(The Root) — It has to be hard being Olivia Pope. She stalks the world like a hungry cat — switching her hips as she breaks down an executive strategy in seconds or staring off into the distance at her prey, or maybe reflecting on her mysterious past. She seems built for that sort of solitary existence but also burdened by it.
It's a conundrum laid at the feet of every contemporary, overachieving single woman — black or white. But after last night's premiere of Scandal, Olivia Pope (played by Kerry Washington) sliced through the stereotype. As the second round of the gladiator matchup begins, instead of fans asking, "Who is Quinn Perkins?" the real question after the season 2 opener is, "Who is Olivia Pope?"
We know that Olivia is in love with the president, Fitzgerald Grant, and he with her. We know that their love is Shakespearean — disastrous and most likely headed toward danger. Last season, when the president almost lost his job because of an audio sex tape starring the pair, Olivia let him go for the greater good. "Go be the man I voted for," she told him when he dreamed aloud about divorcing his Lady Macbeth of a first lady and running off with Olivia.
Now it's six months later, and first lady Mellie Grant is carrying "America's baby" and Olivia's work husband, Stephen, has quit the firm to get married and be normal. Alone on her couch with an open bottle of wine, Olivia watches as the president and his wife announce the sex of their child during a Barbara Walters-esque prime-time interview. An interview that she, herself, suggested. It's enough to make you feel sorry for her — if only that were possible.
Fitz and Mellie's marriage is far from perfect. She chose a different path from Olivia's and still came up lost. Despite giving up her career for her husband's political aspirations, Mellie knows that he doesn't love her. She knows that she can't fill Olivia's shoes but tries anyway, manipulating her husband on a sensitive war issue past the point of gentle prodding just to say she did something. Fitz reacts like a cornered cat, lashing out: "No one elected you. Your opinion doesn't matter. You're ornamental, not functional." It's Olivia's opinion that matters. She's functional.
And while this dysfunctional love triangle closes in, Olivia still has a job to do — namely, trying to save the life of her former employee Quinn Perkins, the woman whose real name we learned at the end of last season.
Quinn is really Lindsay Dwyer, a woman on trial for murder after allegedly sending her cheating boyfriend a letter bomb that killed seven people. Of course, according to Quinn-Lindsay, she's innocent, and of course, Olivia believes her. But not for the reasons we're led to assume.
Olivia is the woman who wins. She can save Quinn, the "girl next door," the way she saves everyone else. Quinn claims, rather fantastically, that she went to a hotel when she heard the news that her cheating boyfriend's office had been bombed and she was the prime suspect. Then a mysterious scary fairy drugged her and she woke up days later in Washington with a new identity — passports, cash, birth certificate — laid out neatly on the nightstand.
It's a given that Olivia can spin a story even this ridiculous. She can do anything, right? But there are a few cracks in Olivia's shield, moments when the rest of the gang walk in on her staring off into the distance at nothing. For the first time, she seems to have left her confidence at home. Could it be that Olivia doesn't have all the answers after all?
Not even close. Olivia still knows more than anyone else. When the prosecutor in Quinn's case notes that Olivia's been "walking around with the weight of the world on your shoulders," it's an "Um, duh" and "Aha" moment rolled into one. The night before Quinn's verdict is announced, Olivia makes a call (one Scandal Twitter fan joked it was to Jesus himself), and the very next day Quinn's a free woman. Even the home team doesn't know what to make of it. Was it a win? Or did they cheat? And does it matter?
It's not until the last scenes that we see Huck — Olivia's human Swiss Army knife — deleting himself from a surveillance video of the Washington hotel that Lindsay emerges from as Quinn. Dressed in the mysterious scary-fairy uniform of all black everything, Huck watches as Quinn leaves, and then he ducks into a waiting town car. Guess who's in the driver's seat, as always? Olivia. Dun-dun-dun.
Last night's Scandal peeled back a layer of the main character. Olivia isn't just another smart, successful and tragically single cautionary tale. She isn't just the fixer — the perpetual fast-talking know-it-all who swoops in to save the day just to go home to an empty apartment. Like the lost causes she takes on as a crisis-management expert, Olivia has a secret. There's something that makes her tick besides the high of winning or the battery pack of being a "strong black woman" — and I can't wait to find out what it is.