The super hit Season 2 of Zee Cafe’s Scandal has just ended. We at The Finger are horribly besotted with this kickass show and Olivia Pope, its heroine.
Isaac Skibinski writes about Season 2’s craziness, Scandal‘s obsession with surveillance and Olivia Pope’s relative man-less-ness.
There will be another season in all of three months, and maybe another after that, but I miss Scandal. I miss its photography, preoccupied with gazing through sharp-angled glass. I miss Olivia Pope, at once difficult to locate and an indomitable presence. I miss its monologues, with their sometimes absurdly relentless cadence, one short sentence after another starting with the same words.
Scandal, however, is not in the business of missing. Season two muddies itself with flashbacks to those erotic days of Fitzgerald Grant’s presidential campaign trail, when Olivia arrived with a snappy critique of his pulseless marriage, saved the day, and smote Fitz. But they’re not flashbacks to better days. If Pope is in any way Catholic, it’s in her predilection for baptism. One episode begins with her plunging into a pool, which, if our eyes are to be trusted, is filled with memories of Fitz. She swims in kisses and caresses to rid herself of them. (With a bit of election rigging–everyone agonizes, but let’s be honest, it’s fair game–Fitz won. “The most powerful man on earth,” as he is fond of putting it, showers these memories off while receiving the wrongest marital fidelity in the form of a blow job from his wife.)
Intriguingly, neither these memories nor the secrets kept between scenes create a sense of interior. Olivia might omit a few things, but her private world, as well as everyone else’s, is out of bounds.
Many characters seem to consider Olivia mysterious. What would they like to hear? Her childhood traumas? Olivia is not interested in the past. Her job of “fixing” people’s crises of publicity is oriented toward ambitions, in the service of which history may be liquidated. If she wants to know about the past, it’s only because she needs her client’s confession before she may save them. (Okay, maybe more ways than one.)
To watch Scandal is to see double, at least. Its stereovision is more than its obsession with image-multiplying prisms, or the opposition of optics and truth. The President’s behind the scenes meddler, Cyrus, conceives of himself as maintaining the President’s innocence (of how he got elected, for one thing) through a martyrdom of thankless work. He likes to call himself Fitz’s second wife, which is hardly a stretch.
When Fitz is having an existential crisis about appearances and reality, his legal wife, Mellie, comforts him that appearances are what’s real. Cyrus takes the other tack: “we both know happy people are rarely actually happy, unless they’re morons”. Both ostensible wives have a whiff of truth, and both swap their positions. Mellie can’t stand the reality of her husband’s passion for Olivia while the public perceives a good marriage. Cyrus’s cynical grip on reality has a way of facilitating Machiavellianism. Olivia accuses him of being more concerned with “presidential weakness” than the real bullet that grazed the president’s skull.
Mellie seems calculated to be a grating character along sexist lines: she’s shrill, jealous, vindictive, and a perfect actress. Fitz’s explosion at her turns this distastefulness on itself and politicizes Mellie (an irony there):
Your opinion doesn’t matter. You’re the first lady. Your job is to plant gardens, and decorate rooms, and let them blog about your clothes. You’re ornamental, not functional. So don’t come into the oval and try to use your brain, because no one cares.
Instead of just an unstable Victorian romantic object, here Fitz becomes as horrible as Don Draper, Mad Men‘s master of heartless, insulting outbursts of ‘truth.’ He explodes, “They worked together–they worked together.” They are Mellie and Olivia–“my wife and my…”
The short first season could be considered a throwback for having new monsters in every episode. Each episode had two clients who needed fixing, but the two never quite slumped into parallelism or point-counterpoint. They seem not to have been chosen for their symbolic resonances but for their practical disparities. Olivia and her team were stretched thin running between the two. The second season toys with this format, but soon does away with it.
If I spoke only in zeitgeisty pronouncements, I would say that the novel is dead, that the only valid art today is performative, and that privacy isn’t a thing. But the statement “you only exist in photographs” comes from a novel (How Should a Person Be?), and the show that takes surveillance for granted has a tendency to perform vision tripping over itself. Jodie Foster angrily renounces the corrosion of the distinction between public and private in the lives of celebrities (a beautiful derailing of an otherwise utterly boring Golden Globes). Julian Assange fanboys get foamy at the mouth defending “transparency,” “free speech,” and their right to photograph unsuspecting women. Scandal gets its hands dirty engaging in an ethics and an art of subjection to the public eye.
Olivia has an ex–I hesitate to say a Senator, because this appears to be the source of his self-importance–whose last name is Edison (has he a first?). He courts her again, so persistently that she seems hardly to be involved. But they have a relationship. It exists in photographs. Even before the photographs are revealed, there is an unseemly feeling that the two are being watched. He acts as if he were always in public. The photographs show all this. They didn’t know they were being watched, but the photographs look staged. Their relationship is a political alliance; one can see the spin in their eyes.
Does one love Olivia Pope in stereo or in 3D? She is as solid a character as there is, and yet mercury. Some (men) wish to freeze-frame her, preferring either the sad, helpless-looking Olivia, or the all-powerful, angry Olivia who fixes people. This does not mean that the two can’t occur at the same time. She tells Edison she’d be happy attend a party “on Senator Edison’s arm.” He asks her, as if at a poker table, “you’re all-in?” In her affirmation “I’m all in,” she has also folded.
She says to a politician aspiring to a greater office “you haven’t dated anyone in the last ten years. You don’t date. You don’t go out. You don’t meet women, and you don’t have sex with anybody. Why.” She herself does not date. It would be stupid to write this off as “hypocrisy.”
There’s a stupid word for her inconsistency with Fitz, too. She makes out with him, she pushes him away, she plans her life with him, she decides it would never work. “Oh come on, Liv,” Fitz complains. He too runs hot and cold, but apparently this is his right as a man. A woman is supposed to choose and stick with it. Because feeling and reason are apparently distinct phenomena.
The narrator of Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, Lucy Snow is a surveiled observer like Olivia, a quick judge of character, and comfortable with uncertainty. Of watching others’ emotional displays (Scandal is almost nothing but) she says:
On all occasions of vehement, unrestrained expansion, a sense of disdain or ridicule comes to the weary spectator’s relief; whereas I have ever felt most burdensome that sort of sensibility which bends of its own will, a giant slave under the sway of good sense.
There is a bit of both on Scandal: The ardent outpourings between Fitz and Olivia are tiresome, but the show would have no teeth if Olivia were ruled only by good sense.
Edison is staggeringly dull because his good sense only arouses Olivia to the same. After much back-and-forth, she finally decides “I want crazy, dangerous love.” (Fitz is the nearest of this sort around.)
Yet for all its romances, its suitors, and its sex, true love seems a secondary concern to everyone but Fitz. Season two’s complication of Olivia’s love life was necessary, but I believed her when she explained why she doesn’t date with the words, “I’m not normal.” All seems right with the world when — her romances ended — she goes out alone for a run. Not because she can’t or shouldn’t be with anyone, but if the price of her engagement to a man is her engagement with the world, she’ll take the world. She wants the most she can get.
Isaac Skibinski blogs here.