‘Scandal,’ Sanctimony, Torture and the Challenge for TV Anti-Heroines

I quite like Emily Nussbaum’s deconstruction of Scandal in this week’s New Yorker, which is really a way for her to discuss the various uses television shows make of race and colorblindness. But I wanted to highlight a different part of the review which explores something that I think can be a real straightjacket for shows: the need for female characters in general, and Olivia Pope in particular to be either good or evil, to embody an entirely different kind of black-white divide. Scandal is increasingly dull, Emily says, because Olivia Pope’s theoretical flaws all turn out to reinforce her status as a paragon:

Thirty-eight years have passed, but, in certain ways, little has changed. Shonda Rhimes, who created “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Private Practice,” is still the sole prominent black female showrunner in television. (The most powerful black male showrunner is Tyler Perry, on TBS.) Although the heroine of “Scandal,” Olivia Pope, would never go in for Christie Love’s salty back talk, the two do share some qualities: they are incorruptible superprofessionals, worshipped and desired by everyone around them. Pope, once the President’s most trusted aide and, for a while, his secret mistress, is now the biggest fixer in Washington. (Her career is based on that of a real person: Judy Smith, a former Assistant U.S. Attorney and deputy press secretary in George H. W. Bush’s White House.) In other political narratives, the fixer might be a cynical alcoholic, or a gleeful player like Gloria Allred. Not Pope. She’s the BlackBerry-wielding flack as avenging angel. Her employees, each of whom she’s rescued from rock bottom, describe themselves as “gladiators in suits”; they say that their boss “wears the white hat.” Despite, or perhaps because of, these dollops of praise, Pope comes off as a bit of a buzzkill, all glares and Sorkinesque lectures, eyes welling with righteousness…Olivia Pope’s greatest character defect is her sexual history with the President, but that just suggests she’s a woman worth risking the White House for.

An even better example of this, I think, was the incident a couple of episodes ago when Olivia asks Huck (Guillermo Díaz), a former CIA operative with what seems like a serious case of PTSD, to torture one of his former employees. It’s a totally horrific thing for her to ask, and the scene that follows is shocking, Huck relapsing like, as he describes himself, an addict, the whir of a drill, a man screaming, bleeding onto sheet plastic. It’s a doubly awful thing she’s done here, not just ordering someone tortured, but asking Huck to do something she knows will damage his already flimsy soul. And there’s no indication that she needed to do it at all to get the information she needs (the show reinforces the misconception that torture produces accurate intelligence)—a reporter for a Washington paper even beats Olivia to the killer’s identity simply by using the tools of his trade. The show just seemed to expect that we’ll trust that Olivia is On the Side of Right rather than wondering how far this woman’s self-righteousness will lead her, how willing she is to crush people to fulfill her aims.

A story about a Washington woman who is an amoral fixer would be pretty interesting, and Scandal has the ingredients to be an interesting anti-heroine show. Scandal’s at its best when it’s a story about people who are channeling their worst tendencies, whether it’s womanizing or a talent for snooping, towards good projects, when Olivia’s firm functions as a form of rehab. And with the other characters in the show, Shonda Rhimes seems relatively comfortable portraying them as broken or fallen in a way that makes them more interesting. Olivia, by contrast, is less a gladiator in a suit than a ruler-wielding Mother Superior whose authority is unimpeachable. She’s not to blame for ordering torture because her cause is just. She’s not doing anything wrong by schtupping the president because he started it, and besides, his wife is the worst.

What makes anti-heroes fascinating when they work is that they make decisions are reprehensible, but that we can understand and even sympathize with given the framework and worldview those characters are operating within. The fact that unlike Walter White or Jimmy McNulty, Olivia’s always in the right actually means that she her and the show she’s operating within are more potentially amoral: her permanent correctness means a moral reckoning isn’t necessary. I can’t help but thinking of Patty Hewes, the lawyer on Damages who makes Olivia’s so-called Gladiator in a Suit look like a fluffy baby duck. She is a wretched mother, a deeply unpredictable mentor, a person who does overwhelming harm to the lives of people she encounters. But unlike Olivia, Patty appears to know who and what she is. It would be nice if Scandal developed the self-confidence to give Olivia the same kind of self-awareness.