Scandal is not the sappy soap opera that is Grey’s Anatomy or the complex story telling that is How to Get Away With Murder. It isn’t even heightened or elevated drama. It is reminiscent of The Good Wife with echoes of 24, Homeland and even Law and Order. It has become the epitome of prime time television in the 21st century. Its pace and dialogue equal the determined walk of its lead, Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington). It’s plot is always scandalous if not salacious and criminal, legally and morally. It holds a fun-house mirror up to our complex and racially diverse world, especially American Politics. Olivia’s relationships, cases, and family (birth and chosen) are dysfunctional if not Shakespearean. The show is perfectly designed for the social media wizards who process and re-tweet Likes in less time than it takes the rest of us to turn the channel. Its viewers appreciate allusion as much as social justice and memes. Scandal is THE Twitter television show. They, well honestly we, are popcorn eating, wine swigging watchers who are as enthralled with Olivia Pope’s wardrobe as we are with the twists and turns her journey is taking. This roller coaster of a show has turned us upside-down before, but it has always returned us to an upright position, on the side of the gladiators in suits, the white hats. This may no longer be so.
This week’s episode, “Thwack!” may mark the inception of the show’s greatest inversion. Former Vice-President Andrew Nichols threatens to bring down the Presidency and the presidential campaigns of Susan, Mellie and Hollis; Governor Vargas and Senator Edison are also running but outside of this danger zone as they were not involved in President Fitz’s decision to lie to the American people about the reason for last’s season ‘Trojan War’ better known as the West Angola War. Abby and Olivia initially team-up to resolve the threat, but it divides them as their loyalties are now to Fitz and Mellie, respectively. When Olivia attempts to gladiate for her client, Mellie, Andrew plays with her like a chew toy. He ridicules her time and again but when he calls her a whore, she thwacks him repeatedly with a chair. So, after telling Elizabeth, Huck, Papa Pope and most importantly, herself that they would not kill Andrew, she succumbs to the thing she despises the most; she takes a life, an act only her father would approve.
The reception of this episode may mark a clear delineation not only in our protagonist’s life, but in how viewers and critics define the show moving forward.
Scandal, often gets less than favorable, if any reviews even in the New York Times. There are many recaps, serious and funny, but few reviews, analysis or critiques. Critics don’t care to understand the show and don’t find much value in it as entertainment much less thought-provoking television. They often label it diluted, bastardized, or lacking nuance. For them the creator has veered too far from the lens and rhythms they understand.
Lindsey McGhee’s, Den of Geek, tepid review garners only 2.5/5 stars for this epic episode, but she doesn’t enumerate any significant issues with the episode. Her slick review looks at the five ways you can cross Olivia. McGhee’s analysis is scant compared to the comprehensive one at Liv and Fitz which details parallels and foreshadowing in this episode. However, Gwen Ihnat at the A.V.Club eviscerates this episode with a F rating. Ihnat dislikes the show’s machinations, especially the thwacking scene she characterized as, “the grossest thing I’ve seen on network television.” For her, “Olivia has gone full Dark Side.” Olivia is no longer the role model she met five years ago. In fact, for her, “every character we once liked, possibly even loved, is now irredeemable.” She harbors resentment for the show and the character who has let her down. Had the review focused on the episode’s plot, production, direction, acting or any number of concrete points, the rating would be easier to understand. However, Ihnat’s review is centered on likability. This is disappointing. It’s like Ihnat has not read Roxane Gay’s Not Here To Make Friends or listened to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s acceptance speech for the 2015 Girls Write Now Award where she urged young girls to forget about likability.
The reason “likability” smacks in the face of cultural critics is that “likability” is essentially a political, or social, distinction, a code word for in-groups. And being socially constructed, “likability” must refer to a given society of “those liked” who determine the rules of the club. Most arguments either for or against “likability” fall apart, because the term is too conditionally defined to serve either as a useful critical tool, or as a subject of criticism itself. Nathan Pensky, Social Contracts and the Cult of Likeability
For Ihnat Olivia can be beautiful, strong, smart, of service, victimized, abort a pregnancy, and be Acting First Lady, but she cannot be unlikable. She must smile, hold in the pain and move on. She cannot succumb to hardship, falter or show weakness. She can’t wear her troubles, she can’t let her environment or hardships make her anything but functional and of service. A more thorough review would have considered if not unpacked why the show was upending the protagonist’s ‘likability’. Or as McGhee queried, Shonda Rhimes thrives on the flawed character, but was this really the best move for Liv’s?”
If Ihnat were more concerned with character development and story arcs she would have wondered what Olivia’s actions and her visit to the ‘Dark Side’ meant for her, the show, women and society. In Olivia the visages of slavery and to some degree twenty first century celebrity/fame are evident. I would be surprised if Shonda Rhimes and her writers broached this episode without considering all of this. Much of this season has been about Olivia’s decompensation. She is psychologically damaged and becoming ineffective on her job. The once steady and sure-footed woman is now erratic.
“Thwack!” is not really about Andrew’s death by chair. The emotional core of the episode is the battle for self that Abby (Darby Stanchfield) and Olivia are undergoing. Their taunt scenes are not about the lost of a friendship or their fight for what they perceive to be power. They are on journeys to save themselves, to create a life different from the ones their families wanted for them, to manufacture one worth living in the political cesspool, to find and nurture self-love in all that means, including the relationships they seek and foster. We don’t know much about Abby’s childhood, but we do know that she was married to an abuser, whom she may have killed. We know that Olivia lived with a psychopath father and mother till age twelve before being shipped off to bordering school. With Papa Pope, and Mama Pope (Maya Lewis/Marie) did Olivia ever really have a chance?
The focus in this episode is on the confluence of complex issues: Olivia’s heritage, PTSD (kidnapping), lost loves (Fitz, Jake and Senator Davis), lost friendship with Abby and the knowledge that her father is actively using men she has had sexual relationships to plot a criminal if not treasonal act. How many blows can any gladiator withstand? After she kills Andrew she appears broken for she has finally succumbed to the one act she despises; this is the act that makes her most like her parents and B613. Whether her broken return to her father at the end of the episode is a ruse to sort out his plan or her surrender to him, it is thoughtful storytelling. Like many viewers, I endure some of the show’s leaps of logic or machinations not because I identify with Olivia and Rhimes or look to them as role models. The show’s premise is fascinating and it has been an excellent vehicle to talk politics and pop-culture. For that alone I have stuck with the show, playing catch-up when i have neglected a few episodes or nearly a full season. That kind of viewership is difficult to earn and maintain.
As Ihnat points out, “Ratings are sinking and comments are shrinking and the show is sucking, and has steered so far afield, I don’t even know how it could ever get back on course….” It is not surprising that the show’s ratings have plummeted this season. Last year, season 4, the show averaged a 2.88 rating in the 18-49 demographic with 9.19 million total viewers; so far this year, season 5, the show averaged a 2.16 rating in the 18-49 demographic with 7.38 million total viewers. The show is clearly no longer the tentpole it once was for ABC. It simply is no longer the same-night ratings force it was last season or even last fall.
I am under no illusion that this show would weather the rating storms a white led cast or a hospital-set drama would. Scandal’s premise is as much a burden as it is a gift. Like Homeland this show has a harder time of realistically re-inventing itself and retaining its audience. The show lends itself to a shorter but more memorable shelve life. If the rumors of Scandal ending next year, season six are true, I would not be irate. I respect a show that ends with a bang or spin-off more than one that whimpers to the grave. The creators, writers, cast and crew have a lot to be proud of with what they accomplished on network television.
The show’s direct and indirect competitors have either retreated or risen to the challenge. There are very few dramas on network or cable television in the 9 PM slot. Most prefer to use the slot for counter-programming with competition shows, comedies or rebroadcasting of shows. Blacklist and The 100 are the exception. though very different, both shows are worthy competitors. The former is an excellent vehicle for the talented James Spader and the latter is an innovative and intriguing elevated sci-fi show which should really be acknowledged this award season. However, none of this explains Scandal’s ratings.
Scandal has crashed into a political climate and Presidential Campaign that has made citizens weary. The scandals on the show are no longer escapism or fun. They are too close, too real, to laugh about. From Trump to The Panama Papers our cynicism and trust in politics and the government is at an all time low. We are suffering from Political Fatigue. Our cable news shows have been reduced to 24 hour campaign shows and our once favorite television show has a candidate who looks and acts like Trump as well as a news show, Sally Langston’s (Kate Burton) The Liberty Report that is the birth child of CNN, MSNBC and FOX. In a year that ABC and Shonda Rhimes expected Scandal to be the most relevant and a pop-culture mainstay, it has become a burden and DVR’d for possible future viewing.
The irony in the show’s declining ratings is that it has finally begun to unearth some meaningful truths for and about its characters. It asks: Are these characters genetically flawed or is their environment the cause of their dysfunction? “Thwack!” deftly explores the costs politicians, fixers and the like eventually pay. We have long understood that the show’s political environment was inundated with sociopaths and even a few B613 psychopaths. However, in “Thwack!” we realize how close so many of our favorite characters are to these feared diagnoses. Beyond nature vs nurture, Scandal is rapping poetically about the neurosis (mild mental illness) and psychosis of American politics and by extension America.
Cyrus, Hollis and Papa Pope are clearly psychopaths. Their amorality and joy of plotting and inflicting pain is truly disturbing. Jake, Charlie, Huck and Tom are also all clearly in this camp as B613 agents or former agents. Huck maybe more of a sociopath as he seems able to learn from his errors, establish relationships and change his learned behaviors. Tom may have not been a trained B613 agent but he operates like one for Cyrus. Interestingly, this episode, pushes the women the most. Gladiator Quinn is well on her way to a sociopath with her power tools, Huck’s direction and now Charlie’s influence. While Abby is no longer a gladiator she too has fallen from grace and is more interested in acquiring and keeping power by any means necessary, much like Elizabeth. Are they a Cyrus in the making or an Olivia? Is there really a difference now? BuddyTV’s John Kubicek said, “I would say that Olivia Pope is now Scandal‘s villain, but I don’t think the show has any heroes left. There are no White Hats, they’re all covered in blood like Olivia’s face.”
We don’t know what Olivia’s character inversion will mean for her ultimately on the show. We do know that every time Scandal backs a character into an unimaginable situation, Rhimes and the writers fail or succeed spectacularly in their storytelling. Maybe what Thwack! has to teach us is that the characters we are drawn to don’t have to only be role models or possibility models offering up aspirational lives for us. The show aspires to more than the realms of entertainment. It seeks to inform the lay person on the cost of power, the degree to which our political system and our country is ill, diseased. Our favorite fixer, Liv, proves that she is not inoculated from the systems she works in, understands and has been able to manipulate for others.
Whether Thwack! set-out to test the show’s likability is unclear and would have been a no win game. Unlike male led shows, female led shows are all too often linked to their characters likability and in our celebrity obsessed culture the actors’ likability as well. So “Thwack!” is likely testing us and the direction of the show. Rhimes implicitly asks, Do you only like Olivia if she stays in the safe zones? What happens if Olivia looses the white hat and steps fully into sociopathy or psychopathy? She is not capable of the kind of guided analysis she needs to confront and deal with her demons. When Marcus tries to comfort her, she tells him she is not looking for a therapist. In ‘Where the Sun Don’t Shine’ Olivia’s mother told her, “Girl, you need to move on, you’re just like him.” Will Olivia find her way back to herself or is she lost to her father and the mission he set with B613?
Rhimes has said , “Scandal, I know where it ends. I know exactly where it begins and where it ends.” I’ll be tuning in to see how Olivia’s story ends and I’ll enjoy the blistering quips, sleek fashion and commentary on society that Shakespeare himself would appreciate. Will you be joining me?