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Women Behaving Badly: Olivia Pope, the Ferocious Fixer From 'Scandal'

Indiewire By Danny Bowes | Indiewire July 11, 2013 at 12:1PM

The character of Iago in "Othello" is one of the great villains, a conniver without peer, brilliant and inscrutable. His torrents of flowery verbiage obscure to everyone who becomes a pawn on his chessboard the fact that no persuasive reason is ever given for his turning on Othello. The clearest explanation he gives, one that's been subject to countless interpretations over the years, is "I am not what I am."
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Richard Cartwright/ABC Kerry Washington in 'Scandal'

Editor's Note: The TV landscape is filled with male antiheroes, from Nicholas Brody to Walter White, but what about the women? This is part one of a series of five articles exploring flawed female protagonists and how their bad behavior makes them so interesting to watch. It's presented in partnership with Netflix and its new original series "Orange is the New Black" (all episodes available July 11th, only on Netflix).

The character of Iago in "Othello" is one of the great villains, a conniver without peer, brilliant and inscrutable. His torrents of flowery verbiage obscure to everyone who becomes a pawn on his chessboard the fact that no persuasive reason is ever given for his turning on Othello. The clearest explanation he gives, one that's been subject to countless interpretations over the years, is "I am not what I am." It's a paradox if taken literally, but also a sardonic statement on appearance, implying a division between who one is, and who one appears to be. And Olivia Pope, the rather splendid protagonist of ABC's "Scandal" played with great verve by Kerry Washington, can be thought of as mirror image Iago, one who is -- or who thinks she is -- on the side of good.

The main reason "Scandal" is such a delight, beside the fact that everything is so heightened in its universe that comparisons to Shakespeare aren't so ridiculous, is its protagonist. Elements of Olivia Pope, on paper, are standard TV stuff: she's a "fixer" in Washington, DC with a close-knit, fiercely loyal team, and they do, well, whatever's necessary for the plot, mostly involving bailing the rich and powerful elite out of tight spots, staying one step ahead of the conventional authorities, etc. But where the show departs from the usual model is in the searing intensity of its melodrama, and the sublime insanity that prevails and unfolds almost entirely without comment. Very little on "Scandal" passes, or is even intended to pass, for reality. Its manifest belief in prioritizing what is awesome over what is plausible is its badge of honor.

Olivia Pope embodies all of this. She's the best of the best of the best, has the nation's capital in the palm of her hand, trusts her gut to make snap decisions, commands cultish devotion from her subordinates, has the greatest shades-of-white wardrobe in this universe or any other, has an on-and-off affair with the President (Tony Goldwyn, a cross between a Reagan who skipped acting to go straight to the White House and one of those "24" leaders who presides over two nuclear wars per afternoon), never sleeps and always, always looks fabulous. The interesting thing about said fabulousness, in contrast to the pervasive norm, is that it's entirely for her own enjoyment of self -- it's not depicted as being something she does to attract a man. Why, after all, should she be concerned with attracting a man when The Man, the leader of the free world, is (almost literally) fatally drawn to her?

In keeping with the paradoxes of which "Scandal" is almost exclusively constructed -- familiar yet robustly fresh, howlingly ridiculous yet defiant of nitpicking, about a woman more powerful than almost any man with an enormous blind spot about the one man on Earth with more pull than she -- is that Olivia, almost all the time, believes she's doing the right thing, righting injustice, defending victims from being crushed by the system. Yet, with such frequency that it feels like once an episode for both seasons thus far, Olivia (due to her unswerving belief in trusting her instincts) either defends a victimizer or inadvertently victimizes an innocent. This state of affairs nearly always rights itself by the end of the episode, though (it is, among its manifold attributes, a network series).

The last and most important paradox is that Olivia's imperfections are her greatest strength. The utter madness of "Scandal" would be numbing if its protagonist was perfect.  She makes mistakes, and huge ones, constantly. Sometimes, whether she's aware in the moment or not, she's actually doing bad things. But she is never a villain, even as she is Iago -- Iago as power femme, redeemed by her ability to care about right and wrong. And the possibility exists that she is merely a villain not yet consumed by the quest for revenge; perhaps that's season three (white hats off again!). Until then, Olivia Pope remains a fascinatingly complex antihero(ine), whose every nuance is brought to dazzling life by Kerry Washington's star performance.

Watch "Scandal" now at Netflix.

Indiewire has partnered with Netflix and its new original series "Orange is the New Black" (all episodes available July 11th, only on Netflix). From the creator of "Weeds" comes a heartbreaking and hilarious new series set in a women's prison. Piper Chapman's wild past comes back to haunt her, resulting in her arrest and detention in a federal penitentiary. To pay her debt to society, Piper trades her comfortable New York life for an orange prison jumpsuit and finds unexpected conflict and camaraderie amidst an eccentric group of inmates. For more visit here.

This article is related to: Television, TV Features, Women Behaving Badly, Scandal, ABC, Kerry Washington