Forget “Veep,” is there are show on TV right now with a darker view on politics than “Scandal”? The Shonda Rhimes-created political thriller came to a season one end last night in a crescendo of overheated developments that included a murder, a cover-up, a confession of love and, yes, the scandal promised in the title. It was a continuation of the turn the series took at the end of its fourth episode, going from a workplace drama, albeit one in which the main character regularly traipsed into the most powerful (and ovaloid) office in the country, to a show about the country in distress and the White House being a den of moral equivocators willing to do anything to get or keep their candidate in power.
From its start, “Scandal” has had a strange and strained set of ethics — its characters talk of being “gladiators in suits” and wearing the “white hat,” but from a larger perspective, the series’ take on doing the right thing is considerably muddier. Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) is a lawyer who doesn’t practice law — she’s a crisis management consultant who with her team smoothes over high-profile problems, like a war veteran who’s accused of murdering his fiancée or a dictator whose family has gone missing and appear to have been kidnapped. These clients aren’t always in the right, are in fact as often as not repellent, but the show has managed in its seven episodes to twist every case into one in which a sort of justice is done and Olivia Pope and Associates serendipitously don’t end up helping a rapist go free, as was the potential case in “Hell Hath No Fury,” the third episode.
Being good guys, as our heroine and her staff declare themselves, rarely means following the rules in “Scandal” — Olivia jousts with Joshua Malina’s D.A. and frequently overrules him to show her power, she sends one of her underlings, C.I.A. hacker and apparent former black ops type Huck (Guillermo Diaz) to torture information out of someone, and in last night’s episode, she and her team clean up a crime scene to protect one of their own from having her identity exposed and perhaps being falsely accused of killing someone, despite the fact that it means the real murderer won’t be brought to justice by conventional means.
Olivia is a crusader, striding through the halls of power determined to do right (she’s often shown wearing white to hammer in her avenging angel qualities), but “Scandal” is a show that believes that she shouldn’t be hampered by the regulations regular people have to follow. “You can’t be a regular person,” the chief of staff (and Olivia’s former mentor) Cyrus (Jeff Perry) spits when Tony Goldwyn’s President Fitzgerald Grant suggests he’ll resign and go on to lead a normal life, presumably with Olivia. And in “Scandal,” there’s an obvious strata between those regular people and the things they have to answer to, and those in power.
“Scandal” is juicy, over-the-top fun (it’s a show in which the protagonist’s secret ex-boyfriend is the leader of the free world!), but it leaves a bitter aftertaste with its belief in how many moral compromises you have to make to work in politics — and not in the practical terms of lobbyists, campaign finance and partisanship. Every good candidate in its world is there only thanks to the people around who were willing to get their hands dirty on his or her (often unknowing) behalf.
When it became clear that Amanda Tanner (Liza Weil), the girl who in the first episode claimed she had an affair with the president and was pregnant with his baby, had been murdered, who ordered the hit was a wide open question. Was it Grant, was it Cyrus, was it the icy First Lady (Bellamy Young)? All demonstrated they were more than capable, though the primary villain turned out to be the V.P.’s (Kate Burton) chief of staff Billy (Matt Letscher), who sent Amanda, who he was dating, to sleep with the president in order to get the candidate he really believed in into office. Grant may not himself be a killer — he supposed to be, on some scale, the rare political animal with a sense of ethics — but he’s still happy to blackmail his extremely right-wing running mate into coming out in support of him and throwing her own employee under the bus, something she, of course, does to protect her own reputation from the reveal of an act of clear hypocrisy.
“Veep” is a show powered by territoriality and self-interest, but “Scandal” is actually fueled by a terrible idealism in which good things (like the DREAM Act Grant is so determined to pass) can only be accomplished in conjunction with iffy or downright awful actions. It’s a series in which its heroine Olivia’s grand ultimate act is to let go of the dream of being with the man with whom she’s in love in order to allow him to be the president she thinks he can become, by lying to the public on multiple counts. It’s fortunate and frightening that the characters in the show are so sure in their conviction that they’re acting for the greater good, because there doesn’t seem to be a lot keeping them in check.