Someone’s eye is watching this show. It just isn’t mine.
Olivia Pope is in the secrets business.
No, she’s not a CIA agent, paid to keep them. Nor is she a gossip blogger, paid to spill them. This former White House communications director is now head of a crisis management firm that caters to our capital’s richest, most powerful citizens.
All her clients have secrets—closets stuffed with ’em, sometimes. And when one tumbles out, it’s Olivia’s job to manage and spin it, turning a potential PR time bomb into, at worst, an inconvenience, and at best, an asset. If she has to break a few rules, blackmail a few informants or birth a few secrets herself, so be it. After all, no one ever said the secrets business was easy … or pretty.
ABC’s Scandal is part serialized mystery, part episodic drama. While most installments feature a self-contained crisis to manage (the discovery of a notorious madam’s black book, a politician’s son accused of rape, etc.), Olivia and her crack team of lawyers and investigators are also embroiled in a massive and longer-lasting scandal that could rock the free world.
The show has its share of all the problematic content you’d expect in this sort of drama. A handful of mild profanities in each episode. A harrowing kidnapping or grotesque corpse. Conversations about sleazy sexual situations. We’ve seen instances of violence, torture and murder. And Pope’s longstanding affair with the president himself—one that led to the two shacking up together in the White House for a while—can make this show quite problematic.
It also tends to pull events straight from the headlines and then add some spin. (A spin that twirls ever leftward in the hands of series creator Shonda Rhimes.)
But perhaps Scandal’s bigger issue is more esoteric. Olivia, we’re told, is a principled, conscientious woman who cares as much about righting wrongs as filling her business coffers—sometimes helping folks who seem unable to afford her admittedly pricey services. But it’s a tricky line she walks here. While her heart often (though not necessarily always) is in the right place, she and her team just as often make muddy ethical decisions, seem to thrive on conflicts of interest, and work hand in hand with some deeply compromised—and compromising—characters.
So while Olivia’s team likes to think they’re the ones wearing the white hats, it’s a very black business they’ve gotten into.
In the fifth season’s fall finale, Millie, former first lady and now a junior senator, decides to filibuster against a spending bill when she learns that Planned Parenthood’s funding has been moved to discretionary spending. This throws her into an alliance with Olivia Pope, the White House’s new first, um, mistress, who supports Millie behind the scenes … and then undergoes an abortion of her own.
The show’s point of view on this controversial life-and-death issue is obvious. As The Atlantic’s Lenika Cruz writes, “The message? This is normal. This is acceptable. This is Olivia’s choice, and hers alone.” She doesn’t even deem it needful to tell President Fitzgerald “Fitz” Thomas Grant III, the presumed father of the child, about what she’s done.
Elsewhere, Harrison Wright is shot in the head by Jake, and is left lying in a pool of his own blood. Eli Pope is nearly strangled by Huck, and Eli begs him to finish the task. Huck backs off. “Knowing you want to die, it’s almost better than killing you,” he says.
There are references to affairs and manual stimulation. We hear about how Olivia’s been called a “slut” and worse, and her father’s asked a crude and racially charged question about his daughter’s intercourse habits.
A cynical staffer says that she and others of her ilk celebrate Christmas by drinking vodka from the bottle. “Everybody over the age of 10 hates Christmas,” she says. Oliva drinks vodka from a mason jar (sharing some with Fitz), and then wine, too. Wine, whiskey and champagne are quaffed by others. There’s talk of spiking eggnog. A handful of vulgarities include “h—” “b–ch” and “d–n.”
Client Amanda Tanner—who claimed to have conceived a child with the president—is missing. At Olivia’s request, Huck interrogates (read: tortures) a former co-worker of his to learn Amanda’s whereabouts. And we end up seeing his victim naked (critical body parts obscured) with his mouth taped shut. Huck uses a power drill on him, and we see the man’s torso spattered with blood as Huck prepares to go to town with a scalpel. “I will peel you like a grape,” he says. Later, Amanda’s grotesque corpse is pulled from a nearby river.
An alcoholic airline pilot, sober for 20 years, is unfairly blamed for the crash of a plane that killed 120 people. We see a severed foot at the crash site. We hear about a suicide attempt. Stephen sleeps with at least two people to gather illegal information. Profanity includes “h‑‑‑” (six times), “b‑‑tard” (once) and “d‑‑n” (once). God’s name is misused four or five times.
The vice president is shown, somewhat derogatorily, as a overtly religious politician. “You know my people like to pray,” she tells the president, and that she agreed to serve as his running mate because he “walks with the Lord.” She tells him she can’t vote for a bill that would give rights to the children of illegal immigrants because “that is not God’s plan,” but reverses herself when the president threatens to withhold his endorsement for her own presidential run.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.
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