Olivia Pope: From Juggernaut to Jezebel?

Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope on Scandal (Richard Cartwright/IMDb)
Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope on Scandal (Richard Cartwright/IMDb)

(The Root) — Season 2 of ratings favorite Scandal resumes with a new episode Thursday. During its two weeks off, chatter on social media ranged from gasps to swoons over what and to whom Olivia Pope (played by Kerry Washington) will do next — not to mention ire over the showing of repeat episodes at the height of the show's popularity! The fervor over the show featuring the first black female lead in a drama in four decades has not died down. In fact, it has accelerated, building a following not seen, since, well, show runner Shonda Rhimes's prior ABC hit, Grey's Anatomy.


What is it about Olivia Pope and her crew of misfits that make the show so perplexing? There's definitely the Shonda Rhimes effect. The creator and head writer worked her mojo on Grey's Anatomy to such an extent that she was able to resurrect the notion of a black female lead on network television (the first being Teresa Graves in Get Christy Love!). Ten years ago, imagining a black female show runner with a black female lead and a multiracial cast that garnered excellent ratings was about as plausible as thinking that the United States would elect an African American to the highest office in the land. Who knew?

If black women like Susan Fales-Hill, Yvette Lee Bowser, Jacque Edmonds, Eunetta Boone, Mara Brock Akil, Vida Spears, Pam Veasey, Sara Finney-Johnson, Winifred Hervey and Debbie Allen kicked open the door for black female show runners, then Rhimes has kicked it down with her formula for network television success.

In addition to having Rhimes at the helm, Scandal's success is due to excellent casting. Kerry Washington and Tony Goldwyn shine as the couple that should be but never can be: Olivia Pope and President Fitzgerald Grant. The show also features the talents of Columbus Short as Harrison Wright, Guillermo Diaz as Huck and Jeff Perry as Cyrus Beene. On-again, off-again nemeses are first lady Mellie Grant (Bellamy Young) and Vice President Sally Langston (Kate Burton); and emotionally and professionally abused attorney David Rosen (Joshua Molina) and power grabber Verna Thornton (Debra Mooney) — the last two being off-again forever. The chemistry, dialogue (in that speedy delivery known as "Scandal-pace") and story development pull viewers in, while the suspense, melodrama and — dare I say it, scandal — keep viewers coming back.

The ongoing narrative enigma is the love affair between Olivia and Fitz. Fans and scholars have debated whether Scandal represents post-racial television — a show in which cast members are ethnically diverse but are not defined by their race or ethnicity. In the first season, it was easy to make this claim as Pope worked her magic, managing crises without mentioning that her ongoing affair with Fitz was problematic, not only because he was married and in a powerful position that demanded strong family values, but also because they were a mixed-race couple living in Washington, D.C. (formerly known as Chocolate City).

Season 2 has knocked that theory out the window, with Pope commenting on the fact that she felt like Sally Hemings, the lover-mistress-property of Thomas Jefferson, when engaging in illicit activities with President Grant. While many speak about the strength and power of Pope's character, the way that their love affair has gone further awry this season undermines the strength and power that Pope's character exuded in the first season. Who is this weepy woman, crying over a man who has proven himself to be a creep (and a killer), who ostensibly used and disposed of her like trash? Are we to believe that a strong, dynamic black woman who manages crises day in and day out, "the fixer," can't manage to fix her private life?

We know folks like this, people who give great advice but fail to implement said advice in their personal lives. Season 1 gave viewers a black female lead who was sure of herself, exercised personal and political power and made sure that race (and sexuality) were not factors in who she was or could be. Season 2 has done just the opposite, making us wonder if Pope's intertextual reference to Sally Hemings was foreshadowing or concession? 


Perhaps the latest episode will help answer this question: Has Olivia gone from juggernaut to Jezebel in one season? We might have to wait until May 16 for the answer; on Wednesday Shadow and Act reported that ABC has set that date for the season finale.

Then, perhaps, looking ahead to season 3, we'll see more of the depth and complexity in Pope's character about which we've been dreaming for black female characters since the advent of television (family, neighborhood ties, friendships outside of the office, flirting inside of the office — hello, Harrison Wright!). Perhaps we won't? Maybe it will be more of the same.


Based on the popularity of the series, most fans just want more Olivia Pope, in whatever package Shonda Rhimes wraps her. 

Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., is editor-at-large for The Root. She is also editor-in-chief of the Burton Wire, a blog dedicated to world news related to the African Diaspora and global culture. Follow her on Twitter.


Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., a media scholar, is digital editor in chief at Grady Newsource and a faculty member of the Cox Institute of Journalism, Innovation, Management & Leadership at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. She is founder and editor in chief of the award-winning news blog the Burton Wire. Follow her on Twitter here or here.