As of Thursday night’s finale, “Scandal” is a show about the quiet intimacy of Washington politics. Not shadowy counterintelligence organizations. Not international terrorist parents bickering over their child. Not big, bloody murders. Not selling the black woman star of the show on a digital auction block. Not big, torrid, forbidden love affairs. Last night’s finale, in which the presidential front-runners named their running mates, reset the series as a story about women trying to climb the political ladder and all the humanity they’ve had to slough to gain higher ground.
To accomplish that, the writers have spent the season deconstructing Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) as viewers thought they knew her. In the series pilot, we watched Liv saunter confidently through the corridors of power, making politicians’ misdeeds disappear. And just before that episode ended, we saw her cede her public semblance of complete control in order to make out with the married president (Tony Goldwyn). Back then, we just thought that Liv was a woman in a kind of desperate, messy love and that love would be her Achilles’ heel.
But what we’ve found at the end of five seasons of the saga of Fitz and Liv (and Jake, played by Scott Foley, Liv’s other lover, an assassin-turned-vice-presidential-nominee) is that love was never Liv’s weakness. Liv’s weakness has always been ambition. This became more apparent after the introduction of her father, Rowan (Joe Morton), in the show’s third season. It’s no mistake that one of his most memorable early scenes — the “twice as good” speech — was reprised via flashback in this episode or that Liv actually uttered the phrase “twice as good to get half as much” herself just before the episode closed.
“Scandal” has been working hard to sell the idea that Liv can’t resist her genes or her upbringing. The series may have started with its characters claiming to wear the White Hat of Justice, but they have long abandoned that conceit, and Liv, at her father’s prompting, has led the charge. She has thrown over Fitz and Jake, both of whom have been very slow to realize that Liv’s affection is only as reliable as each man’s proximity to power. She was madly in love with Fitz until he tried to make her a first lady and not an all-powerful political adviser. In last night’s finale, she reclaims Jake from her father’s control, but when he yet again suggests that they leave Washington and live a quiet life of suburban bliss, she tells him that she didn’t work this hard only to lead a “mediocre” life.
Liv, who cannot run for president herself, wants a president’s governing power. She wants it far more than romantic love or a stable, scandal-free relationship. She wants it more than sanity. In Season 5, Liv has beaten a man to death, threatened her friends, denied herself mental-health care, berated or brushed off her lovers and used underhanded tactics to get ahead. Now her candidate — the president’s ex-wife, and Olivia’s ex-rival — Mellie Grant (Bellamy Young), is at the precipice of presidential office, and it’s clear to the audience that Liv will stop at nothing to get her there.
Since next season will be shortened, in light of Kerry Washington’s second pregnancy, and because next season may be the show’s last, it will be fascinating to watch Liv’s next steps in the race for the White House, especially one of her glaring miscalculations: that she can puppeteer a woman president — Mellie Grant, of all people — as easily as she bended Mellie’s husband to her will. Mellie is just as formidable as Liv, and their current alliance is an uneasy one. It’s hard to imagine a completely lawless, loveless, unprincipled Olivia Pope. But Season 6 may certainly give us one.