This post discusses the plot of the first episode of the fourth season of “Scandal.”
In between the death of a core member of the cast, the gonzo liberation of first lady Mellie Grant (Bellamy Young) and the political rebellion of President Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn), a leak of top-secret files and the news that ex-Washington fixer Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) is reading “Gone Girl,” last night was a typically bang-up return for ABC’s wild hit political drama “Scandal.”
And it was particularly interesting to see how Shonda Rhimes’s controversy-courting series handled a particularly touchy issue: a potentially false allegation of sexual assault. This has become a subject so sensitive that it is almost impossible to discuss beyond a basic agreement that a small percentage of rape charges are untrue. But “Scandal,” as is its wont, dived right in and tackled the topic in a way that says a lot about how this fever dream of a show handles politics.
The setup: Olivia Pope, back in Washington after an extended beach vacation, gets a late-night call to the house of Sen. Stephanie Vaughn (Jessica Tuck). Once there, Olivia finds another senator bloodied, twitching and sprawled across a busted piece of furniture after an apparent fall from the balcony atop Vaughn’s sweeping staircase. Vaughn claims he got that way when she defended herself against her colleague’s attempt to rape her.
As Olivia questions Vaughn, her story begins to fall apart. And in a classic, staccato Olivia monologue, she takes her misbehaving client apart.
“You’re lying, Senator. You. Are lying. About all of it. I hate to accuse a woman who says she’s been sexually assaulted of lying. I really do,” Olivia tells Vaughn. “I’d fight to the death to stand by any woman who says she was assaulted. Women don’t lie about that. There is overwhelming evidence that women do not lie about being sexually assaulted, but you are. And I know you are. Because when that happens, when a man grabs you, puts his hands on you, you do not forget it. You remember every single detail, every touch. So I’m going to give you a moment, and when I come back, I want to hear the truth about what happened that night.”
There is nothing subtle about the content of the speech. It bolsters Olivia’s feminist credentials with that pledge “I’d fight to the death!” It backs up her position with a blunt statement of fact, that declaration “There is overwhelming evidence that women do not lie” — adding “for the most part” might have disrupted the momentum of the speech and Olivia’s towering certainty. And it painted Vaughn as not just an exception to the rule about female behavior Olivia lays out but a traitor for daring to cast doubt on all the women who do live up to that standard.
Also classic to “Scandal” is the plot developments that follow next. The rape allegation turns out to be not exactly fake. Vaughn’s alleged attacker turns out to have been a rapist for real. It is just that he was targeting Vaughn’s aide, not the senator herself. And in an additional twist, Vaughn turns out to have set up her young employee to be attacked in the hopes of discrediting him.
Suddenly the story is not really about a false rape accusation anymore. It is about the kind of icky, human monstrosity that “Scandal” specializes in.
The plot is a perfect example of the way that “Scandal” uses real-world politics to blast off into a giddy new stratosphere. If in the real world, the intelligence bureaucracy feels unaccountable, in the world of “Scandal,” it is shooting down passenger planes in the kind of false-flag attack that launches a million Alex Jones radio broadcasts. If in the real world, presidents of the United States authorize torture, in “Scandal,” they are the ones shooting down the planes. And women do not just get raped on “Scandal,” they get terrorized by their ex-husbands or set up by their bosses.
This is both a strength and weakness of “Scandal.” It spends so much time pitting Olivia against monsters of Shonda Rhimes’s own, macabre imagination that it sometimes blows past the more mundane horrors that the rest of us really have to live with.