Recall, if you will, the buzz surrounding “Scandal’s” 2012 debut on ABC. Kerry Washington’s Olivia Pope was the first black female lead star in a network series in nearly 40 years, and viewers — especially black women viewers — were giddy with anticipation. We rushed to Twitter at 9:00 p.m. on Thursdays, tweeting our affirmation of Olivia’s outfits and our gasps at the show’s many twists and turns. Back then, Liv was a classic nighttime television heroine: on top of her game professionally and a bit of a mess whenever she left the office. But the last few seasons have turned both her professional and personal lives into something increasingly uncomfortable to watch.
In the first two seasons, we loved watching her solve political power players’ problems and swill wine in her mostly-white wardrobe. We loved that she’d amassed a staff at Olive Pope and Associates who would’ve fallen to terrible fates, had she not intervened and made “gladiators of them.” In short: “Scandal” was a good time. Even when it went dark with the occasional murder and cover-up, even when Olivia’s torrid affair with President Fitzgerald Grant seemed to eclipse any other plot points the show tried to offer us, it remained an addictive viewing experience.
Things started to go bad a few seasons back, when Olivia’s parents were introduced. Her dad, Eli Pope (Joe Morton), made a frequent practice of dressing her down with the kind of long, impassioned monologues we’d grown accustomed to watching Liv herself deliver to powerful men and women in the past. In the face of her father’s disapproval, Liv would cower. Then her mother — international terrorist Maya Pope (Khandi Alexander) — came along and she too made a practice of either cowing or tricking Liv.
Then, at the beginning of last season, Liv was kidnapped and sold at auction. Even for a show that had introduced convoluted domestic terrorism and counterintelligence plots, kidnapping, psychologically torturing, and selling the series star seemed not only far-fetched but ill-advised. The fallout of that plot arc has continued into Season 5, and it hit peak preposterousness Thursday night when Liv bludgeoned a man to death with a metal chair.
Since the man in question, Andrew Nichols (Jon Tenney), was responsible for her kidnapping, torture, and sale, it makes sense that he’d be the one who finally triggered her (woefully undiagnosed) post-traumatic stress disorder. Off and on, with very little consistency, the show has depicted Liv’s flashbacks to her time in captivity, seemingly to remind us that she’s been scarred by what happened.
The flashbacks were front and center throughout last night’s episode, but what’s been absent over the season and half since the kidnap occurred is a real arc addressing that experience. Liv never sought counseling, despite friends suggesting it, and the only time she’s even hinted at the incident’s long-term effects was during a screaming match with a colleague. Though the show has gone out of its way to characterize Liv as someone who can be privately vulnerable — she cries and self-medicates with copious amounts of wine — “Scandal” keeps missing opportunities to specifically address Liv’s mental health and wellness. Liv is a character who has never experienced a guileless, power-balanced relationship, from her affair with the president and her emotionally abusive parents to colleagues whose checkered pasts have often left them more beholden to Liv than equal to her. Given the extent of imbalance in her relationships, the amount of emotional and verbal abuse she tolerates from almost everyone she encounters (few network TV characters have been called “whores” and “sluts” as often as Olivia Pope has), and the physical abuse she’s endured, it’s strange that we’ve never had a therapy arc on this show.
According to data from the Center for Disease Control, black women have long faced high rates of depression and low rates of treatment. “Scandal” has been so groundbreaking in many ways; it’s curious that it hasn’t seized a really ripe, low-hanging opportunity to be more progressive in its depiction of black women’s struggles to safeguard their mental health.
Contrast this oversight with what happens on the series that airs after “Scandal”, “How to Get Away with Murder.” Its star, Annalise Keating (Viola Davis), is also manhandled and name-called with some regularity. Attempts have been made on her life, just like they’ve been made on Liv’s. Her lovers have berated her, just as Liv’s have. But the writers on “How to Get Away with Murder” have mercifully afforded Annalise at least one character she can turn to when she’s under extreme duress: her mother. In fact, nearly the entire hour of “How to Get Away with Murder’s” second season finale took place at Annalise’s childhood home, where she let her mother and siblings nurse her back to mental and physical health.
That Liv has gone almost five full seasons without a similar outlet may have made her murderous turn last night more plausible, but it’s also an indictment of how the character has been handled over the years. As “Scandal” draws closer to this season’s finale, it’s difficult to root for any outcome other than Liv walking herself into an in-patient counseling facility.