In a recent episode of “Scandal,” Olivia Pope was getting ready to work her Olivia Pope magic on an inexperienced, bushy-browed frump running for Congress when she paused to make a brief, disclaimer: “Research shows that if a woman candidate is perceived as too pretty or too plain, voters turn against her. Still, as a feminist, I would absolutely understand if you don't want to make adjustments to your image.” It was a brief moment (and the candidate went on to get a full makeover), but it was the kind of dialogue that this season of “Scandal” has been unusually full of: characters explicitly railing against institutional sexism, as though they’ve suddenly stepped out of a nighttime soap and into a PSA.
Shonda Rhimes established this template in the season premiere, where Olivia lectured a senator who claimed another senator had tried to rape her in his house late at night. (Spoiler: She was lying, covering up for her young assistant.)
I’d fight to the death to stand by any woman who says she was assaulted. Women don’t lie about that. There is overwhelming evidence that women do not lie about being sexually assaulted, but you are. And I know you are. Because when that happens, when a man grabs you, puts his hands on you, you do not forget it. You remember every single detail, every touch. So I’m going to give you a moment, and when I come back, I want to hear the truth about what happened that night.
Later in that episode, Olivia publicly praises that legislative aide for coming forward and being “a hero to the next girl who thinks she doesn’t have a choice when it comes to sexual harassment in the workplace, a workplace where somehow, women still make 77 cents to every male dollar.”
These speeches are not anomalies. Almost every episode this season has included something similar. Here is a former first lady, a pot-smoking badass who ran the country in the 1980s while her ADD-addled husband slacked off and slept with secretaries: “I did all of it. And what will I be remembered for? … I will be remembered as the wife of a man who did something with his life."
And here’s the current first lady, Mellie, one episode later: “I tell you something, when a woman is president, they’ll suddenly make First Lady an official paid position. They’ll hire someone to do it the minute a man has to do it, it’ll become a real job.”
And two weeks ago, “Scandal” aired its best episode in over a year, a fun, twisty ride that also featured a heartbreaking subplot about domestic abuse and the media’s treatment of victims. When Olivia suggests her friend go public about her abusive ex-husband, now running for Congress, Abby responds: “What happened to those women, Liv? Those women became Anita Hill, Monica Lewinsky. They told their story, but where are they now?”
Shonda Rhimes’s work has always espoused a brash progressivism, but she’s rarely made it so consistently a talking point. (A monologue last season by Lisa Kudrow’s presidential candidate was an exception, and the clip went viral, becoming an Upworthy link despite being from a fictional character.) And instead of making “Scandal” more boring, it’s actually is part of the show’s creative resurgence after a muddled third season that was swallowed by spy machinations.
Halfway through “Scandal”’s fourth season, no one has licked anyone else. No characters have chewed through their own wrist. Not a single main character has been shot or poisoned or even stabbed. Seven episodes in, the show has shed some of its defining characteristics—the whiplash speed, the jaw-dropping reveals—and ceded its Thursday night Twitter domination to “How to Get Away with Murder,” with its racy gay sex and OMG moments. Olivia Pope has yet to ask anyone why their penis is on a dead girl’s phone. For a show like “Scandal,” which found its voice by always being more, this shouldn’t really work: Cutting back on extreme plot twists in favor of bombastic moralizing shouldn’t make a show better. But it’s made it unlike anything else on TV.