I’ve been a fan of the show Madam Secretary from the first episode, so when the second season debuted this year, I brought new hubby Steve into the fold. Quickly hooked, he suggested we go back and watch the first season on Netflix. When we finished it and went trolling for something else to watch, we landed on Scandal. Steve was a little less intrigued than I, but we decided to try a couple of episodes before deciding whether to continue.
Soon, I couldn’t stop.
Scandal, like Madam Secretary, is a drama set in and around the White House. In Madam Secretary we follow Elizabeth McCord (Tea Leoni), former CIA agent turned secretary of state, as she navigates foreign affairs and her family life. In Scandal, the main character is Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington). Pope is a professional “fixer” who left a position at the White House to put some distance between herself and the President, with whom she began a tumultuous affair during his election campaign. She opens Olivia Pope and Associates, a private consulting firm that specializes in helping high-level clients navigate and mitigate potential scandals. Spoiler alert: she’s a little less than successful at leaving her love affair with the President behind.
Scandal’s take on government is, I hope, pure fantasy, because if it represents what truly goes on behind closed doors in Washington, it’s not a pretty picture. Most of the characters are schemers and rogues: corrupt, manipulative, even murderous. Sex, torture, and intrigue abound. Yet despite (because of?) their flaws, the characters are complex and compelling, and every episode ends with a cliffhanger of one kind or other. It’s addictive storytelling. Still, everyone is so dirty, so seamy, so wretched. I feel guilty watching, like I need a shower afterwards, and not because of the steamy sex scenes.
In fact, the show’s portrayal of romance is one of the things that bothers me most. It gets love completely wrong.
I know: it’s television, not reality. But a lot of people’s ideas about love are influenced and shaped by media interpretations. All indications are we’re supposed to empathize with Olivia, the series’ protagonist, but it’s hard to when an otherwise intelligent and compassionate female character throws herself under the bus for “love” repeatedly. President Fitz is controlling and emotionally manipulative. More than once Olivia tells him no, she’s done, good-bye; he refuses to respect her wishes and let her go. That’s not swoon-worthy—it’s stalking. When the President directs his agents to bring Olivia to him, she berates him for treating her like a possession, but makes out with him under a tree before the scene is over. Romanticizing a no-means-yes scenario? Disturbing and dangerous. It’s hard to stomach that this is “true love”—what the show wants us to believe Olivia and the President share—composed as it is of frequent arguments, insistent and usually rough sex (often in public or risky places), lots of agonizing, and fretful tears.
Maybe the show’s creators are counting on us to understand that Olivia gets it wrong, to recognize that her skewed sense of love is, in fact, a fatal flaw. We live in a world that gets moony over the machinations on The Bachelor, though, so I’m guessing the average viewer isn’t that discerning.
I almost threw in the towel in season two, when former suitor Edison returns to Olivia’s life. Spoiler alert: Edison is a genuinely good guy, kind and caring. He knows and brings Olivia’s favorite take out, shows up when she’s in crisis, communicates clearly and honestly. When he proposes, she accepts, then (surprise) agonizes, and finally declares she can’t marry him after all. Why? She doesn’t want the simple, supportive love he has to offer. He tries to tell her that love isn’t supposed to hurt, but she insists she wants—and I quote— “painful, difficult, devastating, life-changing, extraordinary love.”
I wanted to scream.
♥ ♥ ♥
Back in April, on a chilly Saturday morning, two students at the college where I teach got married in a simple backyard ceremony. The bride went barefoot and wore a simple lace dress. Her one-year old daughter walked with down the aisle with her, as the groom smiled and waited, nervously pushing up his glasses. I trembled for them; so young, so many changes and choices ahead.
But I was reassured by their vows, in which they eschewed the idea of soulmates, the concept that another person would complete them or make them whole. “I come to you as a whole person,” the bride declared. They vowed to challenge each other to be and to become their best selves, to support one another as each sought to do so.
That, my friends, shows a much better understanding of true love than a feverish sex scene in a closet. That is a love more Edison than Fitz, a love with the potential to be genuinely life-changing and extraordinary. And that is a love I can root for.
If only the Olivias of the world could be as smart with their hearts.