In the opening sequence of “Watch Me,” the “Scandal” Season 7 premiere, Olivia Pope marches through the halls of the West Wing to the beat of Tone-Loc’s “Funky Cold Medina.” Her stride communicates without words what Olivia will, in the episode’s final moments, vocalize without hesitation: She is the boss, and she is always right.
“Scandal,” created by Shonda Rhimes, has only been off the air for a few months following the Season 6 finale, in which Olivia not only secured her position as President Mellie Grant’s (Bellamy Young) chief-of-staff but became the head of spy organization B613.
To be clear, she was not being held up as a role model by the premiere; instead, while she manages to avoid doing anything completely evil, Olivia’s storyline seems focused on how her newfound power will affect her on every level. Indeed, in “Watch Me” she becomes legitimately terrifying. The show’s key art features her sitting between symbolic black and white hats, pending a decision as to which she’ll ultimately wear.
It’s a fascinating way for the show to begin its final year, giving its protagonist everything she (theoretically) wants and then revealing the repercussions, leaving her fate in the balance. But at this point in 2017, the basic existence of a world where women hold that level of power feels almost hard to comprehend. After the news cycle during these hectic summer months, as America copes with seemingly countless disasters and tragedies, the image of a strong and powerful woman taking control not just of her life, but of her country, feels like the most beautiful sort of science fiction.
“Scandal” Season 1 has always been television that’s easy to recommend, given its engaging mysteries and killer pacing — later seasons have been less successful, but the series has proven addictive for many fans not just of Shondaland, but political drama in general. This includes fans who may have also watched shows like “The West Wing” during their heyday.
Watching “The West Wing” in a post-Trump world is either the purest of escapism or a completely impossible task. While it was airing (a span of time that began in the dog days of the Clinton administration and ended mid-way through Bush’s time in office), the show was often accused of being a liberal fantasy — but now, in Current Affairs’ words just recently, that has escalated to “political fanfiction.”
That Current Affairs piece was written only a few months into Trump’s presidency, and now it feels even stranger to remember President Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen) and his loyal staff, a crew of characters motivated by patriotism and good intentions, who would never charter a private jet for personal use or use the press secretary’s podium to call for the firing of a sports reporter for her political opinions. Not to mention the fact that if “The West Wing” had been scripted to align with the Trump administration, the show would have lost nearly all of its supporting cast by the end of Season 1.
“Scandal” exists in a similar space, though the ways in which it feels completely divorced from reality go beyond the current occupants of the White House. The same Thursday Season 7 premiered, two major stories broke — a New York Times investigation revealing decades of alleged sexual misconduct by uber-producer Harvey Weinstein, and a Buzzfeed article on how the mainstream media was manipulated into spreading a white nationalist message (which also details how supposedly feminist male writers encouraged the harassment of women).
Both are stories about how men with power manipulated it for their own purposes, with no empathy for the lives which might be damaged as a result. There have been no shortage of these sorts of characters on “Scandal,” but by and large they got what they deserved — which is perhaps the thing about “Scandal” that makes it one of the most escapist shows on television.
Is it going to be possible to watch “Scandal,” in a time when, let’s face it, it’s so natural to feel beaten down by the daily onslaught of stories about corruption and abuse? There’s the temptation to find inspiration in Olivia’s complete ownership of her own power — her strength — because while strength doesn’t mean always doing the right thing, but it does mean having the confidence and power to do anything.
The more that bad news piles up, though, the harder finding that strength gets. This is a side effect of these scandals, but it’s also their cause — women made to feel powerless, left blinking in wonder at a fictional world where that feeling might be escaped.