Scandal Season 4: Making Sense of a Scandal in D.C.

We look at the relationship between ABC's Scandal and its backdrop, our nation's capital.

Fair Warning: This story contains Scandal spoilers. 

When I took a trip to Washington D.C. last year, my friend took a picture of me standing at the black metal fence that surrounded the White House.

It is an image we have all come to know so well; a symbol of American history. We get glimpses of the inner workings of the White House and it creates a reality we have only come to know through our history books or nightly on the news.

In Shonda Rhimes’ Scandal, Washington D.C. is the framework for the show. Characters hold jobs at the White House or the Capitol building and dramatic situations always occur due to some political event or scandal. There are shock factor moments in each episode, but it’s the aftermath — each character’s reaction to a situation that makes the show special.

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When Rhimes decided to try out her reality in our country’s capital; a version so twisted and scandalous, I was hooked. These aren’t just characters getting themselves into sticky situations; they are characters ultimately warped and sometimes destroyed by their positions in Washington. 

It oddly played out in real life, too. After the dismissal of regular cast member Columbus Short (who plays Gladiator Harrison Wright), the story will need to find a way to thrive in season four despite the loss of a central character. As we all know during this last season, Harrison was gaining more of a backstory than ever before. While his absence will be something to adjust to, characters constantly come and go on this show and the story still progresses.

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When a scene is about to transition, you can hear the sound of a camera snapping pictures accompanied by two or three shots outside of the new monument or political building we are about to be set in. It reminds me of that moment when I first went to the White House. It was still so far, but closer than I had ever been before. 

But after that sound cuts off, we are set in that location closer than any tourist or average person watching the news can go. These characters are put in roles with titles that make them almost untouchable in real life. They appear in every way formal, business-like, and boring. Rhimes lets us second guess our usual perception of these people and uses their titles to contradict their character completely. The president is supposed to be intelligent, endearing, and confident; a family man with good looks and charm, right? Well in moments when he’s sneaking off with Olivia in the Oval office or putting the life of a promient public official in danger…we realize these characters are never as they appear. 

It’s not just President Grant who is altered by the capital. Back at the end of season two, Huck, a former assassin for a special unit in the CIA called B613, is put in a situation in which he would normally torture someone for more information. Huck, in this moment, struggles when he can’t readily get himself to revert back to his past lifestyle, (not yet, anyway). Quinn thinks she is being gallant by stepping in for him, only to find she kind of enjoyed it.

The adrenaline high it gave her…stuck. She becomes infatuated with what Huck used to do. She is later set up by a member of B613 and ends up accidentally murdering an innocent man. She is instantly sucked into this horrible world of political scandal on whole new level. A character finally discovering her place as one of Olivia’s “gladiators” completely flips her id. 

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Huck was known as the technological whiz and hacker of Olivia’s crisis management firm. But eventually sweet, quiet, reformed Huck’s is tested again at a moment of weakness when the leader of the B613 leaves a man tied up, prepped and ready for Huck to kill. He snaps and immediately goes back to his ways of torture and murder. There’s no way Huck could go back to that, right? Well, he did.           

These characters aren’t just going from bad to good or good to bad, but are constantly fluctuating between them. When we are first introduced to Jake Ballard, he appears to be a charming man, flirting with Olivia at a coffee shop. My first thought was, ‘Finally, Olivia can be with a normal sweet guy and once and for all leave her president behind!’ But, as the episode goes on, we begin to learn more about Jake. Oh, he’s not just a normal guy, but a Navy man and a high ranked official at the Pentagon.

While he looked great in uniform, the moment we found out he was involved with the government, should have been a huge red flag. It was all too good to be true. If it wasn’t for the final scene of the episode where we see Jake sipping a beer, relaxing to some good old television of Olivia Pope in her apartment displayed across multiple screens as well as other rooms in her home… he would have been a winner.

It’s easy to write him off as a potential love interest for Olivia after this revelation, but Rhimes reels us in again when we find out he was under orders of President Grant, an old friend of Jake’s from the Navy. Of course it’s Grant who is really being the creep. But this is just the beginning of our discovery into whom Jake really is and we are continuously thrown off through the end of season three. 

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At some point you might ask yourself, “Wait, do I even like any of these characters anymore?” Eventually, once loveable characters are transformed and become unrecognizable. Eventually I accepted that deceit and destruction would always surround them. Even though characters like Huck go back to their old ways and Olivia keeps returning to her President’s side, I am constantly curious as to what will ultimately become of them and how it will change the story once again.

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Not every show can have an attempted assassination of the president and have it personally affect almost every lead character. Even in the moment when we find out Olivia’s father, Rowan, is the leader of B613, the whole dynamic of the show changes. It set new motives into place for each character and made us realize just how many of them were actually connected to Rowan. This political world is suffocating these characters, trapped in a web of pain and torture. 

These characters aren’t oblivious to the terrible lives they lead. They are always talking about ways out. Olivia and the President Grant would always imagine their lives outside of this political world, dreaming of a home in Vermont and having children together. A normal life. No presidency. No White House. No D.C. Even Jake envisions a world away from there. When he is basically forced to accept leadership of B613 when Rowan is ousted, Jake pleads with Olivia to save him and runaway together, away from their toxic worlds. It’s the only way he can see out of this life.

This fictional D.C. can bring about such dishonest characters, but we can’t help not to be consumed by it. Scandal has the advantage of having its surroundings and characters in significant job titles that allow for such a shock factor on the show.

It’s not Fitz Grant making a mistake; it’s the president of the United States cheating on the first lady, his wife.

It’s not just Olivia reconnecting with her father, but finding out he is the leader of an organization that has destroyed so many lives, including the lives of people close to her.

Through all the hair pulling, gut wrenching, hands thrown up over my face moments on this show, I can’t help becoming invested in Olivia Pope and her team of lawyers and for just an hour, fall into this political town turned into a fantasy where characters live a life that is truly scandalous. 

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