The Search for The TV Anti-Heroine
Part 2: Shondaland
I’ve ranted and raved against Shonda Rhimes so many times over the past decade that at this juncture, its hard to think if there’s anything more to say about her. There are signs that maybe her moment has passed — her last ABC series was a huge disappointment, and ratings for her series have dropped so dramatically this past year, in a way, its very telling that she’s signed a deal with Netflix. But I think at this point, its worth doing one more key reassessment of her characters before they fade into obscurity.
Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) on Scandal has always seemed so much of a heroine to a certain group of viewers that its hard to understand why. She basically goes around D.C., making it possible for the powerful in Washington to keep getting away with the truly horrible things they do. Basically, she’s Ray Donavan with a better fashion sense. But over the past couple of years (and I have basically avoiding watching the series over this time, so all of my information is second hand), she seems to have reached a level of monstrosity that I think even Raymond Reddington would find offensive.
In one memorable episode last year, she met with the former Vice President who was recovering from a stroke (that she had helped induce, by the way). Now, the previous year, he had let a plot to have Olivia kidnapped and held hostage so he could effectively control the President. It’s understandable there’d be some bad blood, but I don’t think anyone expected her to beat him to death with a chair. In real time. Now, when Tony Soprano did this in the ‘College’ episode, it was shocking because it clearly established him as a villain. Other murders by lead characters have done the same. But what it did was effectively make Olivia no different than any of the other killers she spent the last four seasons covering up for. Yet, somehow, there was no outcry. If anything, people thought she deserved it.
Now, I purposely avoided all of Scandal last year — I was going through a kind of political withdrawal. But I know enough so that what I heard made this sound meek by comparison. Olivia had spent the last three seasons trying to bring down B613, the Consortium of Scandal. She’d succeeding at doing it at the end of every season, yet it was revived often the next episode. Never mind that. In the final episode, her father arranged for an executive order have the agency shut down. In that same episode, after arranging to have the vice president murdered (again), she tricked the President into reactivating, and making her the head. So basically, all those seasons where she tried to justify herself as the ‘white hat’ were just a lie.
Maybe some fans of the series will justify it by saying that this is what took to succeed in this D.C. But it just seems like the slapdash, confused writing, going for a payoff at the end of everything episode, seems to have hit a new kind of crazy. It’s as if Rhimes couldn’t make up her mind whether she was the hero or not, and decided that now she needed to be an antihero.
There’s a similar problem with How To Get Away With Murder, which, as I’ve mentioned in earlier articles, really is just a Damages ripoff. But, in a lot of ways, with each successive season, it becomes more and more clear that Annalyse Keating should not be mentioned in the same sentence as Patty Hewes. Viola Davis is a great actress, I don’t deny it, but no more than Kerry Washington, can she do anything with the hand she’s been dealt.
At this stage, the only positive thing you can say about Annalyse is that she hasn’t killed anybody yet. (But it’s only the fourth season,; there’s still time.) But with each successive season, she becomes more and more ruthless, and even more unfathomable. She may be a criminal lawyer, but even the dirtiest attorneys on David E. Kelley’s series do not try to implicate their clients or in some cases innocent people in murders that they know other people have committed. Annalyse keeps saying that she’s trying to protect the people she works with, but that justification only carries her so far. Especially considering in one case where one of her own clients was murder by her colleague. Indeed, this may be the most remarkable accomplishment of Murder, you’re actually rooting for the forces of justice to lock Annalyse up.
And it gets worse! Annalyse’s main justification for all her actions over the last three years has been that she has been trying to protect her students. In the first season, they were all joined in killing her husband, who they believed was a killer, but had actually been innocent of the crime they thought he was. And with each successive season they become colder and more ruthless, knowing that Annalyse is never being truthful with them, corrupting more people who get involved, and adding to a high body count. Annalyse said at one point last season that she wanted her students to become her. That’s not something to aim for.
These are horrible people, without even the redeeming value that most of the antiheroes (and for that matter, some of the better anti-heroines) have for getting involved with the nightmares they inflict. Yet Rhimes seem to imply that we should root for them — well, the implication seems to be, because they’re black women, and the scales are against from them the start. I’ve seen strong African-American woman characters — hell, there’s more strength in a single episode of The Wire or Orange in the New Black about the real problems these women face than in an entire season of any Shonda Rhimes’ work. (Indeed, there’s real shame that a great actress like Khandi Alexander, who worked wonders in The Corner and Treme has to turn to a series like Scandal to get the recognition she deserved decades ago.) There are ways to script African-American women. And there are series that demonstrate you can show their darker impulses and give them dimension. (American Crime, anyone?) But if Rhimes really thinks that this is the only way to level the playing field, maybe its a good thing she’s leaving ABC for Netflix.