(This is the 13th installment in a series that looks back at celebrity or pop culture news of the week.)
Abortion story lines are rarely featured on prime-time television (with a few exceptions). When they are, it’s even more unusual that it involves a main character — and that the character goes through with the procedure.
So Thursday night’s “Scandal” stunned quite a few viewers when D.C. fixer Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) had an abortion, a storyline that came out of nowhere. The audience had no idea that Olivia, finally together with President Fitz (Tony Goldwyn), was pregnant. Fitz didn’t even know she was pregnant.
In the middle of the episode, viewers suddenly saw Olivia arrive at a medical office and then lie down on an operating table as a doctor began the procedure. There was no dialogue from Olivia — just the sound of “Silent Night” playing in the background, along with voice-over of Olivia’s father Rowan (Joe Morton) delivering this speech in another scene:
“Family is a burden … a pressure point, soft tissue, an illness, an antidote to greatness. You think you’re better off with people who rely on you, depend on you, but you’re wrong, because you will inevitably end up needing them, which makes you weak, pliable. Family doesn’t complete you. It destroys you.”
Once viewers figured out what was happening, “Scandal” trended worldwide on Twitter and some cast members started weighing in:
— Joe Morton (@JOEtheMORTON) November 20, 2015
— Portia de Rossi (@portiaderossi) November 20, 2015
In her weekly recap podcast “Shondaland Revealed,” executive producer Betsy Beers interviewed Goldwyn and only briefly discussed Olivia’s pregnancy, calling it “the thing which is not spoken of.”
“It’s not spoken of in the episode at all,” Beers said. “It just happens, there’s no lead-up.”
“That’s what I thought was so brilliant about it,” Goldwyn added.
Before Thursday’s show started, ABC teased that Olivia Pope would make the “biggest decision” of her life, and carried a “due to adult content, viewer discretion is advised” message. The episode also focused on Planned Parenthood. In a major plot point, Mellie Grant (Bellamy Young) — the president’s ex-wife and a junior senator from Virginia — helped kill a Senate spending bill that would have made Planned Parenthood funding discretionary.
“By making that money discretionary, you give the people in this room the power to say, ‘You know what? We’re a little over budget this year. How about we don’t give that little ladies’ organization the full amount they’re asking for?’ So you don’t,” she told her fellow senators. “And then, next year, you give them even less, and even less the year after that, and you keep chipping away at their budget until, before you know it, Planned Parenthood no longer exists.”
So Mellie filibustered some help from the vice president Susan Ross (Artemis Pebdani), who stepped in to address the Senate. (“Now, I’m not up here to ask you about abortions which, as you know, only makes up 3 percent of all Planned Parenthood business … let’s talk about gonorrhea!”) Still, Mellie almost gave up because of exhaustion. “I don’t even know why I’m doing this, I’m a Republican,” she groaned in the bathroom to Olivia. “I just didn’t like [the other senator] telling me what I can’t do.” Eventually, Olivia gave her a pep talk and Mellie talked until the bill was dead.
After the episode aired, Planned Parenthood released a statement calling attention to the fact that this is the second time this storyline has happened on a Shonda Rhimes show; in 2011, Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh) got an abortion on “Grey’s Anatomy” Season 8 premiere.
“Shonda Rhimes used her platform to tell the world that if Planned Parenthood lost funding for contraception counseling, STI testing, cancer screenings, and safe, legal abortion — millions of people would suffer,” the organization said in a statement. “We applaud Shonda Rhimes tonight — and every Thursday night — for proving that when women are telling our stories, the world will pause and watch. We just hope those in Congress — and throughout the nation — who are steadfast on rolling the clock back on reproductive health care access are taking note.”
“Scandal” returns with new episodes in February.