controlling the narrative and the art of ruin
Sarah: That’s not what’s going to kill us. A mistake is nothing. It’s that…
Olivia: You never told him the truth. It’s that you let him believe the lie.
Everyone’s life is a narrative, a story that we craft and shape every day. We hold back. We reveal. We feel, and then we act. In a way, keeping a secret is controlling the information. You contain it, so that it doesn’t affect the rest of your life. Or people’s perceptions of you. You live it, and then it starts living your life for you. Keeping a secret, even for a good reason, can sometimes slowly kill you. And, as Olivia Pope once aptly said, dirty little secrets always come out.
Who, though, is pristine? Who does the right thing, all the time, for their whole lives? Probably no one. The dirty truth is that we all keep secrets, we all do questionable things. And sometimes, that questionable thing is falling in love and having an affair with someone, like Linda Edelstein’s character Sarah, on last night’s Scandal (Top of the Hour).
Often times, it isn’t the mistake that damages us the most – it keeping it a secret. It’s living two parallel lives. When that happens, you aren’t really living in either one, even though you are residing in both. Sarah had an affair with her law professor. This law professor is now President Grant’s pick for Supreme Court Justice. Truthfully, the judge doesn’t seem like a bad guy at all – and when confronted with the crisis, he’s more worried about how the news will affect Sarah, than how it affects himself. Regardless, the truth trickles out slowly, doing more damage than a full confession might have done. Betrayals can be forgiven. It happens every day. Except the affair wasn’t a one-time oops. It was a repeated, lengthy thing – much like Olivia and Fitz. Sarah’s husband begins to spiral out, questioning their entire life together. Once the truth is out there, it cannot be stuffed back into the box.
And that’s what this episode is largely about: controlling the narrative and the motivations behind why we do that. Because keeping a secret is one thing, but does the reason we keep a secret matter? In a heartbreaking phone call between Fitz and Liv, they are both shattered – ruined, as he puts it.
Fitz is devastated that Liv betrayed him during the election. It isn’t that she rigged the election; it’s that she let him believe the lie. He doesn’t care about the reason why she did it. To Fitz, it doesn’t matter. The trust is broken, and she was the only person he really trusted. When Liv tells Fitz that she’s ruined too, he says he doesn’t care. Which, judging by the look on his face, is a lie. Because he called. He called under the pretense of work, but the call was clearly personal. They both agree to hang up, and while Liv does indeed hit end and put her phone done – Fitz only lets the receiver drop. He never actually hangs up the phone. Symbolism? Hell yes.
It seems like everyone is keeping, and reeling, from secrets. Huck and Quinn are stalking the FBI Director, who is shady and selling state secrets. Those two are fabulous together. But it seems like Quinn isn’t as careful as she thought, because the Director is looking into her. That cannot end well, and I suspect Huck is going to be very protective of his protégé. While Abby and Harrison come to an awkward emotional détente – after Abby confesses that she’s put her personal feelings aside and continues to work with him. At least knowing how he interfered with her relationship with David, she has an understanding of who he is – and he’s a Gladiator first and a person second. There’s no bitterness in the words when she says them, but there is a kind of sadness. A resignation that comes with the realization that you cannot fully trust or lean on something, because their full loyalty lies somewhere else. As long as your goals are common, things are fine. When they are divergent, life is uncertain.
Of course, there is also the matter of Jake – who is playing both sides to the middle: dating Olivia while spying on her for the President. He is desperate to keep his own secret, to control his own narrative. When a photographer snaps a picture of himself with Liv, he goes so far as to break into his apartment, beat him up, and steal the memory card. Hello, line. We’ve clearly crossed you. Because at this point, there’s no going back. There’s damage control until all the secrets come out. I suspect that neither Liv or Fitz will be able to forgive Jake’s transgressions, because he’s basically lying to everyone. Ironically, he had passed on some key intel to Fitz (that Liv gave him) which saved the President’s political ass – by rescuing the hostages, which has been an ongoing crisis for a while.
Mellie and Cyrus are doing the awkward dance of power – each wanting to have Fitz’s ear, while Cyrus’s hold is tenuous at best and Mellie is cast out into Influential Siberia. Initially, Mellie assumes that Fitz is sleeping with Olivia again. Cyrus is crestfallen to discover that he was kept in the dark about rescuing the hostages. And then Mellie sees Jake, realizes that he is who Fitz has been secretly meeting. Jake is Fitz’s secret – a dirty secret, considering the nature of Jake’s task. And as we all know, dirty little secrets always come out. This is the beginning of that unraveling. Fitz got sloppy in keeping Jake a secret.
One last thing is that this episode made me wonder about motivations. Say you’ve done a terrible thing. Shouldn’t the reason you did it count for something? I’m not sure I have the answer. You make a decision, and at the time, it seems like the best choice. Not the right one, because sometimes, there isn’t a right choice. There’s just the thing you choice. There’s just what you do. As Olivia put it, “You did what you thought was best at the time, even if it was wrong. You thought it was best. You can’t change the choice that you made. All you can do is not let it ruin you.” It’s hard to forgive yourself when everything is falling apart. It’s hard to look at a situation like Sarah’s and not let it tear you up. It’s all too easy to self-blame and berate, because yes, you did a bad thing. But at the end of the day, we’re all human. We are all flawed. And sometimes, you’re living a secret for so long that living without it feels wrong. Sometimes, it becomes such a part of your life that you almost can’t breathe without it. When the truth comes out, you only have one choice: grit your teeth and bear it. Square your shoulders and take it. The thing you had control over is done. Nothing else is truly up to you.
Except to try not to let it ruin you. Love can be a miraculous disaster from which a person never fully recovers. And falling in love does, sometimes, ruin us for all other people. Because, to quote from Downton Abby, “I’ll never be happy with anyone else, as long as you’re stalking the earth.” You find that person who gets you, who sees you and lets you see them. And that’s it. You’re done. You’re ruined. I wonder if anyone can ever recover from that, without being a poor imitation of themselves. I don’t think I could. I’m not sure either Olivia or Fitz truly can. Because they’re a matched set. They’re sometimes stupid bookends. They’re better when they’re together, and less when they are apart. And they’ve both made mistakes. And yet, I think we have to allow for another possibility. That, sometimes, what comes out of the ruins is stronger and more fierce that what was originally there. That sometimes, what emerges from the charred wreckage is something more than what was there, before. Sometimes, you have to burn it all down and start again, amid the ruins.
(Photo is from Scandal’s Facebook page.)
“Maybe…you’ll fall in love with me all over again.”
“Hell,” I said, “I love you enough now. What do you want to do? Ruin me?”
“Yes. I want to ruin you.”
“Good,” I said. “That’s what I want too.”
― Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms