Shonda Rimes’ new television series arrived at its first season finale last week, after a terrific premiere and seven-week run and the promise of renewal for a second season. Kerry Washington stars in the first series to feature an African American woman in the leading role since 1974, a fact of network history that seems both outrageous and significant. The lie that America is “post-race” has long been put to rest, but that Scandal’s demographics make history in 2012 seems hard to believe.
Washington plays Olivia Pope, a Washington, D.C., crisis manager whose story is based on the real life of Judy Smith. Smith established her reputation working for the D.C. district attorney’s office in the 1990s, when then-mayor Marion Barry was caught using cocaine. Her demonstrated crisis management skills prompted the first Bush White House to hire Smith as a deputy press secretary, and lead to the storied career on which Scandal focuses. When Smith struck out on her own, her firm’s first client to draw national attention was Monica Lewinsky. (Smith is on board as one of the show’s producers.)
As Kerry Washington said in a recent exclusive interview with The Feminist Spectator, the fact that Scandal is based on a real person delights her, because it prevents people from scoffing about the character’s believability. Washington’s performance more than honors her source—Olivia Pope is one of the most compelling women characters I’ve ever seen on television. Subscription TV has given us Nurse Jackie, Weeds, The Big C (on Showtime) and more recently Veep and Girls (both on HBO), all shows that offer leading women characters a broader range of experiences and foibles than most.
But Scandal is one of the first network series to feature a woman—let alone a woman of color—in its central role and to allow the character to be emotionally strong, professionally powerful, and personally complicated. (Those illustrious few include The Good Wife [CBS] and The Killing [AMC] . . . Missing [ABC] didn’t grab me, which is unfortunate, because I really appreciated the series star Ashley Judd’s recent protests about the media’s focus on women’s physical appearances. All of these series, however, feature white women leads.)
Washington is pleased that Scandal pushes the envelope of network television. While she admits that it would be a different show on cable, she says, “I’m proud that it’s on the network. That it’s mainstream America. . . . Cable is known to take more risks, but it’s time to have a show with a black woman as a lead not seen as a big deal.”
Emily Nussbaum, in The New Yorker, suggests that Scandal in fact avoids mentioning Olivia’s race to the show’s detriment. But as she does with Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice, Rimes seems more concerned with affirming racial and ethnic diversity as a visible part of her series’ stories, without emphasizing race as content. Representational politics seem to me equally important right now—that is, seeing people of color on television in roles typically populated (without comment) by white people makes its own statement.
On Scandal, Olivia Pope administers her firm with iron-clad rules and demands fierce, uncompromised loyalty. Her rag-tag band of employees—the so-called Gladiators in Suits—all boast certain skills, and most have sordid, secret pasts from which they’ve been rescued by Olivia. Like the squad of detectives who surround Chief Brenda Johnson (Kyra Sedgwick) on The Closer (TNT), Olivia’s team stands in awe of her know-how but also harbors deeper emotional feelings for a boss who leads them with careful aplomb through the minefields of a very political world.
If part of the joke of The Closer is that Brenda’s squad is full of men (of various races and ethnicities), each with his own charmingly comic character flaw, Olivia’s team on Scandal is comprised of men, women, white people, and people of color, each with his or her own charming if dangerous character flaw. And instead of playing on overly feminine white Southern wiles to get her way, as Brenda does in the very male world of Los Angeles police work, Olivia Pope stands strong, tough, and African American in the very white and very male world of presidential politics that provides Scandal’s milieu.
As a Shonda Rimes show, Scandal mixes intense workplace environment storylines with subplots about the personal lives of characters whose professional commitments always drive their ambitions. Olivia’s team is on call day and night. Her newest employee, Quinn Perkins (Katie Lowes), plays with fire when she decides to date a journalist who’s sniffing around the firm looking for information about Amanda Tanner, one of its clients. The other team members are already stalwart: Harrison Wright (Columbus Short) has some sort of prison record, which makes him happy to be at Olivia’s beck and call; Abby Whelan (Darby Stanchfield) is a progressive who’s appalled when Olivia decides to take the case of a Latin American dictator searching for his apparently kidnapped wife.
Stephen Finch (Henry Ian Cusick), who comes closest to being Olivia’s professional equal, proposes to his fiancée in the series’ first episode, but rarely spends time with her. He arrives at Olivia’s home any time of the night to consult with or comfort her. And the mysterious, taciturn Huck (Guillermo Diaz) demonstrates his loyalty and his acute empathy for Olivia’s frequent ethical anguish by constantly reassuring her and the others that he’s got Olivia’s back.
The crew is idiosyncratic and interesting and the family of actors assembled to perform the team is apparently very close. Washington says, “People at the network are surprised, they really love each other.” She attributes this intimacy to Judy Smith, whose compassion for her fellow human beings inflects her work and Olivia Pope’s character. Washington says that Smith “comes to the work as a nurturer. She wants to make sure that people are taken care of. She realizes that justice isn’t always just, that not everyone gets a second chance. People make mistakes, everyone is human. She’s a very caring and compassionate person. Olivia Pope has pulled in these people who work for her who she takes care of. They also have skills that make them assets.” She continues, “I often think when we’re thinking about powerful women we disassociate them from their maternal instincts. Olivia has no children (that we know of) but she’s very much in touch with the maternal.”
The actors’ ensemble work has already gelled into a terrific chorus for Washington’s star turn as Olivia. And what a turn it is. Washington brings to Olivia Pope a superbly talented actor’s confidence and the empathy of a woman who can read a scene (in real life and in a script) with an almost tactile feel for the nuances of its politics and its themes. Her intelligence shines through her performance, and the series’ scripts allow Washington’s smarts to propel Pope’s character.
You can actually see Washington thinking through Olivia’s frequent quandaries. One of the character’s best traits is that she thinks fast and effectively. Other critics have noted that the D.C.-based show’s dialogue echoes the West Wing; the walk-and-talk practices established by that landmark show are recalled in Scandal. But here, what Washington calls “Scandal-pace” isn’t a function of the D.C. political setting but of its central character’s intensity. All the characters speak with urgency, and the show’s editing moves it quickly through its central story and subplots each week.
Washington says that Scandal-pace comes from Smith herself. “Judy is always moving very quickly,” she says. “When you walk beside her, you’re out of breath and she’s talking effortlessly.” That stamina and endurance shows in Washington’s carriage as she’s performing; Olivia holds herself proudly and propels herself through each scene as though she’s singing the 11:00 number in a musical while chorus boys fall at her feet.
Olivia’s personal sense of urgency matches that required by her work. Washington notes that crisis management moves fast and that it’s changed a lot since Smith began working in the field. Now, it’s necessary to fix something or to stop a story in five minutes instead of five hours or five days. Washington says crisis managers are “constantly playing games where you have to think five steps ahead” of the media and law enforcement. “Time is money,” Washington says. “Time could be life or death.” That urgency fuels each moment of Scandal.
But the fast-talking is written mostly for Olivia. Her ability to think aloud in eloquent, pointed paragraphs is demonstrated best when, in each episode, she typically delivers an ultimatum (or two) to a client or a nemesis balking over a deal. Those scenes beautifully showcase Washington’s ability to be at once emotionally and intellectually acute. They’re typically filmed in close-up, so that the screen is filled with Washington’s beautiful, expressive face, her lips moving faster than seems humanly possible while her eyes register all the complicated devotion or disdain Olivia feels for her interlocutor. Often, these moments are about persuading another character of an ethically questionable choice. The dialogue carries the heavy-lifting of reason while Washington’s countenance reads with all the agony of the necessary compromise or concession.
I love those moments in Scandal because they let you see a very talented actor at work in the guise of a character whose skill at fixing political and personal crises invariably saves the day. This isn’t a woman seducing a client through personal charm. On the contrary, Olivia Pope lays down the law, tells it like it is, reads the riot act, and otherwise gives people their marching orders, with Washington making every one of those speeches heart-rending and convincing.
Washington says she was drawn to the role because “the emotional life of the character was on the page from day one”:
That very much drew me to this project. The woman is often the accessory, so you’re looking for ways to three-dimensionalize the character. Your job as an actor is to fill that picture. But when I read the pilot it was all there. I loved that you could have this woman who was fierce and powerful and together in her professional life. But her personal life is a bit of a mess. That dichotomy could exist on the page. These people [her team] would go over a cliff for her. [She says she doesn’t cry, but in the] pilot, you see her crying alone in a coat closet. She has so many ways that she performs her identity.
Washington says that she’s always interested in a character’s different performances of her public and private selves. Olivia is a rich example of the compromises often required of professional women.
Perhaps the biggest scandal on Scandal is that Olivia has an on-going romantic affair with the President of the United States, Fitzgerald (“Fitz”) Grant (Tony Goldwyn, exceptionally sexy and soulful as a powerful man with sexual secrets). The episode called “The Trail” (#106, aired 5/10/12), flashed back to the beginning of Fitz and Olivia’s relationship to reveal that they started their affair when Fitz hired Olivia to assist on his campaign for the presidency.
Although his marriage is a sham, the President nonetheless can’t afford to compromise his image as a happy husband. His mercenary wife, eager to gain and later retain her power as First Lady, brazenly aids and abets the cover-up of Fitz’s infidelities.
Washington and Goldwyn’s scenes together are gentle, sad explorations of a desire that just won’t quit, despite the challenges of position and politics. Although Fitz’s escape from the prison of the White House in “The Trail” stretched credulity (hey, it’s a television show, after all), the President’s mournful appearance at Olivia’s door proved a touching illustration of their mutual need and yearning.
Jeff Perry plays Cyrus Beene, the President’s Chief of Staff, who’s determined to alienate Fitz from Olivia. The ongoing mystery plot in Scandal’s first season sees Olivia hired to help and protect Amanda Tanner, a former White House staffer who claims she’s had a relationship with the President and is carrying his baby. Olivia’s new client strains the triangulated relationship between Cyrus, Fitz, and Olivia, in which each balances their power, their abilities, and their insights to keep the President in office. The Amanda Tanner storyline threads through each of the season’s episodes, keeping the tension ramped up as Olivia and the team otherwise solved the crises of each week.
Tanner, it seems, was pressed into service by shadowy enemies to blackmail the President into thinking that the baby she carried was his. When Tanner decides to back out of the plan, we see her call her operatives to renege. Shortly after, a black-clad, hooded figure breaks into her apartment, knocks her out, and carries her off. We don’t see her again until her body is dragged from the Potomac.
Billy Chambers, the Vice President’s Chief of Staff, is involved in this nefarious plan. The VP, beautifully played by Kate Burton as a southern conservative Tea Party-er from hell, ran against Fitz in the presidential primary, and reluctantly joined his ticket in the second spot. Billy’s reptilian delusions of grandeur lead him to fantasize that he can unseat Fitz and install his woman instead, using Amanda Tanner’s affair with the president and her pregnancy as the impeachable offense. He captures the media’s attention by spreading rumors of the President’s ethics violations and it looks like Fitz might have to step down.
In the season finale (“Grant: For the People,” episode #107, aired 5/17/12), the plot only thickens. (Spoiler alert!) Olivia and Fitz share a brief romantic moment imagining that they can have a normal domestic future if the scandal forces him to leave the presidency. But thanks to the mercenary deal struck by Fitz’s wife, and thanks to Olivia’s brilliant abilities, they spin the story to avert disaster. The wife exacts her revenge by forcing Fitz back into a sexual relationship to produce the baby she claims to be carrying, and Olivia grieves that her commitment to her job (and I guess her country) means she has to sacrifice the love of her life.
The season’s real twist, though, comes in the final moment, when we learn that Cyrus, not Billy, engineered Amanda Tanner’s murder. Played by Perry as a smug, grasping narcissist, the plot twist dangles the promise that many more complications are in store, which will no doubt continue to muddy the waters of Olivia’s already troubled ethics.
I’ll look forward to that. It’s great fun to watch an African American woman navigate the halls of power with her personal and professional dignity intact. I revel in Scandal’s implicit feminism and the pleasure of seeing an African American woman order people around on the screen. Washington says, “I’m proud to play this role as a feminist,” in part because “one of the things that makes [Olivia] powerful is that she’s a human being. She’s always trying to be the best version of herself, despite her own confusion.”
Despite the high visibility—and no doubt, some vulnerability—of being the first African American woman to star in a network TV series since 1974, when a show called Get Christie Love aired starring Teresa Graves, Washington says she doesn’t feel a heavy burden of responsibility about this historical fact. “I actually feel very supported doing it. There was a lot of anticipation about the show; people were excited that this character was going to live and breathe and exist off the page. I felt a lot of support from the community of women of color actresses in Hollywood.” The pressure, Washington suggests, is on the audience: “Will the American people show up and watch this smart woman, in a show that’s female-driven, that’s driven by an African American female? Will people allow her into their hearts?”
That Scandal has been renewed for a full second season seems to indicate audiences’ willingness to take that leap. And that faith, Washington believes, might contribute to real social change. She says, “Audience members in theatre, film, and television, through consciousness and imagination, are able to put themselves in other people’s shoes. That expanded consciousness makes us more inclusive and lets us see similarities instead of divisions. Art can show us who we want to be. That’s powerful work.”
Let’s hope spectators will be willing to put themselves into Olivia Pope’s (gorgeous) shoes. She’s a tough woman navigating a brutal world, and doing so with intensity, grace, and a ramrod straight spine that makes her irresistible to watch, especially in a medium that allows so few women to be as complex, powerful, and charismatic. And thank goodness an actor as ethical, aware, and committed to social change as Kerry Washington is bringing Olivia to our hearts.
The Feminist Spectator