Last week, in praising this season of “Scandal,” I complimented the show’s creator Shonda Rhimes for pivoting directly into the craziness of the show in its second season.
But when I spoke to Rhimes earlier this week, she disagreed with the idea that there had been any significant change at all – that the only difference between seasons has been the length of them, and that seven episodes last spring wasn’t enough to do things right.
Last week, the show concluded its first major arc of season 2, in which our every more morally ambiguous heroine Olivia Pope found out who had attempted to murder President Fitzgerald Grant, while Fitz in turn found out that Olivia and several other allies had conspired to rig the election in his favor – and, as a result, spurned Olivia to go back to his crazy wife Mellie.
The series kicks off the second big movement of the season tonight at 10, and I spoke with Rhimes about the changes (or lack thereof) in the new season, where the story will go from here (in the vaguest possible terms), why Olivia and Fitz should not be compared to any of the couples from Rhimes’ “Grey’s Anatomy,” and more.
To begin with, your show certainly wasn’t bad in its first season, but it wasn’t this crazy fun ride it’s become this year. When you wrapped the first season and began thinking about season 2, what did you think needed to change about the show?
Shonda Rhimes: It’s funny. I really don’t feel like we’re doing anything different. We just had more episodes that we could use to tell a bigger story. The first seven episodes, we had seven episodes. The first seven episodes of any series is never the series, ever. A series really hits its stride around episode 10, really.
Okay, but the first season was more driven by a Crisis of the Week format than this one has been, though Olivia has had to deal with some of those as well.
Shonda Rhimes: (laughs) I totally disagree with you! Last season, we told four case of the weeks, and then we sort of gave over to our bigger story which we had been laying out as we had gone along, which was the Amanda Tanner story. And I said that was going to be the plan for this year, too: we’re going to start out with our case of the weeks, and when our larger story requires all of our characters’ attention, that’s what we’ll be telling stories about.
Okay, so let’s talk about the bigger canvas you were working on this season. Fitz was already a pre-existing character, but now you’re dealing with election-rigging, and failed Oval Office coups and presidential assassination attempts. That’s big stuff.
Shonda Rhimes: I feel like we knew this, in season 1, when we were talking about the conspiracy of the president’s affair with Liv, I knew that Liv had left the White House for larger reasons than we had explored than just “She had an affair with the president.” What I discovered when doing season 1 was that it was very important that everybody have a light and a dark side, and we were walking lines with all of the characters.
And that’s been a very notable thing about this season – that at this point, David Rosen is pretty much the only character who hasn’t gone dark yet, and I assume you’re going to make Josh Malina do bad things soon. Was there any hesitance, either from you or from ABC, about taking your heroine to this place?
Shonda Rhimes: No. Definitely not from me, because that’s what I wanted to do all along. And as for the network – they’re going to hate me for saying this – but they didn’t object because they never knew where we were going, because we’re writing so up to the minute. We’re unfolding story at a really rapid pace here, and scripts are coming off literally warm off the presses at a table read.
I’ve really enjoyed where you’ve taken Olivia, but I’ve encountered at least a few people who say, “Oh, I don’t want to watch that show now” because all the characters are so compromised. What, if anything, would you say to them?
Shonda Rhimes: I guess I’d say then maybe it’s not for them. I don’t know. Basically, I’ve just been trying to write a show that I would want to watch; that’s what I always try to do with my shows. I feel like for all of their flaws, these people ahve their very clear moral centers. But it’s interesting to me. I don’t think anybody would say, “That ‘Breaking Bad,’ I don’t want to watch that show with those bad people,” or “I don’t want to watch that Tony Soprano.” But I’m just writing people I would want to watch. I also think it’s interesting that people are watching somebody who, from the very first time we met her, she’s selling a baby and having an affair with the married President of the United States, and somehow they expected her to be good.
Olivia has gone to darker places, and she’s done things to these people who work for her, like sabotaging Abby’s relationship with David to serve her own needs. Yet when Abby finds out, she’s made for five minutes and then gets back to serving Olivia’s will. What is it about this character and that office that makes her employees so willing to forgive her?
Shonda Rhimes: I don’t know if “forgive” is the correct word. I feel like there’s very dark things that have happened in their past, that Olivia has saved them from at a certain point. In the world of the show, they’ve all signed up to be these gladiators for her, and they’re struggling with that to varying degrees, especially Quinn. But Harrison has made peace with what he’s doing. Abby is still trying to figure out if loyalty without questioning is worth it. I don’t necessarily know that Abby’s fine with everything. She’s just decided to follow the orders.
My understanding is that you structured this season as a 13-episode arc and then a 9-episode one. Given what you said before about turning out scripts very late in the process, how much of what happened in last week’s episode, and in this arc, did you know when you started the season?
Shonda Rhimes: Most of it. We knew that Verna was the person who had engineered everything. We obviously knew about the election rigging. We knew that Cyrus was going to attempt to kill James, or be faced with the question of whether he would kill his husband. we were back and forth on when whether Fitz was going to find out, and when Fitz was going to find out, and what he was going to do if and when he foudn out.
Given the scope of the events of these 13 episodes, and that you’ve run other TV series that have had to continue on after their own big events, were there ever points in making this arc where you asked yourself, “How in the world are we going to top this?”
Shonda Rhimes: Yeah, we said that after season 1, too: “What are we going to do to top Amanda Tanner?”
What are you comfortable saying about the new arc?
Shonda Rhimes: We come back ten months later, with everyone still dealing with what happened. And we want to be clear that we’re not just going to go, “Okay, that happened, and now everything’s back to normal,” and we’re going to drop everything and pretend that none of that happened. That’s not the world we’re working in – part of it being this heightened world in which there can be an attempted coup and an assassination attempt and all these things can happen, is we live in a world in which that’s possible inside the world of “Scandal.” Everything’s heightened, and now they’re dealing with the aftermath of everything that happened. Having had this stuff happen has left all these scars for them, and consequences. A lot of it is dealing with that, and we’re spinning off a little bit in a new direction, but part of that new direction comes from, as everything does, something else in the past.
You had a lot of experience on “Grey’s,” before Meredith and Derek got together for good, of doing this great romance where you’re putting them together as a couple, breaking them up, putting other romantic partners in the way, etc. Do you view Olivia and Fitz in that same mold, or is something different going on with them in terms of him turning away from her and back towards his wife?
Shonda Rhimes: I don’t know that there are any comparisons to “Grey’s” that are valid. “Grey’s” was a romantic comedy wrapped in a medical drama. This show has nothing to do with that. I think it’s fascinating that people are rooting for the couple to be together, and I love it, but we started off this show with a man who is the President of the United States and sleeping with a woman even though he’s married to someone else. We didn’t start out a show in which we said, “These two people are meant to be together and happily ever after, and that’s going to be the end of our happy little movie.” Nobody ever said we were singing a happy tune here. So I think it’s a different animal.
But do you think people are conditioned – not just by your previous shows, but by television in general – to expect that that’s the way things work? Because they’re the couple in the beginning, and there’s such chemistry between the actors, then this is what’s meant to be and what we’ll expect until proven otherwise, over and over again?
Shonda Rhimes: Don’t get me wrong. I’m not going to pretend I haven’t. We’ve actively worked, because we’re in Liv’s perspective, to make you be as in love with this couple as you can possibly be, because you’re with Olivia. And, yes, I do think people are conditioned for that. But I think that Edison says it best, which is that “Love is not supposed to hurt.” And Olivia clearly does not know that yet. This is not your cute, sweet, adorable relationship. But I think it is a complex, interesting, very adult one, that is based in something that is not necessarily wholesome or right.
In your mind, this show this season is the same show you were making last season; you’ve just been able to hit your stride a little bit more. But the ratings have been up. Do you think people are seeing something different here? Is it just word of mouth spreading?
Shonda Rhimes: I think that people have been following it more. I think the show started to hit its stride around episode 5 or 6 last season, and I was hearing from people who said, “Oh, I’m watching the show, I’m getting really into it,” and then we were done. This season, having as many episodes, we really hit our stride again around episode 6 or 7, and now we had more episodes to keep going. So it really had a moment. It’s been good. I feel like Twitter has been a huge part of it. People have been talking about it a lot.
And you have all of your actors out there evangelizing for the show.
Shonda Rhimes: Yeah, we all made a decision early on that we would all get on Twitter together, and they all live-tweet the episodes, and they’re very passionate about it and very excited about it. It’s been fun.
Even Malina’s been sincere when he’s doing it, and Malina’s never sincere on Twitter about anything.
Shonda Rhimes: Malina is an awesomely cynical individual who is really very sincere about this. His dirty little secret is that he likes his job.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com