“Scandal” Changed the Entire TV Landscape, Especially for Black Women

It’s handled.

After 124 episodes over seven seasons, Scandal, the Shonda Rhimes-engineered show about life and times of Olivia Pope (played exquisitely by Kerry Washington), took its final bow last night. Loosely based on the travails of real-life crisis manager and former White House Deputy Press Secretary, Judy Smith, Scandal followed Olivia and her band of gladiators, as they called themselves, as they worked to clean up other people’s messes in Washington, DC.

Though the show lacked sustained representation of female LGBT characters, Scandal had a strong track record with male characters, including the series’ ultimate villain, Cyrus Beene (Jeff Perry). Scandal understood, from its inception, what many shows today do not: while queer representation on screen is important, so too is having queer representation in the cast list. For the show’s entire run, an out gay man, Guillermo Diaz, played Huck, the assassin turned tech wizard for Olivia Pope & Associates, who was arguably the heart of the show. Huck’s wife? Played by Jasika Nicole. The RNC Chair, Elizabeth North? Played by Portia De Rossi. After years of debate about whether gay actors could convincingly play straight, Scandal answered that question with a definitive yes.

To mark the end of an era, Carmen and I got together, with a little red wine and popcorn, to toast the end of Scandal and reflect on how a show about a political fixer in Washington, DC changed the entire television landscape, especially for black women.

We’re gonna need a little more wine.

Natalie: So let’s start with the ending first. We just watched the final episode of Scandal, what’d you think?

Carmen: I think it’s so hard to put a proper bow on a show like Scandal, not only because of its impact on our culture, but because of the specific twists and turns of the show in its most recent seasons. That said, when I saw the “written by Shonda Rhimes” marker over the opening credits, I eased in a bit. It’s rare we get an actual Shonda Rhimes-penned episode anymore. I knew that we were in good hands, if anyone was going to be able to bring the ship safely into harbor, it was going to be her.

Overall, I think she did as good a job as I could have hoped for. I’m not sure how anyone says “goodbye,” but I walked away feeling more satisfied.

What about you?

Natalie: Can I be honest? I didn’t really love it. Actually, I’m not sure I liked it at all. When the episode started I was hit with this overwhelming and unexpected sense of sadness because this show that quite literally changed the game was ending but as the show went on, the things that bothered me about Scandal during most of its run, were there again in the finale.

Why is Olivia still making apologies for these trash men? Why has David Rosen learned absolutely nothing? Why does almost everyone escape accountability for what they’ve done? Why does a Congressional panel believe a single word that Papa Pope — as usual, delivered impeccably by Joe Morton — has to say? And, yes, why on earth is Olivia Pope’s portrait hanging in the National Portrait Gallery?

Carmen: Well damn Natalie! Tell ’em how you really feel!

Natalie: AND! She professed her love and commitment to Mellie like two episodes ago, now Olivia’s like “ahhh, nevermind, I’m just gonna go hang out?!”

Carmen: In the opening of the episode, Rowan Pope echoes the same theme. He asks Olivia how long is she going to “clean up after massa?” It’s slang for how long is Olivia going to submit herself to the rich white people around her. Maya Pope has asked similar questions in the past. Also, the White House is toxic for Olivia. She doesn’t know how to be herself in that space without losing herself to the power of that space.

So, taking all of that into account, I think she had to leave Mellie. I think she had to stop “fixing.” I think she had to choose herself. I wish that choosing herself hadn’t meant that she’d end up with Fitz, but I’ve had seven years to prepare myself for that particular disappointing ending.

Natalie: Let’s go back to the beginning now. I started watching Scandal from the very first episode and haven’t missed an episode since. I’d already fallen in love with Shonda Rhimes’ creativity on Grey’s Anatomy and then when Kerry Washington was announced as the series lead, I was sold. What about you?

Carmen: I also started watching Scandal from its literal first episode and have not missed a single one! I was always going to watch Scandal because, well, I spend my Thursday nights watching Shonda Rhimes and have since 2007. Though, I agree: I was doubly sold at the idea of Kerry Washington as a network television lead.

It’s hard to imagine now, with Viola Davis and Taraji P. Henson on television weekly, or with Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman making small screen roles pop, but, when Scandal premiered it still felt like there was a hard line between movie and television stars. I remember being floored that Kerry Washington of Save the Last Dance, Ray and Last King of Scotland was coming to TV.

Natalie: What were your first impressions of the show? Do you remember?

Carmen: My very first impressions of the show are a bit hazy, as love of red wine is something that Olivia Pope and I have in common. I do remember that I had a huge crush on Kerry Washington and that I didn’t much care for [President Thomas Fitzgerald “Fitz” Grant III], even from the very beginning. I also loved Guillermo Diaz right away. The first Scandal cliffhanger — “Who is Quinn Perkins?” — is when I was truly hooked. After that, there was no turning back.

Natalie: I have two really strong memories of Scandal: first, the idea of being a “gladiator in a suit”… and hearing that long monologue Harrison gave Quinn. I’ve worked in and around politics for years and that feeling, that you’re going to go out into the world and slay dragons is exactly how you feel when you initially step into the room. Eventually, you become jaded and cynical because DC saps idealism right out of you — but, gosh, in the beginning, it’s just so exhilarating and pure. I wanted to be a gladiator in a suit.

The second thing I remember is that it was THE SOCIAL EVENT of the week. Like, forget being around black folks, in public or on social media, if you weren’t sitting in front of your TV on Thursdays at 9 pm. We take it for granted now because there’s a show trending on Twitter every night but back then? There was only Scandal.

Carmen: YES! OMG I WAS GOING TO SAY THAT! THAT IS PROBABLY MY FIRST REAL MEMORY OF Scandal!

For me, this goes back to Kerry’s long career in movies. There was this feeling that if you showed up, you might get — gasp! — Kerry Washington to interact with you. It was at this perfect alignment with the rise of what we now call “black twitter.” The first people who made Scandal trend week after week were black people and specifically black women. There was a social community involved that had never been created in that way before.

Natalie: How’d you feel about the relationship between Olivia and Fitz? There’s that scene in Season 2 where Olivia likens their relationship to Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.

Carmen: I don’t personally think Olivia was ever Sally Hemings, for the record but it’s a theme that Shonda Rhimes returns to again in season four when Olivia puts herself up for sale on an auction block as a way to escape her kidnappers. I think that Liv has always been granted agency in the show, and that calling her Sally Hemings is in some ways an attempt to cut that fierce self-determination down a peg.

Natalie: I never really got the Sally Hemings corollary because Olivia Pope, for better or worse, had a choice about being with the President. Olivia Pope had agency. She could have stayed with Edison, she could’ve relaxed on a beach with Jake, but she always came back to Fitz, much to my chagrin. Sally Hemings was a slave.

Carmen: Yes. Absolutely! Any understanding of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson that doesn’t start with she was his property and she was underage at the start of their relationship is one that I cannot abide. I think that’s one of the reasons I was never comfortable with the Sally Hemings analogy either. It’s one thing to call Liv and Fitz toxic — they were — but there is no comparison to slavery, except slavery. Anything else is belittling.

Natalie: Do you have a favorite episode?

Carmen: I actually have a few! The episode that Ava DuVernay directed in Scandal‘s third season, “Vermont is For Lovers, Too,” because I was already such an early fan of DuVernay’s work — this was a year before she became an Academy Award nominee for Selma — and also because it’s we first really get to know Maya Lewis, AKA Mama Pope. In the episode, she literally bites out her own wrists, forcing herself to almost bleed to death, to get out of Rowan’s captivity. Khandi Alexander was so phenomenal in that role! She’s one of the true MVPs of the show.

My other two favorite episodes are “The Lawnchair,” the Black Lives Matter themed episode that was one of the first times that we got to see Olivia interrogate her relationship with blackness, and “Run,” because Olivia Pope shot a white man in point blank on national television and people rooted for her! It felt unreal!

So what about you? Do you have a favorite episode or infamous Scandal monologue?

Natalie: I think Mama and Papa Pope have been the deliverers of some of the best Scandal monologues. The one that Olivia has reflected on a lot in these last few episodes about being twice as good stands out to me, not because I hadn’t heard it before — I heard that from my own father many, many times — but because it allowed a wider audience to hear the conversations that black people have at home all the time.

“The Lawnchair” will always be my favorite episode. Not just because we got to see Olivia interrogate her own identity but because, at the time that that episode aired, I so desperately needed to imagine a future where there could be justice for black kids who were shot. There’s stuff about that episode that I could critique — it wraps things up far too tidily, in my opinion — but I needed to see justice for a dead black child… just once… because the actual world just refuses to give it to us. I needed to know what that’d look like. That was something I didn’t know I needed until I saw that episode.

What worked for you and didn’t work for you about Scandal?

Carmen: B613, and the slow, painful way that B613 engulfed the entire show. often with little rhyme or reason, particularly in these last two seasons. But, conversely, I think that Joe Morton’s Rowan Pope started off as a very strong character for the show. And still, right to the end, he delivers some of their most potent monologues. So I’m empathetic to the struggle of how to keep such a dynamic player around, while also grappling with the fact that his very presence is tied to everything that went wrong.

Thematically, I think that the show suffered from paying too much attention to the weakness of the men in Liv’s orbit. If I am watching a television show starring the first black woman in a lead role in nearly 40 years, who is playing a DC fixer, I have less than zero interest in the crybaby pain of the incredibly rich and privileged white men who surround her. Thanks.

There’s a wonderful monologue that Mellie gives at the end of season five. In it, she gets very Hamilton about how she’s not gonna waste her shot, unlike Fitz. That was the moment when everything that was great about Scandal, and everything that ruined it, came into laser-sharp focus for me.

What about you? Did you have any other weaknesses or strengths that you wanted to highlight?

Natalie: Like you, I hated B613 and whatever that secret group was that had Frankie Vargas killed. It just swallowed the show whole.

Obviously, Kerry Washington’s the star of this show but I didn’t know Bellamy Young much before this and I think she’s been a revelation. I’ve loved seeing her play more closely with Kerry over these last two seasons. It just made me feel like, “Why did we waste so much time with these dudes?”

Carmen: Yes, the women of Scandal really shined when given the opportunity. Bellamy Young, in particular, grew with every season. That said, in one of the very first scenes she has with Olivia when she admitted that Liv’s then affair with Fitz was the third rail that kept her marriage alive, I knew she was going to be a marvel. The relationship shared between Mellie and Liv is delicate, but powerful, and I love reveling in it.

What do you hope is Scandal‘s legacy?

Natalie: Obviously, I hope that its legacy is that the doors are open — and stay open — for black women in lead roles. I hope that we’re able to see women as anti-heroes, on the same level as the Don Drapers and Walter Whites of the world. What about you?

Carmen: I think that it’s a good time to remember that before Kerry’s role in Scandal there hadn’t been a black woman lead in a network television show in nearly four decades. But in the seven years since Scandal aired, there’s been a proliferation. I already name-checked Viola and Taraji, sure. But Gabrielle Union is coming to network TV in a lead role next fall. Regina King won two Emmys for her work in American Crime Story.

It’s tricky you know because as much as we like to applaud the current black renaissance on television, I think it’s important to remember that this isn’t the first time we’ve been here. Black television has traditionally been cyclical; it’s feast and famine. So I worry about that. I’m hopeful that, with the changing demographics of this country, this time it’s different, but we are in uncharted waters.

Watching the finale tonight, I think that Shonda Rhimes gave us a glimpse into what she hopes is Scandal‘s legacy. Scandal has broken so many barriers, and I think sometimes it’s easy for critics (myself included) to get caught up in a numbers game. How many black leads before versus after? What are the ratings? Will its success prove to be more than a passing trend? As if there is some kind of scalable metric that can be achieved.

“I’m also thinking about all of the young people, particularly girls, and girls of color, who…will look up, and they will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the wall of this great American institution.” – Michelle Obama

But in the closing moments of the finale, two young black girls went to the National Portrait Gallery and they stared upon the face of Olivia Pope. I think that’s Shonda reminding us that, at its core, Scandal‘s legacy is about something bigger. It’s about, especially for black women, having the opportunity to see ourselves.

Olivia Pope was not just “the first black female lead in 40 years,” which is a massive accomplishment in and of itself, she was also a woman who was allowed to be powerful, but deeply flawed. She was simultaneously aspirational and human. She was corrupted by the very power she wielded. When Scandal first premiered, “Black Girl Magic” wasn’t yet a catch phrase. The new ways that black women were able to find themselves and see themselves, feel good about themselves, or be critical, or compassionate and forgiving. I think that’s the legacy that Rhimes is perhaps most proud of.

Natalie: One of the things we’ve talked about tonight is how infrequently Olivia Pope interrogates her blackness on the show. Do you think that helped open the door? Like could Olivia Pope have been “blacker” and this show still been as successful as it was?

Carmen: No. Scandal had to make those cracks in the ceiling, so that Cookie could have her own voice. Or Annalise. Olivia Pope had to prove that white people would watch a black lead so that other shows wouldn’t have to chuck their blackness at the door in order to find mainstream success.

One more question: Could Scandal have survived in Donald Trump’s America?

Natalie: Absolutely not. The repulsiveness of this administration far outstrips even Shonda Rhimes’ warped imagination. Kerry Washington’s Scandal can’t compete with the actual scandals that we’re having to endure day in and day out — though Olivia Pope would have a lot of work as a fixer.


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A black biracial, bisexual girl raised in the South, working hard to restore North Carolina's good name. Lover of sports, politics, good TV and Sonia Sotomayor. Spends her Thursday nights trying to make #Shonday happen.

Natalie has written 26 articles for us.

9 Comments

  1. “If I am watching a television show starring the first black woman in a lead role in nearly 40 years, who is playing a DC fixer, I have less than zero interest in the crybaby pain of the incredibly rich and privileged white men who surround her. Thanks.”

    This is exactly why I gave up on the show after a few seasons. That, and I just could not watch her go back to Fitz again and again.

    • That’s why I hardly made it a few episodes in. The way they positioned Fitz’s character and had Olivia act around him I knew he’d be prominent the entire run of the series, and that was not bearable to me so I cut all ties completely.

  2. From the moment, Olivia called Eli “dad,” the show got horrible. They did too much with the B6l3 plotline. It ruined the show for me & a lot of other people! I was sad the show was ending, but ultimately Kerry Washington deserved a better show than Scandal.

  3. I rewatched the show from season 1 earlier this year, and it was surreal to hear 45’s name mentioned in the pilot episode. As for this succinct and brilliantly worded analysis from Natalie, RT RT RT:

    “The repulsiveness of this administration far outstrips even Shonda Rhimes’ warped imagination. Kerry Washington’s Scandal can’t compete with the actual scandals that we’re having to endure day in and day out — though Olivia Pope would have a lot of work as a fixer.”

    When the pilot aired in April 2012, many of us either had no inkling whatsoever of what would happen a few years later or didn’t want to acknowledge it as a serious possibility. Rewatching those first few seasons in 2018 is desperately sad.

  4. I agree with Natalie. I didn’t really liked it at all but then again I didn’t like this season..
    But this show will always have a special place in my heart, it was appointment viewing for me for the longest time and I’ll miss it.
    So thank you, Shonda

  5. Shonda Rhimes changed the landscape of tv for Black women with Scandal. The Shonda Effect! Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope with that iconic strut and bouncing hair laid to the gods was everything. It did dip off at parts but always had memorable moments. Shonda loves a good monologue and as a lover of theater/plays so do I. Papa Pope, Mama Pope, and Olivia gave some great monologues.

    The Olitz stuff got old by the 3rd season but nothing is perfect.

    I actually wished Shonda would have gone full on villainess Olivia Pope as command. I actually think she had that planned and changed course with the election of Trump. I like the idea of Olivia initially believing she was the white hat only to realize herself she was wearing the Black.

    She was after all her father’s daughter. SHe had been trained her whole life to assume power. I know many wouldn’t have liked that because women, especially Black women, are supposed to present a certain way to be palatable. Olivia wasn’t too different from her father; her tactics were simply different. She didn’t break people like Rowan/Eli she found them broken and built them up in her way.

    I would have loved to have Olivia as command running the whole country. I don’t always need my leads to be “likeable”.

    But it was sweet to see Shonda’s two daughters looking up at the portrait that really reflects what Shonda has created.

    Episodes that stood out for me was: the abortion because she didn’t want to be trapped by Fitz. It wasn’t medically necessary, she could have easily afforded a child, she just didn’t want to have one and that being a legitimate choice.

    Her having to save her self after being kidnapped and sold internationally. The idea that this Black woman who saves everyone still has to save herself because no one is coming to her help.

    Papa Pope doing any monolongue but especially when he called Fitz a “boy”.

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