‘Scandal’ has turned Olivia Pope into TV’s best anti-hero since Walter White

Early in last week's episode of “Scandal,” Scott Foley's spy Jake Ballard finally lost his patience with the show's main character (and his ex-girlfriend), D.C. fixer Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington). He compared her to a plague, and asked, “How does someone as brilliant and accomplished as you not know what you are? Who you are?”

It was a dynamite scene, in a “Scandal” season that's been full of them. At least once per week, and often more, the Shonda Rhimes-created drama will pair off two characters – say, Tony Goldwyn's arrogant President Fitzgerald Grant with his former chief of staff Cyrus Beene (Jeff Perry), or Fitz with soon-to-be-ex-wife Mellie (Bellamy Young) – with a tangled, tragic mix of personal and professional history, and lets them tear each other into little tiny pieces over all their past sins. It's fantastic each time.

“Scandal” is a fundamentally melodramatic show, where ludicrous things happen – including Fitz entering America into a war to save a kidnapped Olivia – and that kind of heightened storytelling tends to reach diminishing returns after a few years. For a long time, it seemed the series had peaked with its second season, and while it would continue to feature great actors delivering wonderful monologues, its need to keep outdoing earlier arcs would be its creative undoing over time.

But Rhimes and company have instead turned the show's crazy history to their advantage. They're not running away from every wild plot twist from prior seasons, but turning that into the very subject of the series. These weekly acting duets – not to mention bigger stories like the foiled attempt to impeach Fitz for concealing his affair with Olivia from the public – have the power that they do because they're informed by every unspeakable thing that these characters have seen and done over the previous four seasons. “Scandal” isn't sprinting away from its over-the-top past, but diving right back into it, and asking how those events would shape the people who endured them.

In particular, it's using the accumulation of incident to really drive home the point Jake was trying to make about Olivia. She talks all the time about wearing, or wanting to wear, the white hat – to be the hero to her clients, her friends, and, yes, to the dashing POTUS who has her heart. But whether she can admit it or not, she's done too many awful things over the years – most recently in convincing Mellie to arrange the release from prison of Olivia's monstrous father Rowan (Joe Morton) so he could scuttle the impeachment hearings – to wear anything but the blackest of hats.

Maybe even the sort of black pork pie hat favored by Walter White when he turned into Heisenberg?

Because “Scandal” airs on a broadcast network, because it comes from the creator of “Grey's Anatomy,” and because Olivia and Fitz's affair has been such a (hot and) heavy element of the marketing campaign, it often gets written off as a guilty pleasure, or just a well-executed primetime soap, rather than something that should be compared with the best of the modern cable dramas. That attitude comes not just from critics, but even at times from the show's own fans, who often want to take the show's relationships at face value, and root for Olivia and Fitz to make it work, despite abundant evidence that they are not only bad for each other, but literally bad for America. (Rhimes and I discussed this a bit all the way back in season 2.)

“Scandal” has some soap DNA, but it has plenty of cable anti-hero DNA(*) as well, and always has. Jake's speech last week was perhaps the most directly anyone has accused Olivia of straight-up villainy, but he's far from the first. Half of Joshua Malina's job as Attorney General David Rosen seems to involve pointing out how absurd Olivia's self-image is. Now that Olivia and Fitz's affair has been made public, and forced everyone in their inner circles to consider the crimes committed and sacrifices made on behalf of one or both of them, it's become the subject more than ever.

(*) And it's not like cable dramas are immune from having their viewers over-identify with the main character, no matter what. Many “Breaking Bad” fans still insist Walt was that show's hero, and Anna Gunn literally had people wishing her dead because they hated Skyler so much.

That Olivia would ever consider having Rowan – a man who, among other sins, had Fitz's own son murdered – released to prevent an impeachment  is a decision that once would have been hard to fathom for her. So, for that matter, is the way she seems to want him in power so she can be POTUS-by-proxy, when once upon a time all she dreamed of was retiring with Fitz to a quiet life in Vermont. This isn't a cheat, though, but a gradual descent for Olivia and all the people who love her (which includes a lot of the audience), like the way you cook lobster: immersing them in calm, cool water and gradually raising the heat so that they don't even realize at first what a terrible thing is happening.

“Scandal” definitely shows some signs of middle-age – the stories about Rowan's evil spy organization B613 only sometimes feel as if they belong with the rest of the series (as opposed to Rhimes doing a stealth “Alias” remake embedded inside “Scandal”), and last week's hook-up between David and Portia de Rossi's Elizabeth North is the sort of “Which characters haven't we put into bed together yet?” mix-and-match game many ensemble dramas have to play when they get to that point – but has largely been able to turn its advancing years to its advantage. Everything matters more, and everything hurts more, because of the weight of everything that's happened in the past.

When Jake looked at Olivia last week, it wasn't with complete shock – he's known for a while that she's far less saintly than she insists – but still with the horror of fully realizing who this person in front of him was, and what she was capable of doing. His reaction hopefully has been echoed by “Scandal” viewers as the show has carefully, diabolically revealed what it and its heroine have been about all along.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com