Shondaland’s “How To Get Away With A Scandal” Crossover Event Was a Black Feminist Masterpiece

Did you see it? Did you get a chance to see Scandal and How To Get Away With Murder’s highly publicized two hour event last night? Some of us at Autostraddle ndve been waiting with baited breath since spoilers of the crossover episode first hit Twitter at the start of January.

We couldn’t believe our luck, finally getting to watch two of the leading ladies of Shondaland, both black actresses who are incredibly talented, outspoken feminists and — let’s be real— total powerhouses play together on our screen! Carmen and Natalie got together to talk about it!

Black. Girl. Magic.

If you haven’t been keeping up with either show, but wanted to dive right in, the two episodes hold up fairly well on their own. It’s most important to know that (spoilers) Olivia Pope has left both the White House and her consulting firm; she is now touring college campuses as a guest lecturer. Annalise Keating has been working on a class-action law suit against the state of Pennsylvania. The case focuses on the inadequate legal representation given to poor people of color. Annalise wants to bring the case to the Supreme Court, but for that she’s going to need Olivia’s help. The two women finally meet, and that is where our story begins!


WARNING: Some spoilers for last night’s Scandal and How To Get Away With Murder crossover episodes below.

Natalie: So, when I first heard about this crossover, part of me was very excited— who wouldn’t love an opportunity to see Kerry Washington and Viola Davis act opposite each other on our screen? I was also skeptical because there’s been no evidence up until this point that these shows even happen in the same universe. I didn’t think there was any way to to create a world in which Olivia Pope and Annalise Keating co-existed.

After watching, I think Shonda Rhimes, Pete Nowalk, along with the cast and crew of each respective show, really made the crossover work to their benefit. In fact, I’d be willing to say that forcing these two characters into the same universe strengthened both shows. Scandal and How To Get Away With Murder (HTGAWM) each have a weakness of exploring side plots that ultimately weigh them down. A central storyline of Olivia Pope and Annalise Keating working together helped to focus each of their respective writers’ rooms.

Carmen: When I first heard about the How To Get Away With a Scandal crossover event, you were the very first person I wanted to talk to! We kept joking about all the ways that we’d re-write it — sight unseen — so that Annalise Keating and Olivia Pope could make out.

Natalie: Them making out was one of the only things missing in this episode!

Carmen: But, I think those jokes hit on this bigger, greater point: When have we ever had a chance to see two black women characters, each larger than life in their own right, share the screen as a (platonic) power couple on network television? Hell, even in cable or streaming?

It was a once in a lifetime, which perhaps sounds hyperbolic, but you have to consider that before Scandal a black woman hadn’t been allowed the opportunity to solo lead a network drama since Diahann Carroll debuted Julia in 1968 and Teresa Graves’ Get Christy Love! in 1974. This could only happen in this moment. I had a lot of the same original misgivings as you did, but ultimately I’m happy that they found time for these two to meet in such a grand fashion before Scandal takes its final bow in a few weeks. If they hadn’t, it would have been an epic missed opportunity and a great loss for us all.

Natalie: During our chat about the episodes last night, I said that this felt like fan service — I like to imagine Kerry Washington strutting into Shonda Rhimes’ office and when asked what kind of ending she imagines for Olivia Pope, Kerry said, “One that allows me to work with Viola Davis.” Then, Shonda, Pete Nowalk and their respective teams worked to make this alternate universe episode happen. What did you call it? “The greatest fanfiction I never wrote.”

Carmen: Ha! YES! “The greatest fanfiction I never wrote.” I mean, who imagined a world where two black female lead television shows, both produced by a black woman, one of which is directly written by that same black woman, being able to join forces like this? It opens up rare space for authenticity. And they leaned into it! When the promo photos were released and we realized that they had recruited Aja Naomi King as the secondary character for the two hour event, and then the crown jewel of black actresses Cicely Tyson — I was like, okay. They know what they are doing.

Which is part of what made it so electric and exciting. You’re right, it was fan service, it was actress service. Usually we think of those terms pejoratively, but when before has fan service ever been centered on the desires of black women? Probably never.

Natalie: Absolutely. I’m generally someone who’s very anti-fan service, I feel like that does a disservice to the creative process. This felt different; the writers were so deliberate in creating this world that it didn’t feel like a disservice.

Carmen: I think that in their own, very different approaches, both Scandal and HTGAWM have been thematically finding ways to address: What does it look like to be a black woman in a position of power? How does centering a black woman change the process of our world making? This two hour event is a cumulation of that.

Natalie: Can we stop and talk about that for a second?

Early in the episode Annalise says to Olivia, “Our country’s in crisis, together we can fix it.” I cheered it when they said it because, when you think about the role of black women in the political process right now, we are the ones trying to save America from itself. If you look at the 2016 election, where black women were the driving force of Hillary Clinton’s electoral coalition or in Alabama where we saved that Senate seat from going to that racist pedophile Roy Moore — black women are really out here doing the work of saving America. But, I’m always concerned about whether we’re doing the work because we want to and not because it’s expected for us to?

Carmen: Oh my goodness, yes! There’s a complex tension between “Yaaaaaas! Slay black queen, slay!” and “No, it is not our job to be the magical negress who saves you.”

I have to believe that “Our country’s in crisis, together we can fix it” was on purpose. Like you, I also cheered. Then winced. There was an important critique gaining groundswell after Roy Moore’s defeat in the Alabama Senate Race that black women did not vote to save America. Black women voted to save themselves. The sentiment stuck with me. There’s no room for self-care in being a savior, and if black women aren’t going to take care of ourselves, historically we have learned that no one else will.

We’ve also seen that play out in these two shows, where Annalise and Liv have both suffered tremendous personal turmoil over the last few years. This is the first season where I’ve seen Annalise prioritize herself— via her sobriety and, in many ways, this court case. Liv, unfortunately, still hasn’t seemed to learn the lesson. For me, that was really highlighted in Scandal’s hair salon scene.

Natalie: It’s definitely my favorite part of the Scandal episode because of how authentic it felt. That scene was really lived in and VERY BLACK.

Carmen: Anytime you have black women getting their hair done on camera, it opens up space for blackness and vulnerability — because we’ve been taught so much shame about our hair, right? Especially in front of white people (like the white audiences all across America watching last night). But at the same time, there’s such beautiful community in our hair care.

Natalie: It definitely felt like a callback to that scene in the first season of HTGAWM when Annalise slowly takes off her make up and wig.

Carmen: Oh man, that scene. Those were some of the bravest choices I had ever seen on television.

Natalie: But you’re right, this was Annalise and Olivia at their most vulnerable because all the armor — the hair, the make up — is gone. Were you surprised by the fight between them? Annalise calling Olivia a “siddity phony” and then Olivia calling Annalise a broke bully who had to ride down on the Megabus to beg for her help. Okay, I have to admit, that Megabus line had me rolling.

Carmen: I was totally surprised! I think this goes back to my point about rare opportunities for authentic portrayals of black women. When I imagined Annalise and Olivia teaming up, I imagined them becoming a super team! The choice that Shonda Rhimes and Pete Nowalk made was much more honest; these are women who would not necessarily get along at first. They would have luggage they need to unpack before they could join together.

I think adding Annalise to Scandal put in direct light Olivia’s own complicated relationship with blackness and black womanhood, much like Courtney B. Vance’s character did in season four’s Black Lives Matter themed episode, “The Lawn Chair.” Olivia is a black woman who was purposefully not raised around other black people. She would judge Annalise because she’s in financial straits — Oh man, that Megabus dig! I choked, I was laughing so hard — and as much as I think she wouldn’t like this about herself, she would judge Annalise’s skin color and body frame and speech patterns.

At the same time, this moment is vulnerable for Olivia too. We have seen Annalise in a hair salon before, we have seen her take off her wig. In seven years we have NEVER seen Olivia without her armor in these ways. This is opening herself up — but for Olivia, opening herself up means buying out the entire salon. Annalise used to get her hair done by Mary J. Blige in a neighborhood beauty shop. The differences between these women couldn’t be more stark.

Natalie: The conversation that Olivia has with Mama Harkness (Cicely Tyson, as Annalise’s mother, Ophelia) is crucial; Olivia hasn’t had a family like Annalise. She doesn’t have a mother figure to lovingly counsel her. There’s no one that can call her out on her bullshit.

Carmen: That was one of my first thoughts when Cicely’s Mama Harkness entered during the second hour. This is so far out of Liv’s depths. She doesn’t understand why Annalise would draw strength from her mother, because Liv didn’t grow up with a mother. She grew up with an international mercenary and terrorist (Heeeeeey, Mama Pope! Love you forever, girl!).

Olivia tells Annalise that her family is a “distraction” because she doesn’t get it. Then comes this perfect scene alone with Mama Harkness, and wow did Kerry Washington rise to the occasion of acting opposite a legend like Cicely Tyson. Mama Harkness brings forth some of the themes we’ve been talking about. She tells Liv that she’s seen her on TV behind this president or that president, essentially always cleaning up these white people’s mess. She tells her that she sees her, because she once was her. Not on the same scale of course, but always having to put herself last to clean up after someone else first.

Natalie: That scene in the bathroom with Kerry Washington and Cicely Tyson was so powerful. It felt like a new beginning for Olivia Pope. She can finally stop worrying about herself and stop putting all these other people first.

Carmen: There’s such a power in being seen, truly seen. I hope your prediction ends up coming to fruition, because there’s nothing I want more than for the almighty Olivia Pope to finally come to terms with herself because she saw her reflection in this old, strong but all too often forgotten, black woman from Memphis, Tennessee.

Natalie: What’d you think about Annalise’s Supreme Court argument?

Carmen: OK, this is where I have to confess something: I know that they’re not for everybody, but I love me a classic, barn burner, Shondaland monologue. I live for them. And I think this one will go down as one of the greats.

Natalie: Wait, there are people who don’t like Shondaland monologues?

Carmen: A lot of television critics hate them! The school of thought is that it’s not “realistic”; in real life people don’t speak in five minute prose. They are theatrical, but I personally find that to be a benefit. I don’t think theatre is a dirty word. Lena Waithe recently gave an interview where she said she’s working to keep finding her voice as a writer, because when you turn on the TV you know when you are watching Aaron Sorkin or Shonda Rhimes. They have their own rhythms and sounds. I hadn’t thought of it in that context before.

Natalie: This is definitely a space where those monologues make total sense though.

This black bisexual badass is here to give the Supreme Court a piece of her mind.

Carmen: When Annalise started with “Racism is in the DNA of America…” I held by breath and I don’t think I let go until she rested her case. To take this opportunity and write such an eviscerating, full-bodied take down of the racism embedded in the American justice system — and in America itself — those are the moments that demonstrate the importance and strength of pop culture. Not everyone is going to pick up a copy of The New Jim Crow or dedicate two hours to watching a documentary like The 13th, but they are going to watch HTGAWM. They are definitely going to watch a heavily promoted crossover event. To take that built in audience and use it for this; it’s a black feminist checkmate.

Natalie: Oh! We have to talk about Annalise’s breakdown before she gave her oral arguments. She gets a phone call that taps right into the worst possible things that she thinks about herself — that, if it wasn’t for her, everyone else’s life would be so much better. It’s a self-loathing that has come up before. I always remember it in relationship to a fight Annalise had with her ex-girlfriend, Eve Rothlo. One of the reasons I feel Annalise Keating so much is that I understand what it means to internalize all the blame. She’ll always internalize the blame more than she internalizes the victories or success. I totally get that.

What’d you think of the breakdown? When Annalise asked for the vodka did you think she’d actually drink it?

Carmen: As someone who has been paralyzed similarly by a panic attack before, I was in awe of Viola Davis’ physical work. She was somehow both frozen solid and shaking from her toes up, her face was a completely stoic but her eyes were darting, crying. That’s exactly what that feels like. There’s been a growing trend in the last year of honestly depicting women of color who struggle with mental illness, Charley Bordelon on OWN’s Queen Sugar, Penelope Alvarez on Netflix’s One Day at a Time, and now Annalise Keating. It’s so vitally important.

Anyway, I didn’t think Annalise would drink the vodka, but I also knew that Liv would get it for her. Liv’s entire world is about the moral grey, the ends justify the means.

But, when Liv tells her “I believe whatever you think you need inside of this bottle, you already have inside you” — WOW. I just need Kerry Washington to follow me around reading inspirational quotes. How do I get her to be my life coach? I want it now.

Okay! It’s time for a big wrap up! Coming out of this big, black, feminist two hour event — what do you want people to know?

Natalie: First, this case that Annalise brought to the Supreme Court is based on real work being done right now by the ACLU in Missouri. I wish the press surrounding the crossover had included some mention of it. This isn’t something that’s being made up for primetime drama, it’s a real injustice that people are actively involved in trying to address.

Second, I wish they made out.

Carmen: Well, it doesn’t get any better than that.

Carmen is Autostraddle's Associate Editor and a black Puerto Rican femme/inist writer. She claims many past homes, but has left the largest parts of her heart in Detroit, MI, Brooklyn, and Buffalo, NY. There were several years in her early 20s when she earnestly slept with a copy of James Baldwin’s “Fire Next Time” under her pillow at night. You can find her on twitter, @carmencitaloves.

Carmen has written 122 articles for us.

4 Comments

  1. No fan service in Shondaland will ever do more for me than a well-placed Cicely Tyson appearance. I think there’s a sort of warmth in her scenes (feeding her child and her child’s high-powered friend, and showing up to offer support no matter what it means, and killing a man to protect her child) carry a sort of warmth that doesn’t seem to exist anywhere else in HTGAWM, except maybe briefly in Annalise’s soft spot for Wes and the work Eve is willing to do for Annalise.

    There aren’t really any other relationships in the show built entirely on unselfish love and affection (and when they are, we always know there’s blackmail or betrayal or creepy sexual dynamics just around the corner), and I love that Olivia got to bear witness to that and be touched by it.

    Loved Annalise’s speech, even though I do get tired of the formula of the Shondaland monologues. Black women stay trying to save this garbage world, and this crossover was a welcome display of that fact.

    Question: Do y’all think it’s significant that Annalise thanked Conner after her rebuttal, instead of Michaela who brilliantly found and hand copied the ruling she needed after introducing her to Olivia Pope and indirectly getting her into President Grant’s office? On one hand, it was Connor’s project, so maybe it was an innocuous way of Annalise expressing gratitude to the one person who backed her class action suit from the beginning. On the other, here’s Michaela, a black woman, doing the hard and necessary work of helping to save the world from itself, just to have the credit handed to a white boy.

    Finally, anybody else getting kinda nervous that Asher’s going to find out about Michaela’s side plot with Mellie’s old side piece and uhhh act like a crazy jealous emotionally volatile man? Sometimes I think about him getting away with murder, a crime he committed because a lady threatened to expose the awful choice he made to indirectly aid/protect the guys who raped a girl at his party, and I worry. He also stalked Michaela and gave Laurel a nanny-cam bear in 4a, which is uniquely creepy. We forget a lot in this wild af show, but I haven’t forgotten that.

    • @meenbot Great questions. I didn’t see Annalise’s decision to recognize Connor as any sort of slight towards Michaela…just an acknowledgement of his role in sheparding this case forward from the beginning. Annalise’s reward for Michaela having dreamt up the whole SCOTUS scheme was having her in the room and Connor’s reward was that little shout out.

      There’s a great scene in Mad Men where Don picks up an award for a commercial that was Peggy’s brain child and she’s angry that he took the award and gave her none of the credit. She complains that he never says thank you and he yells back, “that’s what the money is for!” Annalise has always been that sort of boss–happy to play favorites and be like “f*** your feelings” to those that work for her–but that scene on the SCOTUS steps really speaks to the growth of Annalise’s character.

      On the Asher question: so, you could be right…I mean, Asher’s certainly shown himself to be someone with the capacity for jealousy, stalking and violence…but I’m inclined to think they won’t go that route. Remember how after he confronts Michaela with the video from the nanny cam, she admits that she and Laurel had been plotting revenge against Laurel’s father…and then he storms off? He goes looking for Frank but finds an upset Bonnie there instead? I’m still of the belief that he slept with Bon-Bon that night and that we’ll eventually find out about that. I imagine we’ll find out about that after he’s villified Michaela for a while about her affair…because that’s how this show works.

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