From one perspective, the third season of Scandal is a total mess, a letdown after the show’s sublime second season, which was two parts soapy confection and one part semi-serious treatise on the way we live today. This fall, the show took season two’s penchant for multiple plot twists per episode and crammed even more story into a format that could desperately use some breathing room here and there. The show has lost sight of where leading lady Kerry Washington is at any given time—and as for the crisis management firm her character heads up, forget it. Scandal is now about the backstabbing and double talk going on behind the scenes of the most cynically depicted White House in the history of television, a far cry from the “scandal of the week” procedural it started out as.
But from another point of view, the third season is more ambitious and more daring than what came before. Scandal has always been about women and minorities propping up a white-guy president who might be the ultimate empty suit, but the longer it goes on, the more it becomes a moving, weirdly thoughtful examination of privilege and power. Because of its female African American lead and diverse cast of characters, Scandal is often written about as a breath of progressive fresh air amid a stagnant primetime landscape. And yet the show itself is deeply cynical about these sorts of changes. Women and minorities can assault the white-guy hegemony and attain power, sure, but the system is so deeply entrenched that it will warp anyone who grasps that power. Power is eternal; the people who wield it become masks meant to obscure its darkness.
This fall, network dramas including The Good Wife and Person Of Interest attempted to grapple with recent revelations about the National Security Agency’s far-reaching surveillance programs. Scandal, however, has mostly shrugged its shoulders and said, “Yes, and?” because there’s no low the show’s fictional administration won’t stoop to in order to achieve its goals. Scandal goes one further, setting up a shadow government that’s so powerful it overrules even the president.
That shadow government (referred to as B613) has caused most of season three’s problems. Introducing an all-knowing conspiracy, particularly one headed up by an important character’s father, is typically a one-way ticket to the kind of plot confusion that eventually buried The X-Files. And B613 has yet to find an emotional hook that draws in the show’s characters as surely and swiftly as season two’s Defiance arc. Because President Grant (Tony Goldwyn) had a tangential connection to B613 during his military career, this storyline threatens to coalesce into something powerful, but it always falls short. At times, the B613 arc comes across like Scandal’s attempt at a cover version of Alias’ SD-6, mixed with an NSA chaser.
But B613 points to the series’ central theme of how power uses people and not the other way around. The third season’s most successful material deals with how Scandal’s characters are playing out conflicts their parents set in motion, which further plays off the signature storytelling device of creator Shonda Rhimes: a character trapped by circumstances that keep dragging them downward. Those parents (played by such greats as Joe Morton, Khandi Alexander, and Barry Bostwick) were monsters, but only because the social order they hoped to uphold was hopelessly corrupt. Scandal is about awful people, but they’re primarily awful because of the power they’re addicted to.
This comes to a head in the season’s seventh episode, “Everything’s Coming Up Mellie,” the single best episode Scandal has ever produced. It’s a character piece for Bellamy Young’s first lady, a woman who siphoned off everything that was warm and genuine about herself in order to keep her husband’s political career on the rails. This made Young a source of amusement and fun in the series’ early going, when she would pop into a room and read the president the riot act, in monologues filled with some of Rhimes’ juiciest turns of phrase. (The creator rarely gets enough credit for how fantastic her dialogue is). But that’s turned more and more hollow as the show has gone on, as her devotion to her husband, who’d rather be with the woman he truly loves, turns masochistic and self-defeating. She’s willing to suffer any indignity—and she suffers many in the episode—just to stay in the vague proximity of power.
The central irony of the series, then, is that the president isn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, a figure worthy of this loyalty. He’s not a good husband or a good boyfriend, and the few glimpses of his political platform suggest it’s mostly toothless pabulum. Yet he’s worth propping up because he’s the kind of face power needs, one who’s bland and folksy and charming, one who won’t let the darkness seep through. Scandal might never regain the sheer entertainment value of its second season, but it’s become something else altogether, something challenging and dark and occasionally difficult to watch. It’s a show about how every surface presented to viewers is a malicious lie, a lie that turns right around and invites viewers to get lost in those surfaces because the truth is much more painful.
Created by: Shonda Rhimes
Starring: Kerry Washington, Tony Goldwyn, Bellamy Young, Jeff Perry, Guillermo Díaz
Airs: Thursday at 10 p.m. EDT on ABC
Format: Hour-long political thriller
Nine season-three episodes watched for review