Was Scandal Redeemed?
Why I Won’t Miss Scandal — But I Will Appreciate What It Did
One of the better things that has been found when the great series of the Golden Age reach their final moments has often come in the last moments when the antiheroes realize just how far they have sunk. I will never forget the long pause that Vic Mackey took in the penultimate episode of The Shield (it lasted for nearly a minute) before finally confessing to all the crimes he had committed over the length of the series. There was a moment nearly as powerful in the last episode of Mad Men, where Don Draper, who had spent the last half of the final season going on walkabout, seemed to realize what a terrible person he’d been and confessed to Peggy, the one person who always had the clearest view of him. And who among us can’t remember Walter White’s final admission to Skyler in the finale of Breaking Bad? “I did it for me. I was good at it. I liked it. It made me feel alive.” That was the true climax of the series.
As anyone who has read my blog for the last several years, I have utterly loathed all things Shondaland. But, as a TV critic, I felt obligated to watch the last two episodes of Scandal, just to see how low she could sink. I certainly didn’t expect to see Olivia Pope, who has spent the last seven years cleaning up the mess of every politician in the country, go to the special counsel investigate President Mellie Grant, and then publicly out B613, the agency that has been doing everything evil in the series, which she ran for most of the final season. And I really didn’t expect her to look both Presidents Grant in the face, and tell them flat out: “We’re not the heroes of this story. We’re the villains.”
Honestly, I’d been waiting the entire series for all of the characters to admit just how corrupt and rotten the system was. And the rest of Pope’s entourage spent the next half-hour admitting how badly it was they had failed at their goals, including all her former gladiators willing to go ‘over a cliff’ in order to try and save the country. It was almost — not nearly enough, but almost enough — to make Scandal seem like it was finally being worth the trouble.
And then last night in the final episode, everybody testified before Congress about all the horrible things that they had done over the last seven years in the name of the Republic. (The closest moment to realization of evil came when Huck, asked how many people had killed, took a long drink water before finally answering ‘A lot.’.) There were also some odd moments of redemption . When David Rosen, the only purely good guy among the much of the series, confronted Jake Ballard and looked him dead in the face. This made the horrifying moment when Vice-President Beene poisoned him, then suffocated him to finish the job. And even after all the horrors had unfolded, there was one last poigniant moment when Cyrus, who had been the most contemptible villain of a show full of them, who had killed or driven away everybody so that he could have the White House, finally admitted to Olivia before resigning that even getting the Presidency probably wouldn’t have been enough to satisfy him.
Does this make the series better? Not really. Considering that Shonda Rhimes had originally planned to end the series with Mellie Grant becoming President, one kind of thinks that the final season was more of an afterthought as well as an apology for politics today. She wasn’t quite as bloodthirsty as she was in Grey’s Anatomy or, for that matter, Private Practice; for all the deaths in Scandal, it’s telling that Joshua Malina was, with one exception, the only regular to die, and that in the last episode. George R..R Martin would not approve. And despite all the confessions in the series, it was disappointing to see that Eli Pope’s decision to confess took the characteristics of a deux ex machina — there was no real motivation given for him testifying, and when he did it, it seemed less a confession and really more like bragging, like he wanted credit. I was disappointed by many things in Scandal; that Rowan never got what was coming to him was the biggest one.
I’m never going to be convinced Scandal was everything critics and fans thought it was. It certainly doesn’t rate as a great TV series even from the standards of network television. But, if I am to be honest, I am glad for what the show represents more than anything else.
Just prior to the premiere of Scandal in the winter of 2012, Entertainment Weekly wrote a long article in which they casually noted the series premiere, and the fact that this was the first network drama with an African-American female lead in more than twenty years. And that is a crime. The fact that in an era of Peak TV, black women were still being underrepresented on that medium was offensive. And it is very telling that Kerry Washington had left a career in film to follow a role on TV.
After her came the deluge: such talented black actresses as Octavia Spencer, Regina King, Taraj P. Henson, Angela Bassett, and of course, Viola Davis would soon be at the center of the new revolution. Over the last three years, African-American women have slowly but surely been making a dent in the field of the Emmys. Orange is the New Black alone showcases half a dozen brilliant black actresses, and I was delighted to see Lena Waithe finally move forward in running a series of her own. I can only hope to someday see Issa Rae also accepted an Emmy.
It is very telling that the high point of the much publicized Scandal-How to Get Away With Murder crossover had nothing to do with the arguments before the Supreme Court. Rather, it was a moment where Annalyse’s mother, played by the national treasure Cecily Tyson gave credit to Olivia Pope for all the things that she had done behind the scenes, and all the sacrifices that women like her had to make so that they could stand where they are. I really think that some day very soon we will see real excellent series about black women by black women. And if that is something that Shonda Rhimes had to do.. well, then I’m glad, for the sake of the medium, that it was handled.