The ideology of gossip

Scandal, 2012-2017

Showrunner: Shonda Rhimes

Review by Peter Hulm

So much of United States political life takes place in public, television viewers outside the Beltway fishbowl cannot help but wonder what it is we do not see. We've been given several answers since 1999, starting with The West Wing.

They contrast with series such as The Crown (2016+), based on what is publicly known but where the obligation to disguise or hide what is actually taking place is seen as the primary royal duty.

We, the citizen consumers of U.S. politics, have learned over the years about the U.S. Presidents' affairs, philandering, paranoia, chicanery, laziness, ignorance and publicity-hunger. What if this is all that really matters about their politics?

The unseen monster

Scandal shows us what this would be like. And the ruler of this world is an invisible monster known as the public, a terrifying force that can strike at any moment destroying all before it, unless the clever trickster known as 'the fixer' can divert the relentless killer into another channel — a perfect examplar of Jacques Lacan's Freudian cum Heideggerean invention, the Real+, the paralysing knowledge of our inevitable death we must always hide from ourselves in order to act.

The neglected visual

Any account of modern popular culture cannot ignore the visual, even regarding television, no matter how close it comes to "radio with pictures"*

Here is Scandal's originality, not remarked in the previous Shonda Rhimes hit Grey's Anatomy. It features an original photographic style for a television series: the focus is often on a person in the middle distance, blurring the closer objects while the camera continues to pan. Discussions often take place as if seen from another room. The quick-flash Washington scene setting with photoflash sound effects is as distinctive as 24's four-screen displays, while its double exposure of characters in conversation breaks up their reactions into 'readable' chunks. The editing is uniformly sharp, as is the timing of scenes.

None of this style has garnered critical awards, and it remains difficult to guess who is most responsible. Tom Verica, an actor and producer as well as director, is the most regular director (23 of 124 episodes) but several of the actors from the series have also directed episodes. The chief cinematographer is Oliver Bokelberg (47 episodes), from Germany, formerly on Grey's Anatomy. The main film editor Gregory T. Evans (34 episodes). The music for 59 episodes is credited to Chad Fischer, who made his name with compositions for British TV and films.

Watching, prying

The blurred focus, anachronistic press-camera-shutter sounds accompanying still clips of Washington, the see-through-window filming — all keep the viewer aware that they are watching something being enacted before them and, at the same time, an enactment of what might be called the ideology of gossip.

Ideology is used here as meaning the lens through which we make sense of reality. In Lacanian terms, it exemplifies how our Imaginary confronts and suppresses experience of the Real through the Symbolic.

Inscrutability is power

A simple example in Scandal is the main symbolic figure, Olivia Pope the fixer, who has seemingly unrivalled power in warding off the dangers of public exposure (the real) through her manipulation of what becomes public (the imaginary). Her inscrutability, never resolved, is part of her power.

Though the series treats the political and office world as abnormal, the only picture of normality offered is the avowed and unrealizable fantasy of a farm in Vermont where the wife makes jam and the husband is head of the Parent Teacher Association. In fact, the peculiar world of fictional television politics is in fact promoted as the real normal. It is the only place where ethical and moral issues are presented and worked out. The farm fantasy is an escape from all the questions raised by the life they lead.

The importance of hiding facts

The ideology of gossip differs from the ideology of publicity in its emphasis on what is hidden and the paramount importance of keeping it so. At the same time, the power of prying into others' lives is treated as a natural right. Olivia Pope's inscrutability is seen as a sensible defence mechanism.

Though the writing has a lot about it of soap opera theatrics, it uses such techniques — particularly the suspense-twist ending to an episode — to powerful effect. In post-modern theoretical terms, we can see the plot twists as throwing into question all that we have previously believed about the previous narrative.

Some twists

Thus Olivia Pope's mother is first a victim, then a terrorist, then a hit-team organizer for money, then a vengeful ex-spouse. The father is an extranged figure, then an evil manipulator, then a protector of the republic against presidents, then a controller of his daughter's life, then an enemy of the people.

The President's wife and the chief of staff each undergo similar transformations, as does the President's father, Olivia's post-Presidential lover and the former assistant turned Presidential press secretary. More on the uses of such plotting later.

The insider rebel

Like Roy Scheider's sheriff in Jaws, Scandal's fixer Olivia Pope (Kelly Washington) represents both the centre of the establishment (in her contacts) and can be an avowed rebel. Like the sheriff, she personifies both indomitable focus on her job and harsh courage, as well as universally declared (and largely invisible) humanitarianism.

The blatant fantasy is underlined by the similarities of her team to Charlie's Angels or the A-team, whose infantile relationships with the boss produces resentful devotion and questions such as "Why did you save [really, love] me?" and the insistence to each other that they may not understand why Olivia is doing what she does but she is unquestionably right, no matter how little she explains.

Trickster god, violent children

We need not spend much time on psychoanalytical examination of why our trickster god is called Pope (her clothes are a major unspoken sub-theme as in the Vatican).

Nor need we do more than observe that the childish "associates" of Olivia Pope are, like infants, unable to control the violent impulses inside them, in this case towards graphic torture of others. We can note (as part of the infantilism characterizing the Pope office members) that a major plotline involves a character (female) discovering and cultivating the "monster" inside her, even to the point of torturing the people closest to her.

The terrors of publicity

In contrast to real life, however, no-one seems to take being tortured personally. What they do take personally is the possibility of being publicly involved in a scandal.

How much this represents a fantasy today is clear from the first year of the Trump administration, where scandal has followed scandal without any discernible effect on the public life or reputation of those involved, unless criminal activities are involved. In 2018 Scandal's overheated dramas seemed hysterical rather than realistic.

Nevertheless, it retains an undeniable power. For non-political people (particularly show business types such as Harvey Weinstein and co), scandal carries a devastating price. And, as in Scandal, the most important tactic is to avoid allowing the truth to become public. No wonder television thinks the issue so important.

But it's not about sex

Sexual activities did not lie at the heart of House of Cards or The West Wing, Scandal's predecessors and rivals in political thrillers. It appeared in the foreground of The Good Wife, but only so that the spotlight could fall on the future life of the spouse of a politician caught in a relationship with a prostitute. It was much more about the up-to-the-minute ethical issues that lawyers and the justice system confront and fail to deal with.

But how much does sex determine politics?

The question that Scandal poses, and answers, is just as important but more difficult to frame adequately or settle: if sex is more the origin of a scandal than criminal political or economic behaviour, how much does it determine what happens in politics?

In Scandal, the sex itself is fantastical, as caricatural and schematic as Oliver Pope's trolls: uncontrollable, unthinking yet as irresistible as thought. Sex in Scandal is almost a teenage dream or soft-porn version of passion. That is, it has to hint of being uncontrollably transgressive without ever delivering on its promise to the viewer.

Perhaps significantly, Scandal regularly exploits the post-2010 cliché of the woman fumbling for the belt of her partner to undo it without the motion ever being followed through in its purpose.

You can contrast it with David Hare's Collateral (2018), where the sexual relationships, equally important, have nothing of the prurient and each offer an unusual take on relationships: a lesbian priest and her illegal Vietnamese help, a liberal Labour MP trying to be an honourable ex-husband to his divorced, addicted wife, and a dedicated woman detective whose husband we never see (with no sign of friction).

In Scandal, the appeal of violence is overtly libidinal. Indeed, one of its major plot themes is the 'education' into violence of one heroine (Katie Lowes) by another associate (Guillermo Diaz) and their attraction, followed by a conjugal relation with another torturer/killer (George Newbern).

But it's all about the father

From this early emphasis and the frontlined love affair of Olivia Pope with the President, the series shifts in the second season to her relationship with her all-powerful father (Joe Morton). With almost Biblical cruelty he sacrifices all around her (he says) for her benefit. Her mother (Khandi Alexander) is first seen as the prisoner of her father in solitary, windowless confinement. The father and mother oscillate between being good and evil in the political system, which thus becomes a projection of Olivia Pope's own world.

We learn that the President's problems come from his father, as do his wife's. The major tragic figure is an elderly gay chief of staff (Jeff Perry) who goes through two love-filled marriages with much younger gays, while the major legal figure (Joshua Molina), dedicated to passion, is a continual figure of fun.

imdb viewer reviews are worth scanning for their regular panning of the story and acting (and occasionally the filming), while the overall score is a very high 7.8.

Viewers rightly point out the soap opera elements and ridiculous use of tags such as "white hat", "gladiators" and similar epithets. The frequent monologues annoyed some, along with the repetitions, but this seemed a deliberate style (and probably the only way to film so many episodes).

The problem of the couple

What Scandal offers on a deeper level, like The Good Wife as the Lacanian Marie-Helène Broussé has pointed out, is a perpetual concern with the psychological problem of "the couple".

In contrast to The Good Wife, which shows the heroine's platonic "coupling" with a female investigator (later replaced by a male equivalent), female and male fellow-workers, older and younger, teenage children of both sexes, Scandal's universe permits only a sexual/marriage framework (even for adulterous lovers). It's one major failing of the newer series in comparison with the older one. The office relationships have nothing of the subtlety of The Good Wife's.

Another failing of Scandal in comparison with The Good Wife is its conception of the heroine. Olivia Pope has nothing but ego to express, rather than dilemmas to navigate that relate to one's conception of oneself or one's values. Her commitment to protecting others is purely technical, disguised as her "gut feeling" (a clear expression of the ego's standards). The standards of the outside world exist for her only to be manipulated or outwitted.

The closest she comes to internalizing her conflicts is in her fraught relationship with her devious father (after rejection of her mother following a initial, short-lived sympathy with her mother). The Lacanian objet petit a (substitute symbol) in her relationship to the world is a luxurious glass of world-class wine (an invented wine, for those who like their accidents to be meaningful). Her tastes turn out to be the same as her father's, while other characters seem to turn to full glasses of whiskey at any signs of tension.

In psychological terms, she remains a child, magnified by Kelly Washington's restricted range of expressions (goggle-eyed, open-mouthed, closed-face and an angry/determined walk, and an ugly, screwed-up expression as if about to cry).

Her expensive clothes are like a uniform designed to intimidate. The other office workers are all condescended to, including when she exercises her charity, and they all represent expendable figures or potential enemies.

We never learn how she became a fixer and rose to such power. Her father's unexpected reappearance in her life tells us how she was part of the black establishment but only by sending her to a Swiss finishing school. Perhaps such a climb into the political world is inexplicable to most African-Americans and its magical aspect is perfectly acceptable to them. In any case she rarely moves outside a small circle of people, solving most problems on her own (with some help from the office lackeys). Hardly typical of political influence in the real world.

+ Lacan himself lowercases the real, giving it a more conventional designation, though his specialized use of the term and his understanding of its meaning, justify the capitalization in English, I believe, if only not to mislead ordinary readers.

* A music video programme first broadcast in 1976, but also a common dismissal of TV in its early days.