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“They’re All Murderers”: The Dark Laughter of “Scandal”

"They're All Murderers": The Dark Laughter of "Scandal"

Spoilers for the March 13 episode of “Scandal,” “No Sun on the Horizon,” follow.

ABC gave critics a heads-up that something big was going to happen in the finale two minutes of last night’s “Scandal,” and so it did, although how big — whether it was the presidential chief of staff’s husband, James (Dan Bucatinksy) or U.S. Attorney David Rosen (Joshua Malina) who took the third bullet from Jake’s gun — will have to wait until next week. But for me, the bigger moment came at the beginning of the episode, when Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) came within a hair’s breadth of losing her mind.

Given its general lack of interest in the financial matters that drive most political scandals, “Scandal” really has only two cards to play when it comes to putting its characters at risk: love (which is, for the most part, manifested solely in sexual terms) and death. Mostly, it’s the latter, often ordered and sometimes carried out by officials at the highest levels of government. Not even “24” has such a corrosively cynical view of the workings of government, although the characters on “Scandal” do look much prettier.

Of course, we’re not supposed to take it seriously. Even more than “House of Cards,” “Scandal” is a lurid fantasy which apart from its Oval Office set makes no pretense at depicting how the culture of politics actually works. But every once in a while, it helps to acknowledge just how twisted the show’s world has become — a moment of clarity like the one Olivia experienced while going over preparations for a debate between President Fitzgerald Grant III (Tony Goldwyn), his Bible-thumping rogue V.P., Sally Langston (Kate Burton) and their Democratic challenger. “They’re all murderers,” she said. “It’s literally murderers row.”

Olivia’s reaction to this realization is unhinged laughter, the kind that comes just before they shoot you up with sedatives and put you under observation. But it might also be an opportunity for viewers to let off some laughter themselves, of a more incredulous kind. The show that ended its first season with the then-shocking revelation that the president’s chief of staff, Cyrus Beene (Jeff Perry), had been complicit in a single murder now has a higher body count than any TV show this side of CSI. You’ve got a better chance of surviving in “Justified”‘s Harlan County than “Scandal”‘s Washington.

Last night, “Scandal” threw another two, probably three corpses on the pile, and very nearly another: Sally Langston, who had a sniper’s rifle trained on her forehead in the event she felt compelled to confess her sins on national television. She was saved, for now, by Fitz’s taking a more metaphorical bullet, tanking the debate so that Sally’s competitive instincts would overwhelm her crisis of conscience. But who actually wins here? Cyrus argues that the deception — protecting the role he and the First Lady played in covering up Sally’s murder of her philandering, secretly gay husband — is necessary to protect “the American experiment,” and Olivia tells Sally that a public confession would only “ruin your life.” But they’re both lying, and it’s never quite clear to me if the show knows it or not.

Although Sally, at this point in the story, is depicted as a religious nut just short of a complete mental breakdown, she’s right when she says to Olivia that her argument parallels the one Satan made to Jesus at Gethsemane, a comment echoed as Sally prays on her knees before the debate and her campaign manager plays the role of the tempter. And though Cyrus claims that concealing the utter rottenness of the nation’s core is necessary to protect it, the fact is that in the world of “Scandal,” the “American experiment” has already failed. 

As part of Reverse Shot’s “Home Theater” symposium, which asked writers to compare a film with a TV episode, Genevieve Yu pits “Scandal”‘s “Hunting Season” against “Primary Colors,” based on a fictional retelling of Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. I can’t go along with her elevation of Mike Nichols’ toothless movie, but she’s on the money when she points out that “Scandal”‘s dogmatic insistence that Olivia’s minions are “gladiators in suits” has an unintended double meaning.

While Olivia’s team use the term in a heroic sense, they also unwittingly invoke its connotations of violent spectacle. Gladiatorial combats, as forms of art as well as sport, were lavish spectacles that edified the state. These were political theater, whether that meant glorifying the empire’s achievements or distracting the masses from its ills. What would it mean, then, if we assume the show takes Pope & Associates as gladiators in this second sense, not as heroes but as forms of entertainment used in service of the state? If the show traffics in lurid sex as a form of distraction, what are the real scandals being kept from view? Where might the actual crimes of this world, which is so closely modeled on our own, take place, and how might they impact us, the audience, if we dare to look?

“Scandal” doesn’t glorify the States so much as ignore them, creating an alternate reality that makes the paranoid thrillers of the 1970s look like Frank Capra movies. But where movies like “The Parallax View” and “The Candidate” were protests, however flawed, against the established order, “Scandal” is fatalistic. The world works the way it works, and the most noble thing the people who know how it works can do is to prevent the rest of us from finding out. Olivia dreams of getting out, of “stepping into the light,” but she’ll never be free of what she’s seen. The light may be winning on “True Detective,” but on “Scandal,” it lost a long, long time ago.

Oh, and my guess is that David got shot and Jake’s speech was him inducting James into B-613. Stay tuned!

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