During tonight’s season-three premiere of Scandal, my Twitter feed erupted over a brief moment right before the commercial break. Olivia had just dialed a mysterious number and said a mysterious password before being whisked away to a bunker under the White House—where the leader of the free world was waiting for her!—but that’s not what Scandal fans were talking about. No, they were talking about her coat: a stunning white number with slightly caped shoulders, from Burberry Prorsum. It’s the second white coat she wears in the episode (the first was an athletic jacket worn to the gym); in fact, white is the only color Olivia wears until the very last moments of “It’s Handled.”
One of the most important things about Olivia Pope has not just been what she’s doing but also how she looks when she’s doing it. In the world of Scandal, she’s a gladiator—beautiful, put-together, and doing the right thing. In “It’s Handled,” what struck me is how much that image falls apart for Olivia Pope, in what is (as Scandal has always been) a powerful commentary on black women in positions of power. By the end of the episode, Olivia has shed her white coat for something more somber, and when her stalwart friend Harrison tries to cheer her up by reminding her that they wear the show’s proverbial “white hats,” she can’t crack a smile. She’s not a white hat anymore. The spotless image has been put aside.
Scandal has not lost its breakneck pace or its terrifying, brutal emotional intimacy—every moment feels more potent and electric than almost anything else on television. Shonda Rhimes doesn’t just present us with compelling situations; she worms the lens inside them so that it feels like we’re inhabiting them. Every time Fitz tells Olivia he loves her, it feels real, just as every time he manipulates her, it’s a punch in the gut. Somehow, we are living Olivia Pope’s life as it’s happening to her, and that is addictive.
The crucial thing about “It’s Handled” is that nothing’s been handled. Nothing at all has been handled, certainly not by Olivia. Her life has spun out of her own careful control. Now her father is in her face, yanking her on a jet to another country; now Cyrus is organizing a “kill file” on her; now Mellie is calling her a “whore”—to her face! Journalists are shoving cameras into her face and all of a sudden, all the people whose fates she’s held in her hands over the years are now showing up wondering if she needs help, for a change, and if there’s one thing Olivia Pope doesn’t know how to do, it’s accept help. That white coat seems like a futile kind of security blanket, something she can wear to pretend that she’s doing good, and everyone’s doing good, and we’re all wearing white hats, while in fact this is a massive political meltdown, and she is at the center of the instability of the current administration.
One of the most electrifying moments of this episode is when her father, Eli Pope, yells at her in the aircraft hangar as he’s pushing her onto a plane. Olivia and Eli clearly share the gene for fervent, preachy monologue; their voices almost have the exact same quaver in them when they get worked up. He’s also emotionally about as buttoned-up as his daughter. He’s not thrilled with her, but he seems to be on her side (though as with many of the men in Olivia’s life, he has a weird way of showing it). But the kicker of his speech is when he bends down to her face and says, “What did I always tell you? What did I always tell you?” Olivia responds, shamefacedly: “Twice as good…” And he finishes the sentence for her. “Twice as good, and half as far.”
What an insane thing to say to your daughter—what an insane but utterly practical piece of advice for a young woman of color. It’s a longstanding mantra of the minority race: Your best isn’t going to be good enough, and it won’t get you as far as it does everyone else. Your white hat has to be whiter than anyone else’s, and your reputation, too. Olivia dropped the ball, in her father’s eyes, because for a brief moment in time, she forgot she was a black woman, and just let herself be a woman—and now there’s hell to pay. If Scandal is a ruthless examination of racial politics in America, the brutal way it manhandles its main character is its thesis statement. Olivia can never let her guard down, can never truly be just like other girls. She always has to be strong. It is tragic.
To Olivia’s credit, she doesn’t just sit with what her father wants from her. Unfortunately, she does bounce right to Fitz as soon as she gets her sea legs, wrapped up in her white coat. She’d love for one of these men in her life to give her all the right answers, but she can never accept what either man offers. Olivia’s happiest when she forges her own way, but she’s the least willing participant in her own independence, sometimes.
So she calls a meeting with her former lover and her former lover’s wife in the basement of the White House (white!) to create a strategy. They agree on a fiction that is appalling in the light, casual way it reads what was truly a love affair (flawed or otherwise) between Olivia and Fitz. Olivia is looking for a way to make the situation right, and she calculates a path to success for Fitz and Mellie. But she hasn’t figured out a way for herself to come clean.
There are a thousand twists that thread through this episode after Olivia comes in wearing the white coat; it would not do them justice to relate them all. There is not a scene in television that had me more stressed out than the moment where Mellie walked into the bunker for their crazy menage-a-trois meeting. Scandal always, immediately, raises the stakes as high as they go. And Bellamy Young delivered Melanie’s grief and rage with such pitch-perfect vocal acting, carrying through and echoing in the silent violence of that scene. Olivia takes Jeanine on as a client. We find out Fitz leaked Liv’s name to the press, and we find out that Mellie is onto him. Cyrus is greeted by Charlie holding a gun before being spirited away to meet Eli, who gives him a file. What fresh hell comes to us? Only time will tell.
But this, we know: In their competing agendas, Fitz, Mellie, Cyrus, and even her father are all just as likely to destroy Olivia as they are to save her, no matter how much they profess to love or hate her. Very few people in her life let her have breathing room. Even Fitz (and I am one of the few fans left who still likes Fitz) routinely tramples over her boundaries, her insistent “no”s and “don’t”s, with an aggressive step that manages to overpower her own voice in a way that reads as both romantic and violent. Even her loyal employees take matters into their own hands (rallying themselves with the phrase, “Are we bitches or are we gladiators?") to end Olivia’s media scrutiny by shifting focus to a perfectly innocent intern, Jeanine.
But the twists only hold us if our faith in Olivia is unshaken. Mine isn’t, but I’m growing impatient. Where is Olivia’s voice? Where is the independent woman who created her firm and changed people’s lives? She’s lost her bearings completely. I admire Scandal’s ability to present us a character in season one and have her buffeted and all but destroyed by the opening of season three, but for her sake, and for ours, I hope she builds herself back up again. That being said—anything that has me this invested after a long dry summer is firing at all cylinders, at the top of its game.
- Welcome to the Scandal season three reviews. I think we’re going to have a great time.
- “I am the hell and the high water.” I like Mr. Pope. I think he can stay.
- I can’t help but melt every time Fitz tells Olivia he loves her, even as I recognize how manipulative and possessive he’s being. He is always a wildcard—always reacting in the most unexpected ways. I love that he wants to marry Liv and make her his first lady, and I hate how high-handed he is with her. And what is all of this stuff, about making a truce with Sally? Is he badly written in his inconsistency, or is this all some grand design?
- Interesting (and very sad) to learn that Olivia’s mother died when Liv was just 12. What does that do for a girl learning how to be a woman?
- Abby’s corner: Hey, new hairstyle! I like it!
- “I am never out of options.” That’s my girl.