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Why The Most Formidable Characters in 'Scandal' Aren't the Ones in Power

Photo of Alison Willmore By Alison Willmore | Indiewire December 13, 2013 at 12:36PM

"Scandal" closed out the fall half of its season the way it began, with a biting speech from Joe Morton.
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Danny Feld/ABC Tony Goldwyn in 'Scandal'

The article below contains spoilers for "A Door Marked Exit," the December 12, 2013 episode of "Scandal."

"You are a boy -- I'm a man," Rowan Pope (Joe Morton) sneered at Fitz (Tony Goldwyn) last night in a speech so apoplectic you could practically feel the spittle as he barked out each sentence. "I have worked for every single thing I have ever received... you're given the world and you can't appreciate it because you haven't had to work for anything."

It may have been the most impressive monologue a character has given in "Scandal," a designation not given lightly in a series in which people are prone to dramatic rhetoric. It even outdid Sally Langston's (Kate Burton) murmurings about the devil having come into her as she stabbed her philandering, closeted husband, and Cyrus' (Jeff Perry) refrain, over a glass of breakfast Scotch, about how it was true, and that he was the devil in question. "A Door Marked Exit" was a fall finale packed with juicy twists, from the revelation about Olivia's (Kerry Washington) mother to Quinn's (Katie Lowes) seeming defection to B613 -- now headed by Jake (Scott Foley)! -- after Huck (Guillermo Díaz) throws her out. But it was the confrontation between Rowan and Fitz that showcased the particular resonance "Scandal" is capable of that sets it aside from just being a very effective D.C.-based soap opera.

Class is one of the underlying themes of the series, with Olivia having the added pressure of frequently being the one person of color in those white halls of the White House, a fact that's always there but rarely spoken of out loud. "You have to be twice as good as them to get half of what they have," Rowan told his daughter in another fine Morton moment back in the season premiere, a line that many African American journalists and bloggers writing about the series pointed out as an echo of what they were told growing up. (Rowan's repeatedly referring to Fitz as "boy' last night also read like a turnaround on a historical slur.) He was frustrated with her for sleeping with the President, not because he's a married man but because he saw it as her aiming too low -- to settle for First Lady when in the least she could have been Chief of Staff, could have actually aimed for a career of her own in the Executive Branch.

Rowan was pointing out one of the series' most interesting truths, which is that Fitz, the President, the man with theoretically the most weight to throw around, is actually its least formidable character, a stand-in for a certain breed of politician in the show's alternate, Obama-less universe. Everyone around him -- Olivia, Cyrus, Mellie (Bellamy Young) -- has demonstrated a capacity to be tougher and capable of more devastating manipulations, but they've all chosen supporting roles with the tacit understanding that Fitz, the son of a senator, a moneyed, handsome white guy, is the type of person who gets elected. They've looked at themselves -- black, gay, female -- and of them, only Mellie thinks of herself as having a shot at being a political success herself, and that's after having instinctively selected a life at the side of power rather than in a place of it. As Rowan suggests, things just happen for Fitz in ways he's never though twice about, from the privilege into which he was born to the sacrifices that others, including Olivia and Mellie, have made on his behalf and tried, unsuccessfully in the case of the election fraud, to keep secret.

Cyrus, Mellie and Olivia's excitement over Fitz came from the knowledge that despite coming from the background he did, he's a good guy whose policies, as much as we ever hear about them, are forward-looking and in service of the larger American population we never see. Types like Fitz are interchangeable -- "He is not in charge -- power is in charge, power got him elected," Rowan said back in "It's Handled," the system a self-perpetuating one with no one in charge, just reinforcing and protecting itself, like the hydralike B613.

"Scandal" is about the people who run the country and only about them, presenting a claustrophobic universe in which the same people come back again and again as allies, foes, lovers. It exists in the governmental backstage where the players who never end up in the spotlight are the formidable ones, making deals behind closed doors or in even more illicit corners. And Rowan's speech was so searing because it was a bookend of that castigating talk he gave his daughter when he was ready to ship her off to start a new life somewhere else, for being too "mediocre." President or not, Fitz disappoints him "as a suitor for my daughter's hand" because Rowan sees Fitz as a sign of Olivia selling herself short, of her internalized acceptance of her place in the world, of being loved by someone in power being more worthwhile than aiming for power herself.

This article is related to: Television, TV Reviews, Scandal, ABC, Joe Morton, Kerry Washington, Tony Goldwyn