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Black power, black responsibility and the big question for Olivia Pope from ‘Scandal’

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This post discusses the events of the third season of “Scandal.”

“Scandal,” Shonda Rhimes’s high-octane Washington drama about a mopey, mediocre president (Tony Goldwyn), the crisis fixer he loves (Kerry Washington) and the woman to whom he is actually married (Bellamy Young) has always been two shows. At first, it was a political procedural with a long-arc story about Olivia Pope’s affair with President Fitzgerald Grant grafted onto it. Then, during its second and third seasons, “Scandal” stayed about the affair, but junked the clients of Olivia’s firm in favor of a focus on an unaccountable national security organization, B-613, run by Olivia’s father, Rowan Pope (Joe Morton).

After a season finale that featured a whole passel of crazy, I tend to agree with Vulture critic Margaret Lyons that: “I used to think of ‘Scandal’ as a very tense show. Now I wonder if maybe it’s more of a miserable one.” But even as “Scandal” has piled bombings on top of meningitis poisonings on top of murder-inspired sex to the point of exhaustion, I keep watching because of what Shonda Rhimes and her characters have to say about blackness and power in the moments between the crazy.

“Scandal” has been consistently concerned with race. When we first learned that Olivia and Fitz were seeing each other, “Scandal” played with her fear that she was Sally Hemings to his Thomas Jefferson. Olivia is free, rather than enslaved, and a prominent businesswoman and political operator, but Fitz occupies an office with vastly expanded authority. Race is not the only source of the power differential in their relationship, but the racial difference between Fitz and Olivia inflects that profound imbalance.

But this season has turned its focus away from the power Olivia lacks, and towards what she has done with the authority and reach she does have. When “Scandal” kicked off this season, it was with a lecture from father to daughter about her lack of ambition. Rowan’s familiar injunction to Olivia that “You have to be twice as good as them to get half of what they have,” has been the line from that monologue with the most staying power. But I was struck by Rowan’s injunction to Olivia about the reach of what power she earned. “For God’s sakes. You know to aim higher,” Rowan, who has commandeered an intelligence bureaucracy that is not answerable even to the president, told Olivia. “At the very least you could have aimed for chief of staff. Secretary of State. First Lady — do you have to be so mediocre?”

If Rowan’s concern is that Olivia has worked twice as hard and gotten so little, Olivia’s mother, Marie Wallace (Khandi Alexander) — who happens to be an impeccably dressed international terrorist — is concerned with what Olivia is doing with what power she has accrued. “I’d rather be a traitor than what you are, Livy,” Marie told Olivia toward the end of this season. “Cleaning up those people’s messes, fixing up their lives. You think you’re family. But you’re nothing but the help, and you don’t even know it. If that’s all you want out of your life, baby, I guess it’s none of my business.” The way Olivia responds to those two conversations was the most interesting arc of the season.

“What else do you need? What service can I render for you today? Am I here to stroke your ego? Am I your cheerleader? Am I hear to wipe your tears? Am I your nanny?” Olivia demands of Fitz after talking to her mother. “Maybe I’m here to make you feel hot and manly and ready so you’re not jealous of your wife’s boyfriend.” The vice president declares Olivia’s job is “carrying out these little emotional assassinations.” When Fitz’s rival for the presidency starts peeling off interest groups, Olivia uses her pigmentation to reassure him that the NAACP will not defect. After a bombing, Olivia curses a network producer who cuts away from Fitz’s statement and towards his rival on the scene.

Her denial starts to crack. “How did we get like this? When did we stop being people?” Olivia asked Cyrus Beene, the White House chief of staff. “Were we ever people?” Cyrus throws back at her. “Or did serving at the pleasure of the president just help us to shed our pesky skins and unmask us as the monsters we really are?” By the end of last night’s season finale, Olivia has come to a decision. “Now it’s time for me to stand in my truth,” Olivia explained. “It’s me. I’m the thing that needs to be fixed. I’m the thing that needs to be handled. I’m the scandal.”

Initially, Olivia was the scandal because she was sleeping with the president of the United States. But in the seasons (and years) since, her sins have accumulated. She stole an election. She has enabled a man who killed a Supreme Court justice. She harbors a semi-reformed torturer. She has helped her mother, a terrorist, escape justice. She has kept Fitz, a decidedly mediocre man, in office to gratify her own ego.

The question that lingers over “Scandal” now, drawing closer than it ever has, is how Olivia Pope came to do these things. Was she lead astray by her heart, rather than following the counsel of her head? Was Olivia so tempted by the opportunity to burnish her own reputation by electing a president that she put aside all other considerations? Has her guilt over her continuing affair with Fitz made it easy to ask her to do unaskable things, including repairing the relationship between her lover and his wife? Or does her blackness and femaleness mean that Olivia can be given the kind of power no one really wants to have, the authority to scream at segment producers and rent herself out to provide cover, the ability to take the blame but not enough power that she needs to be protected?

Olivia’s parents are liberated from the burden of Fitzgerald Grant, each in profoundly different ways. Rowan Pope is so powerful that he can laugh at the president of the United States, at a white president of the United States, even when he is in captivity. And Marie Wallace is freed by her indifference and contempt. Rowan has captured the system. Marie prefers to dismantle it. But they spent much of the lead up to the season finale neither breaking the world, nor saving it, but tormenting each other. After Marie stabbed Rowan, he imprisoned her in a black site. Her response was just to smile.

The parents who have preached that Olivia should be twice as good, that she should refuse to be a maid, either literally or intellectually, are making even bigger wastes of their power than she is. “Scandal” is a huge hit, and even though it ended with Olivia Pope on a plane away from Rowan, Marie, and Fitz, I know she will be back in Washington next season. When she returns, I hope Rhimes makes time for Olivia to continue working out the big questions “Scandal” posed this season: If you are going to be twice as good for half as much, what should that half look like? And what does Olivia want it for?