Emily Nussbaum, in this week’s New Yorker, argues that ABC’s Scandal, an evening soap opera by Shonda Rhimes about the inner circle of a moderate Republican president, is the more compelling show about politics than Netflix’s remake of the British classic series House of Cards, which follows the machinations of an apolitical but Democratic Majority Whip. “Like much genre fiction, ‘Scandal’ uses its freedom to indulge in crazy what-ifs,” she writes. “What if everyone but the President knew that the election was fixed? What if the President tried to divorce his pregnant wife?”
What she doesn’t say, but what her piece helped clarify for me, is the what-ifs that make all the difference. House of Cards asks us to imagine a tired question: what if the people who run things in Washington were amoral manipulators interested only in the accumulation of their own power? It’s a scenario we’ve considered before, and the results are the same: the show’s conviction that its come to new and enlightening conclusions mostly seems smug. Scandal‘s big what-if, by contrast, is genuinely fresh, and actually advanced by the utterly bonkers conspiracy theory at the heart of the second season. As it’s emerged that President Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn) is the beneficiary of the decision by his wife Mellie (a tremendous Bellamy Young) and his top aides, including his now-chief-of-staff Cyrus Beene (Jeff Perry) and his sometimes-lover Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), to steal the election in collaboration with a nefarious billionaire manufacturer of voting machines, Scandal‘s asked, over and over again, what makes someone a good vessel for the talents and ambitions of other people, not what makes a man a great leader in and of himself. It’s a terrific question, and one that exposes the central lie of the presidency, that someone can do it alone and do it well, and that the person who sits in the Oval Office actually has the full capacities to make decisions for the country.
It’s a question that presents a problem for the show, because its main character, Olivia, a fixer of Washington scandals, has no particular political ambitions, or policy convictions—she appears to not have been of Grant’s party, but was talked into working for him—and the main reason she is so passionate about Grant’s ascendency was that she fell for him. Scandal began as a problem-of-the-week show in which Olivia’s genius helped all manner of unsavory Washington types get themselves out of trouble, and occasionally caused justice to be done. But as the show’s become a much more serialized drama, and the problems have moved out of Olivia’s office, she’s become less interesting, even less necessary, to the show that was ostensibly built around her.
But it’s in the supporting cast that the answers to that question of why Fitz, a man with a great head of hair and a corrosive relationship with his politician father, but no particularly discernible mind for politics and a tendency to get distracted by his emotions, is worth supporting even to the point of criminality and utter moral compromise, get truly fascinating. Cyrus, who is gay, believes that living his life openly and honestly with his husband James means that he never could have fully exercised his political talents fully. “I was not made to be chief of staff,” he told James in an agonizing scene in which he confessed to stealing the election. “I was made to be the president.” Fitz’s emptiness, even his distraction by his affair with Olivia, were part of what made him perfect for Cyrus to attach himself to. His lack of interest in policy or judgement in matters of foreign affairs made Cyrus essential to Fitz. It wasn’t merely that Cyrus could ride Fitz’s coattails to the White House—it was that he would have something to do when he got there.
Mellie Grant, Fitz’s wife, made a similar calculation to Cyrus, though it’s one she’s made with somewhat more regret, and often reconsidered, given the length and intensity of Fitz’s affair with Olivia. “I wanted you to be president, I did. I am unashamed of how much I wanted the White House for us. And I can be an animal,” Mellie told Fitz in the most recent episode. “Cyrus stole the election. He decided. And he got Liv onboard, and Verna. And He got me. He got me. It was Cryus. I’m not trying ot excuse what I did. I’m not trying to say I didn’t have a part.” Without stating it directly, Scandal has often suggested that Mellie, a poison bonbon in a Saint John suit, or First Lady-appropriate maternity clothes, is a more competent political operator than her husband. When his affair with Olivia has threatened her position in the past, Mellie’s gone out among the public to take up protest signs and garner terrific press. She believes she was responsible for molding Fitz into a man independent of his belittling, emotionally abusive father. And when Fitz asked Mellie for a divorce, it almost seemed like she relished the prospect of the end of her work glorifying a man less capable than she could have been, had she grabbed the chance. As she laid out a vision for a single life that would include a run for office, I was excited to see her try, and sad to see her return, later, to battling Cyrus for Fitz’s attentions after he shut both of them out of his decision-making.
Cyrus may have a better cause than Mellie to believe that there is a ceiling on his ambitions. But they’re both people who curtailed themselves, and chose to fulfill a limited degree of those ambitions through someone else’s career. It’s an inherently precarious position, as they both discover as Fitz, after discovering that his electoral victory was a fraud, begins drinking in the shower, holding meetings without Cyrus, and sending in SEAL teams to rescue captured spies, with disastrous and embarrassing results.
In comparison to other shows on television, Scandal‘s decision to have its president be a white man is actually somewhat conservative. Both 24, which had a black man and a woman in the role, and The West Wing, which elected a Latino, were more ambitious about who could reach the presidency. But it’s precisely the throwback nature of that casting that lets Scandal ask its rather radical questions about why we elevate certain kinds of people to the highest office in the land. In its own way, Scandal is much more cynical in House of Cards. The latter suggests that white men like Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) maintain power in Washington through trickery and exploitation of people who actually believe in something. Scandal treats their persistent dominance of the political system not as a sign of cleverness, but of profound mediocrity and a low assessment of the capacities of the electorate to appreciate the merits of gay, female, and non-white candidates. Frank Underwood may be panting after the presidency, but it’s a fantasy that he’d be the smartest, most manipulative person in Washington. Cyrus and Mellie, and people like them, know precisely how limited that office is, and exactly what they’ll do with someone like Frank when he gets into it.