Scandal is back on our televisions, which means it’s time to discuss, yet again, what an awful person President Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn) is. “Fitz and Olivia’s relationship is so tortured it’s not even fun to watch, and Fitz has been such a sad bag o’ bones he couldn’t possibly be an active, loving partner to anyone,” writes Margaret Lyons at Vulture. And at NPR, fabulously eloquent Fitz-hater Linda Holmes reminds us that “you should assume that everything Fitz does (he’s the president, you see) has various ulterior motives, mostly relating to feeling sorry for himself. If Fitz donated a kidney, it would be for the tax deduction.” But watching last week’s season premiere of Scandal made it clearer than ever to me that Fitz’s terribleness is sort of the point.
Scandal is about a lot of things. It’s about what it feels like to live through this deranged, fever-dream moment in American politics–for all those folks who think it’s bonkers that Fitz killed a Supreme Court Justice, remember a lot of people think that Hillary Clinton is also a murderer, and that it’s sort of surprising that Obama hasn’t been accused of something similar in between the desperate attempts to prove his foreignness. It’s about the surveillance state. It’s, as Gene Demby and Stacia L. Brown point out at PostBourgie, about race to an extent that’s somewhat surprising for a Shonda Rhimes show, and shows some signs of being even more and more organically about race than it has been in previous seasons. But for me, this episode felt mostly like it was about the terribleness of being a woman in Fitzgerald Grant’s orbit, about the utter shamefulness of having to humiliate yourself and violate your core principals, time and time again, for this disgraceful little man.
This is not to deny that the episode is also strongly about race, and about the twice as good for half as much idea that Olivia’s father, Rowan Pope (Joe Morton) berates her about in the show’s opening sequence (and really, read Gene and Stacia on this point). But it seemed revealing that one of his complaints to his daughter was about the particularly gendered way in which she’d abased herself to Fitzgerland Grant. “You know to aim higher. At the very least, you could have aimed for Chief of Staff, Secretary of State,” Rowan ranted at his daughter. “First lady. Do you have to be so mediocre?” Rowan may be presented as something of a villain, a man who threatens his daughter, who thinks it’s in her best interests to disappear, and who seems to have an ugly history with her, given the way she flinches from his touch. But much of the rest of this episode is deeply engaged with the idea that First Lady is a bad job in any circumstances, and that being First Lady to a man like Fitz is among the worst humiliations a woman as smart as Olivia Pope could face.
“The upsetting thing about being as educated as I am and as intelligent as I am is that being First Lady is profoundly boring,” Mellie tells Fitz towards the beginning of their climactic confrontation at the end of the episode. “What did you call me? ornamental? Non-functional? I am dying on the vine here. Given me a war to run, or the CIA, or something. I use the copious amounts of free time that I have to think.” Whether you like Mellie or still root for Fitz, her speech is a terrific statement of what it’s like to be asked to commit mental suicide for a living.
And so much of the hour is about how little Fitz makes that worthwhile, how little he’s done to make Mellie feel like at least they’re involved in some sort of joint project, that she has something to contribute to a shared vision, to legislative progress, to the good of the country. “I wouldn’t need to smile on Oprah if you didn’t screw your whore every chance you got,” Mellie tells Fitz, and it’s a devastating accusation not just because Fitz wants her to do that, but because really, that’s all Fitz wants her to do. Maybe if she had a war, or the CIA, or a task force that was researching signature legislation, there would be something in this for Mellie. But all Fitz wants, as Mellie puts it, is for her to “play the good wife. Control me. And eventually the nation.” Mellie’s willingness to undergo the ritual humiliations to which Fitz perpetually subjects her to is the way the he demonstrates that he’s strong, that he’s influential, that he deserves to be followed. And Fitz’s affair with Olivia provides perpetual fuel to this dynamic, providing new ways for Fitz to shame his wife and see if she’ll take it.
This is the curdled aftermath of what Holmes described, when The Newsroom debuted, as Aaron Sorkin’s belief that “nothing is more dramatically important than a man becoming great, and men cannot become great without women to inspire, provoke, and drive them.” In the end, those women aren’t grateful. They’re not proud. They don’t accept, with weepy gratitude, the giant rock you kept in your desk and that you told them you’d purchased just to mess with them. They’re insane with rage because of what you’ve done to them. And in the brief moment when Mellie dares to put herself first before getting into yet another negotiation with Fitz and Olivia, when she tells the two of them, “The truth does not work. It does not work for me,” she’s a hero for putting her own needs, if only for a moment, above Fitz’s astonishing megalomania and privilege.
Mellie isn’t the only woman in this episode whose self-respect gets dashed on the rocks of Fitz’s needs and Fitz’s self-assurance. Sally Langston may be self-righteous, and she may have tried to stage a coup after Fitz had been shot. But when Fitz asks her to make public appearances for him, her temporary refusal has the same flare of dying self-respect as Mellie’s protest. “I will not be surrendering that piece of my soul. I am the Lord’s Witness,” Sally tells Fitz. But he talks her into it anyway, this time by appealing to her values, but saying that she’ll be doing the Christian thing, giving him time to mend his relationship with his family.
Scandal hasn’t always seemed to know what to do with Sally Langston over the first two years of its run, but her character arrives in this episode in her final scene with Fitz. Sally could have been a way for Rhimes to argue that women in power can act like men, to distinguish women who have achieved power through politics and bureaucracy and sheer professional talent are somehow different from First Ladies, from wives, from mistresses. But, lulled by Fitz’s feigned respect for family, Sally confesses that something different is true. “He’s still the same Daniel Douglas,” she reflects of her husband’s adjustment to Washington. “He’s just fun, now. I’m the most powerful woman in the free world. There are challenges associated with that.” Even when men are in the same position as women in Washington, they’re better off. They get to be fun. They get to be free. And in a way that will never be true for Mellie, and would never be true of Olivia in her place, they get to be independent of their powerful wives.
This is why it’s heartbreaking to watch Sally fall for Fitz’s latest gambit when he tells her “There will be a window. Climb through it. Be bold. Condemn me. Become the moral center. Use the moment to rise. Can you do that?” When Sally wants to know “Why are you helping me? Why are you extending kindness?” Fitz knows that it’s not really “Because we are not married to one another.” It’s because her gambit will fail, because Sally will come across as prim and prudish and square, while his promise to do better renders him fresh and new and relatable once again. The cycle of redemption, like all things, rebounds to Fitz’s benefit. It’s an almost despairing note from Scandal, and one that sets up an interesting potential endgame for the show. If Fitz reaches a point where, like Anthony Weiner, there’s no one other than his wife who seems willing to continue to forgive him, Scandal would be delineating the outer limits of what white men from powerful families can’t get away with. But at this moment, that seems awfully far away.
And finally, there’s James, who is a man rather than a woman, but is in a position traditionally occupied by women, that of the political spouse. James has already allowed himself to be bought off once before when Cyrus offered him the dream of his heart, a chance to adopt a child. And it’s queasy to see the transactional nature of their relationship play out once again as Cyrus asks James to betray his professional fraternity. “If you play, too, you get a prize. A scoop,” Cyrus tells his husband, not even bothering to disguise the exchange. “You owe me!” James tells him plaintively after fessing up, realizing, perhaps, that he struck a bargain without figuring out what he’d get in return. When Olivia tells Fitz and Mellie that “Cyrus can control him,” there’s no sadness there, just a stated fact. By the end of the episode, James has been, like political wives before him, knocked out with a powerful dose of drugs, though administered by one of Rowan’s minions, rather than taken voluntarily as a Father’s Little Helper.
Maybe that’s the best way to live, to sleep through the betrayals and humiliations that other people will put you through, and that they’ll justify as acts of state, as part of the greater good. But Scandal seems to know the truth behind all those terms and justifications, that the country is really a stand-in for the person of Fitzgerald Grant. If he was worth it, if Fitz was something other than a man resolving his daddy issues on the largest scale possible, if he had a vision for the country other than acting as a retaining wall against Sally Langston’s ideas, it might be easy for the show to suggest that this is all somehow worth it. But Scandal is too smart to fall into that trap. But stripping Fitz’s presidency down to his affair, Scandal‘s reminding us how presumptuous it is to even suggest that it’s ever worth it.