For the past couple of years I’ve had the fun task of recapping Scandal for my day job. With the exception of the most recent episode, which I missed because I was in India (more on that to come!), I’ve seen all of it, and watched it grow along the way from a soapy, uneven procedural with ultra-predictable twists to a critical darling and one of the most buzzed-about shows on TV. I’ll confess Shonda Rhimes shows are generally not totally my cup of tea—I gave up on Grey’s Anatomy after the first season—and were I not recapping Scandal, I likely wouldn’t watch it regularly. But the show has sparked some interesting discussions about race and gender roles in Hollywood and politics, and it has a darkly humorous—and often just plain dark—tone that appeals to my cynical side. (Plus how can you not love the vindictive, wounded-animal rage of Bellamy Young’s Mellie Grant?)
I’ve started to wonder, though, about Scandal‘s staying power. Todd VanDerWerff noted at the AV Club that Scandal keeps momentum going by raising what were from the beginning very high stakes. You’re talking about the presidency, about the fate of marriages and reputations, even occasionally about life and death. But for me, those stakes have started to lose their power. Those passionate, tortured declarations of love Fitz and Olivia are so fond of making to each other? If they want to be together so badly, Fitz could just give up the presidency, which, by the way, he didn’t actually win anyway. He outed his own affair to the press, then Olivia’s team swiftly covered for her by pinning it on one of the president’s hapless staffers, who retired to a desert island (or something), and he continues to be the president with little to no real damage to his reputation. In any case, we’re talking about just four more years of all these people’s lives before all these issues will cease to be issues, so why not just throw in the towel after one term? Where do you go when in two and a half seasons the president of the United States has impregnated one staffer, who is then murdered by his chief of staff; been outed as an adulterer; smothered a Supreme Court justice to death; and abused his power to let a known criminal who is also the mother of his erstwhile lover/campaign manager go free?
Maybe the real stakes are the fate of these people’s souls. Olivia’s team will do anything for her, the more illegal the better, sometimes at great personal cost. Abby lies to her boyfriend; Huck tortures people; Harrison wears pocket squares that don’t exactly match his tie. Olivia will do anything for Fitz—except the one thing she should do, which is let him go. Mellie, for some reason, will do anything to stay in her position, sad and largely powerless as it is. She’s hooked on the drug of future potential success, of one day having in her hands the power she wants so desperately to keep herself adjacent to. Power for these people is god and devil, the thing that gives them life as it simultaneously eats away at them. But as they hurtle toward their destruction in the form of wildly twisting plot lines, it’s hard to see how long that corrosion can be stretched out. Like the late, unlamented Hostages, which I also recapped (until I finally gave up), the concept of a president and his former staffer having an affair that dooms everyone around them to endless lies and machinations seems like one with a limited shelf life. Were any normal person subjected to the emotional (and sometimes physical) torture these characters have already endured, she’d end up catatonic in a mental institution. We’ve already had one episode of Kerry Washington doing that—and beautiful as she is, I’m less than enthused about a whole season of it.