The heart of any good story is a living, breathing person. A character who isn’t one dimensional, who surprises and stuns, who reveals truth – even when it’s ugly. And in real life, the truth is often stranger than fiction – and more gruesome. We, as people, pretend that life is black and white – that the good guys wear white hats, that the bad guys twirl evil mustaches, and that we know who we’re dealing with. Because things are so simple.
Except, “the pure and simple truth is rarely pure and never simple” (Oscar Wilde). Life, real life, is raging with complications, hopes, missteps, and doing the wrong thing in the name of love. In the name of hope. No one exists in a vacuum, as much as we try to isolate ourselves at times.
Which brings us to Scandal, a complex cavern of a show, with power and desire intertwined until you almost can’t tell one from the other. At the heart of the show is Olivia Pope (played by the stellar Kerry Washington); Olivia is a delicately revealed character, suffused with strength and grace, a political fixer who wields a great deal of power. Watching her, she is a proactive leader of her problem-solving firm, who takes on clients in order to save them from political or person ruin. Smart to the very marrow, Olivia Pope is kickass. She is more than competent. And you sure as hell don’t want her as an enemy.
From the very first episode, we learn a dark secret about Olivia – something that most might consider a defining characteristic, a wretched skeleton that negates all other things. You see, Olivia Pope used to work for the President, playing deftly by the lovely Tony Goldwyn. She also had an affair with him; it was not an idle thing. It’s an emotional wreck that still carries in her eyes. They broke up, so to speak, for the sake of his presidency – for the sake of his reputation. There doesn’t seem to be any other explanation than that.
But whenever they’re in a room together, it’s as if it were on fire. It’s full of barely checked tension, desire so thick that it seems hard to breathe. Here’s the president of the free world, revealed as a man who makes poor choices – because he loves someone he shouldn’t. (Shades of Clinton, perhaps?) Here’s a strong, confident, kickass woman with a secret. With a secret that would, perhaps, negate the rest of her personality, her goodness in the eyes of others. It reminds me that, for a woman, the worst thing she can do is have sex with the wrong person. She could be Mother Teresa without the vows, but fall in love with someone she shouldn’t? BAM! Who you are is undercut with a single instant of revelation. Because you can’t make a terrible decision and still be a good person. Right? (Wrong, folks. But most are quick to condemn.)
On screen, Olivia Pope is conflicted. She waffles back and forth between absolute strength and a very human weakness. You can see the struggle leaping across her face, her barely restrained feelings screaming in the surface of her smile. Clearly, she loves this man, this idiot of a man who might be a selfish bastard in the end. It reminds me very much of a Neruda sonnet, “I love you as certain dark things are loved, / secretly, between the shadow and the soul” (full version here).
You see, in the interim, the President had another affair. One he claims meant nothing, that he loves Olivia (saying nothing of his wife, I suppose – does she know? I think so. And I think she swallows it, leaving it as an open secret). This revelation hit Olivia like a mac truck of flaming shit and napalm. She loves this guy, and this thing? It’s slowly raging within her. Is it true? Maybe. She took the intern on as a client. Part of this, I think, is because she’s angry. She feels betrayed, because this man she loves in effect replaced her, as if she were nothing. And that’s a thing that makes a person feel horribly alone – as if you could’ve been anyone. That it didn’t matter who you were; you were merely a pretty face and a warm body.
I don’t quite know if Olivia knows what she’s doing, because there are two very different battles within her. There’s the part of her that’s in love, and the part of her that wants blood. Hell hath no fury and all that. We’ll see how it plays out, and I’ll be there – gripping the edge of my seat.
But here’s the thing: Kerry Washington plays Olivia as the living, breathing woman. This well-realized fully dimensional person. A painfully human, flawed person. Watching her on-screen, it almost hurts, because you really see/feel the tempest of all the things swirling within her. On the other end, Tony Goldwyn is very charming and very likeable as the President. You can almost, almost forgive him for ripping Olivia’s heart out – and for doing the same to this intern (who, personally, I don’t want to trust). Goldwyn is able to convey such passion, grief, doubt, and depth in a single look – it is astounding.
For Olivia, it all comes down to falling in love with the wrong man. It wasn’t a sordid affair, all about sex and blue dresses. She loves this man, even amongst all the chaos and calamity. And you know, I think at his core, the President loves her, too. (Perhaps, though, not as much as he loves himself.)
Does falling in love with the wrong person, and acting on it, make someone a bad person? Does it cancel out everything else that’s good about that person? I think that’s the view we’re often handed, that we can’t be flawed and still good. That we can’t make mistakes and still be wise. That we’re either/or. But if you think about it, that’s a really ridiculous way to look at life and people. Life is full of contradictions, dichotomies, and polar opposites. If you cross a line, you are not defined by that line, no matter what society might shout. Sometimes, you do the wrong thing for the right reasons. Of course, sometimes that decision will also destroy you. You never can tell.
But Olivia Pope? She’s strong and weak. She’s brave and scared. But at the end of the day? She kicks ass and takes names. She’s not a hero or a villain, though she possesses shades of both. She’s human and flawed. She’s not a single characteristic or choice. She’s complicated, as we all are. And if I had to bet, my money’s on her.