role: While Mellie's Southern gentility comes naturally to the North Carolina native, Mellie's impressive wrath is not seemingly in Young's nature. And yet, over the course of the three years she's portrayed the first lady on Scandal, Young has retained affection for a woman with complex and ever-shifting morals. Like all of the characters on Scandal, Mellie crosses the line time and time again in the service of her greater good.
Mellie's brilliant behind-the-scenes manipulation is a highlight of the series. Her bad behavior is in line with that of everyone else in the White House, and more often than not she's motivated by a genuine desire to help Fitz succeed. But not everyone finds Mellie so defensible. In particular, those devoted to the Olivia-Fitz relationship — known online as "Olitz" — are less forgiving.
"People are super protective of Olitz," Young concedes. She's careful not to speak ill of the Olivia-Fitz 'shippers, who make up a huge section of Scandal's fan base.
For her part, Young approaches Mellie with an open mind. No one on Scandal is blameless: The key is playing the truth of the character in the moment, without worrying about the "right" or "wrong" of it.
"I don't judge her at all. I don't judge her a bit. I love her to death," Young says. "I wouldn't know any other way to do it, because if you're putting your judgment on the character, you're precluding other people's experiences. As actors, ours is the job to — certainly to interpret, but to inhabit so that others can feel the emotional impact of the narrative."
That seems to be the way Shonda Rhimes would prefer it. Scandal, even more so than her other series Grey's Anatomy, is deliberately challenging for viewers. Along with her writing staff, Rhimes puts her morally compromised characters in murky, high-stakes situations that test their limits. Viewers feel sympathy for Huck (Guillermo Díaz), despite the fact that he's addicted to torture. They root for Cyrus (Jeff Perry) and James' (Dan Bucatinsky) marriage, even after Cyrus nearly had James murdered.
But when those morally ambiguous characters are female, that complicates matters. While audiences have embraced the antihero in recent years — Breaking Bad's Walter White and Dexter's titular serial killer, to cite two prominent examples — flawed women remain, for some, a tougher pill to swallow. The vitriol these female characters can inspire led Anna Gunn, who played Walt's wife Skyler on Breaking Bad, to write an op-ed in the New York Times, in which she wrote:
I finally realized that most people's hatred of Skyler had little to do with me and a lot to do with their own perception of women and wives. Because Skyler didn't conform to a comfortable ideal of the archetypical female, she had become a kind of Rorschach test for society, a measure of our attitudes toward gender.
The piece summed up what many who read online TV criticism have felt for years — that female characters are held to different standards than male characters, and judged far more harshly for their transgressions.
"Actually, Shonda sent it to me," Young recalls, when asked about Gunn's op-ed. "It was beautiful, thoughtful, and brave, and strong. I so esteem [Gunn] for that."
When it comes to her own experience playing a thorny female character, Young hasn't faced quite as violent a response — Mellie is more a character that viewers love to hate than one that viewers hate. But she has encountered enough backlash from the Scandal fandom to understand the double standard Gunn condemns. ("I don't think Jeff [Perry, who plays Cyrus] gets a lot of, 'You're a demon,'" Young says.) And as far as she is concerned, challenging the standard is all part of Rhimes' master plan.
"Shonda pushes that envelope in terms of normalizing not just a gender narrative but also an ethnicity narrative," Young reflects. "We just haven't had a history of watching complicated women, except in our own lives. Everybody knows that we're all just human beings, and we have drives and wants and we have flaws, and we mess up, and we try again, and we mess up again, and it's super fun to watch that in a drama. The flaws are the juicy bits. But it's stretching people's comfort."
One of Rhimes' most effective tactics for subverting her audience's perception of characters is the inclusion of flashbacks that provide much-needed context. "Everything's Coming Up Mellie," the seventh episode of the show's current third season, showed viewers an entirely new side of the first lady before she was the first lady: passionate, pleasant, and vulnerable.
"You meet characters in the moment in time they're in," Young says, "and you judge them by the moment. But they give us these whole lives, and we see all these different crossroads, and we made these decisions. We Bonsai-ed ourselves into these little trees. And it just gives me loads of compassion for all of these characters."
"Everything's Coming Up Mellie" was the first time we saw Mellie and Fitz as a truly happy couple instead of two miserable people smiling broadly for the cameras. In the past, as in the present, she was an important motivator for Fitz's political career — but she was the supportive spouse in the flashback, her drive portrayed as a positive trait rather than one of her flaws.
In the episode's most talked-about moment, Mellie's father-in-law Big Jer (Barry Bostwick) raped her while Fitz slept upstairs. Rather than tell her husband, Mellie shut down completely.
"I think it was incredibly deftly handled in terms of Mellie, who is very much a survivor in the narrative," Young says. "She made a very calculated choice to dial part of herself completely to zero, and dial the other part of herself up to 10. While that's not healthy — nothing that is an extreme is healthy — it's strong in some ways."
The scene, which Young notes was taxing to film, was essential. First, because it reflects an uncomfortable reality — "You know what? Rape happens a lot more than you see it on TV," Young says — and second, because it changes the audience's perception of the character. It's not about likability, as Vulture's Margaret Lyons wrote. Instead, it offers the context that fleshes out Rhimes' increasingly complex characters.
"To know how crippled she is in so many arenas is important information," Young continues. "It's almost a cautionary tale, right? Because when you repress a part of yourself completely, you can't be a full human being. The negative space, that's an important part of the story. You talk about, 'The rape happened, and how is she dealing with it?' But the part where you can see how damaging it was is also super important."
Whether Mellie can ever tear down the ramparts she's put up remains to be seen. Though Young is hopeful, she acknowledges all the work her character has in front of her. In the world of Scandal, vulnerability is weakness, and Mellie's closed-off exterior has worked as a powerful defense. But with the introduction of Fitz's new running mate Andrew Nichols (Jon Tenney) in the Feb. 27 episode "Ride, Sally, Ride," Mellie has a new, more compelling reason to let her guard down.
Before making his first televised appearance alongside the president, Nichols offered Mellie a flirtatious nod to past romance.
"[Andrew] has shined a light on Mellie," Young says. "She's been living without kindness in her days. She really has. Even that one sentence from him at the end of [the episode], I think, has melted her in some ways that surprise her most of all."
The challenge now for Mellie is deciding if she can afford to let someone else in. And if she does, how to reconcile that with the essentially impenetrable aspects of her personality. Mellie's coldness, adopted out of necessity, has served her political ambitions well, but that doesn't leave much room for warmth.
"It can be utterly untethering to find softness in your heart where there's only been a cold little Grinch lump," Young explains. "Can she let someone be kind to her even? Can she balance all of that?"
Whatever she decides, the softer side of Mellie won't replace the darker, more byzantine aspects of the character. This is Scandal, after all, and while Olivia and Fitz may occasionally content themselves with fantasies of jam-making in Vermont, the intricate and fast-paced world of the series doesn't allow for much peace and quiet. Happy endings are few and far between — and almost always short-lived.
And that's for the best. These characters thrive not in spite of their flaws, but because of them. With their edges smoothed out, they might be happier, but they wouldn't be nearly as interesting. So while Mellie may uncover long-buried parts of herself with the return of an old flame or the arrival of her children later this season, she will never lose the sharpness and ruthless drive that have made her such a fascinating foil for her husband and his mistress.
On the surface, the rivalry between Olivia and Mellie may appear to be two women fighting over the same man, but in fact, it's a steely battle of wits. As Young points out, Olivia and Mellie are not dissimilar: They're both strong, assertive women willing to make difficult choices and sacrifice their own desires for the greater good. When Mellie calls Olivia a "whore," an interesting word choice for someone who fully understands the subjugation of women within the patriarchy, it's a reflection not of simple jealousy, but of Mellie's wicked intelligence.
"Mellie is always aware. She's very careful with her words," Young says. "Even when she's making an enormous blunder, she's making it grandly and she's making it with precision. She's surgical. So I think her use of 'whore' once, much less her repeated use of it, is a very well-sharpened spear, aimed straight at Olivia's heart, and to shame her. Because it's such a word of shame, and you could never use it on a man."
It's all about perspective, remember. While it may be tempting to dismiss Mellie as spiteful and cruel — certainly how Olivia and Fitz see her — that's a limited viewpoint. From another angle, Mellie's icy demeanor masks the pain she's repressed. Her verbal barbs are calculated attacks. And her steady development, which some might read as a simple softening, is instead the result of an ongoing internal struggle to find the balance between necessity and desire.
Mellie is not the "scorned woman" or the "bitch wife" she's sometimes reduced to. Her multifaceted, occasionally ugly interior may repel some viewers, but that's what gives her agency past her pleasant veneer and her role as Mrs. Fitzgerald Grant.
"It's so easy to disregard or underestimate Mellie," Young says. "She can be so hyperbolic. She has big hair. But she is a smart, smart woman. She is often the smartest woman in the room."