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Seeing Scandal

1368502268916Written by: Ray Ford

Listening to “Ba Da” by: Gregory Isaacs

On April 5, 2012, Shonda Rhimes’s television drama, Scandal, hit the airwaves and took the nation by storm. Since then, millions of viewers ranging from ages 18-60 (plus or minus), gather in living rooms and at viewing parties to watch Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) and her team of “gladiators” do away with the amoral skeletons that tend to fall out of the closets of society’s upper crust–while each of them attempts to keep their own personal demons at bay. Scandal is a hybrid genre series, which means it is loaded with suspense, fraught with drama, and because the writers fuse the two so well, it thrills its viewers to the point of exhaustion. As the second season comes to a close, next week being its finale, Ms. Rhimes says that, “[the show is] going to leave everybody over the summer, I hope, with their mouths hanging open a bit, asking how the hell they’re going to get out of this…We end the season in a way that explodes the premise of the show in a way that’s good and strong and hopefully sticks with bold story telling.” Aside from being a great teaser for the season’s culminating episode, Ms. Rhimes’s use of the word premise should not be taken solely at face value because Scandal has a tendency to leave space for inferences based on its foundational premise—Olivia Pope as fixer and mistress. The genius of Scandal, aside from how it unapologetically casts a black woman as its lead character (the last being Teresa Graves as Christie Love in 1974), is that it is loaded with tropes, symbolism, and historical innuendo that not only adds depth and range to the storyline and its characters, but also digs into American history as well. The question is—how many viewers have actually seen it?

There is a distinct difference between looking and seeing, just as there is a difference between listening and hearing. To look at something or someone only allows the viewer to notice and confirm existence–it is a superficial act of visual perception that only admires and negotiates outward appearance. For example, to look at Scandal confirms that Olivia Pope is a former employee and mistress of the President of the United States of America, Fitzgerald Thomas Grant, III. Looking also confirms that Ms. Pope is talented, unrelenting, emotive, oozes sophistication, is the head of a “crisis management” firm that employs four very unique individuals, has a tendency to wear white (pants suits and coats), and lives on a life threatening rollercoaster ride. However, looking at Olivia Pope does not do her justice because it makes her an extremely flat character, which is heightened by the lack of information given about her past throughout the series. It has been argued that Olivia Pope is a one-dimensional character because she does not seem to learn or grow from her life and career lessons. However, once the viewer is able to see Olivia Pope she and the series become even more complex than its suspenseful plot twists and turns.

Seeing, which is also an act of visual perception, is the act of looking with the intent to understand and perceive. When a person chooses to see, he or she is attempting to look beyond the surface and into the cultural, philosophical, social, and psychological realms of a person or thing to ascertain meaning and motivation. For example, the name Olivia translates to olive tree–its branches are symbols of wisdom and olive oil is used for illumination and medicinal purposes. The name Pope is directly associated with the Catholic Church and the power and ability to resolve dogmatic arguments. Thus, by collective definition, Olivia Pope is the very meaning of her name—a source of wisdom and power that possesses the ability to solve the problems of the elite. What else can the viewer see? What does her wardrobe communicate to the viewer? Olivia Pope has a tendency to wear white because it communicates her mood and motivation in that particular scene or episode to the viewer. The color white is a symbol of purity, innocence, good—it is the color of angels and gods. So, when Ms. Pope wears an all white pants suit, she will more than likely be taking the high road in that particular episode. However, when she wears a white coat and is dressed in a dark blouse and pants, she is projecting the good versus evil binary—light versus darkness—and her motivation in that scene or episode will be to appear good and heroic, while she secretly makes decisions that will end up harming others, whether friend or foe. Ms. Pope also allows the viewer to see her as emotionally, ethically, or morally ambiguous when she wears the color gray. Olivia Pope spends much of her time going back and forth about her on and off affair with the president, which suspends her emotions between what she knows is right and what she knows to be wrong.

Another interesting way to see Scandal and how it communicates to its viewers is by noticing the four unique employees that work for Olivia Pope—Harrison Right (Columbus Short), Abby Whelan (Darby Stanchfield), Quinn Perkins/Lindsay Dwyer (Katie Lowes), and Huck (Gulliermo Diaz). As mentioned earlier, viewers know very little about Ms. Pope’s past and overall personality, but it is through the four unique individuals that work for her that allows the viewer to see Olivia Pope in a more definitive light–because they are all physical manifestations of her psyche. It should come as no surprise, then, that Ms. Pope is the only one that can reach each of these four characters emotionally—at the core of their being. The most poignant example being the “Seven Fifty-Two” episode, when Huck pulled the unconscious memory of his family into his conscious mind. Sigmund Freud asserted that conscious thoughts of the day are transferred to, and stored in the unconscious mind and made to wait. The functions of the unconscious mind, specifically the thoughts in it, are comparable to a holding pattern experienced by an aircraft. The thoughts, like an aircraft, are circling in a state of suspension, waiting for a signal to land (Freud 29). For Huck, that signal was being trapped in a crate, which mimicked his being locked in a hole for months at a time. Being that Huck is an extension of Ms. Pope’s psyche (the tenacious part of her that is unafraid to indulge in other people’s pain), she is the only one that can get through to him—to give him focus and stop repeating “seven-fifty-two,” which was the exact time that he last saw his wife and son.

Harrison Right is the part of Ms. Pope that out thinks and intimidates the opponent with words. Harrison, like Ms. Pope, is very manipulative and stops at nothing to achieve the goal set forth. Abby Whelan is the moral and ethical voice in Olivia Pope’s mind that the viewer cannot hear. At times Abby’s perspective seems judgmental, but it is her voice that is essentially a projection of Ms. Pope’s thoughts—she says what Olivia thinks. In the episode “The Other Woman,” Abby leaves no opinion unturned, as she explains how married men never leave their wives for their mistresses.

Quinn Perkins, who began the series as Lindsay Dwyer, represents Ms. Pope’s quasi-innocence and naivety’ about life and circumstance. Quinn Perkins was thrust into and essentially forced to be one of Ms. Pope’s “gladiators,” because she had no legitimate life options after being acquitted for her boyfriend’s murder. Thus, Quinn enters the “gladiator’s” life with a lack of knowledge and confidence in herself and about her job—she has no sense of personal direction or control of her situation–she is essentially relegated to going with the flow. What the viewer sees in Quinn Perkins is a psychological extension of what he or she sees in Olivia Pope—a woman who has no control of her personal life, including her relationship with the president. Moreover, she does not know what route to take to move forward with her life (Senator Davis and Jake Ballard)—or if moving forward is even an option.

So how do these characters fit the “gladiator” mold if they are extensions of Olivia Pope’s psyche? A gladiator is defined as a person engaged in a controversy or debate, especially in public—a disputant. Another definition of gladiator is a person [who is] usually a professional combatant, a captive, or a slave, trained to entertain the public by engaging in mortal combat…Each of the characters are loyal to Ms. Pope for removing them from their own negative circumstances, that much is evident. However, Ms. Pope is a chess player, not a checkers player, meaning that every move or decision she makes is for a reason and her choice of “gladiators” should be seen as no different. Therefore, it can be reasoned that Ms. Pope handpicked her “gladiators” knowing that she could train them to fight, as she wanted them to. Are the “gladiators” captive to Olivia Pope? Maybe this is the implicit conspiracy of Scandal. Hopefully season three will answer some of these questions.

When looked at, Scandal is exactly what its title suggests it to be—a series of non-linear actions, events, and circumstances that if not subdued by Ms. Pope and her team of “gladiators,” have the ability to cripple the political, ethical, and moral integrity of the United States government, not mention the potential international backlash. However, when Scandal is seen, the exterior shell of characters and the plot is ripped away, exposing a more in-depth perspective of the show. This is also true for music, feature films, documentaries, and literature.

More questions to see Scandal:

How does Huck relate to Mark Twains’s character Huckleberry Finn?

How does the scandal between Olivia Pope and Fitzgerald Grant relate to the controversy of Thomas Jefferson and Sarah “Sally” Hemmings?

Works Cited

Freud, Sigmund. “Consciousness and What Is Unconscious.” Identities: Race, Class, Gender,and Nationality. Ed. Linda Martin Alcoff and Eduardo Mendieta. Malden: Blackwell,

2003. 29-31. Print.

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