A few months ago, on the midseason finale of ABC’s Scandal, Olivia Pope had an abortion. The scene not only played out under the choir version of a Christmas carol (“Silent Night”) but overlapped with a monologue of her father proclaiming that “family does not complete you, it destroys you.” This was a shocking moment for a show that already took subtlety behind the shed years ago. At the height of #StandWithPP, the boldness of the choice earned both praise and criticism from the press and social media. (The conservative Media Research Council labeled it “Hollywood’s moral depravity on full display.”) Basically, exactly what you’d expect. The event will likely cost Scandal viewers when it returns this week and has already earned Shonda Rhimes a few death threats.
With that single choice, Rhimes, the most powerful woman in network television, turned her prize character from nebulously confident feminist icon to a pro-choice, able-bodied woman of means who had an abortion by herself without handholding or tears, simply because she does not want a child with the man she has loved for four seasons. This was political in a way Scandal—a show ostensibly about politics—only occasionally allows itself to be. The “abortion episode” has been called unnecessary by many who like their politically themed shows less political, their feminism more passive, and their abortions—if they absolutely must happen—far, far more dramatic. As for the rest of the episode, it was typical Scandal: one summary execution, two Christmas montages, five monologues, and one customary midseason Fitz-Olivia parting of ways. This single moment towered over the rest of the mayhem, and may go down as the show’s most scandalous occurrence.
Although the show has always thrived on portraying the more liberal and progressive side of its fictional Republican party, Scandal rarely takes big swings into “real-world issues” like these. As far as politics are concerned, Scandal found its voice in the improbable—election fraud, international terrorism, paramilitary shadow organizations and the like (the latter two typically tied back to Olivia Pope’s family tree). The show’s political stakes tend to have more in common with Jack Bauer than CNN.
Past attempts to deal with more domestic national issues like “The Lawn Chair” have been middling to say the least. That infamous episode cast Olivia as the voice of reason between the corpse of a gunned-down black youth, his outraged father (in the eponymous chair), and a white police force. It was the sort of ripped-from-the-headlines powder keg that a show like Scandal lacked the deft touch and scope to properly shoehorn between two arcs. (It also followed a plotline in which a kidnapped Olivia was held up to international auction, as the woman whose custody allowed for open blackmail of the president of the United States.) Though certainly timely, “The Lawn Chair” fell prey to the desperate urge to say something without saying much of anything at all.
More successful was the ironically titled “Even The Devil Deserves A Second Chance” episode, in which a respected professor is revealed to be a serial rapist of female students, shielded from repercussions by his Lady Macbeth wife. It’s not a new plot—having been reheated a few times on Law & Order: SVU, The Good Wife, and other procedurals—but the episode’s thesis was at least clear. In the age of enduring Cosby defenders, the show didn’t need to do anything more than actually bring a serial rapist to justice—bolstered by the empowerment of his victims banding together, as Cosby’s accusers did in New York magazine—in order to strike a chord.
With the abortion episode now in its rearview, Olivia Pope’s politics leave little room for ambiguity. Under the B613 shenanigans and sexy bunker monologues, Scandal is a political show to the same extent that its creator is a political being: one that stands with Planned Parenthood (Rhimes serves on the board of directors for Planned Parenthood Los Angeles) and believes abortion to be a viable option—not limited to tragedy or unforeseen dramatic medical complications that endanger the mother’s life. Olivia Pope is healthy, rich, and loves (loved?) the father of her child, and chose abortion, as it is her constitutional right to do so.
The battle—as it was nothing short of that—was waged on two fronts. After being sidelined and maligned all season, Mellie, a Republican senator, finally stepped up on her own with a filibuster to rescue Planned Parenthood from a stealth defunding within the Senate. Mellie’s storyline both foreshadowed and reinforced Olivia’s decision as a choice for all women, not only the Popes of the world. While not quite friendship, the admiration between these two women, the ex-wife and the mistress of the sitting president, has always been present. The show cut them from the same cloth: strong women with horrible taste in men. (They’ve also never traded a slap, which is, if nothing else, remarkable as far as interaction between TV wives and mistresses goes.)
It should be noted that Olivia Pope was not Shondaland’s first lead character to choose an abortion. That title goes to Grey’s Anatomy’s Cristina Yang, the hyper-driven, hyper-gifted cardiac surgeon, whose abortion ultimately cost her a marriage, disintegrating it over the course of two dreary seasons. It was a choice then, too, but one that required flinching, and lots of it. Yang was one of the most recent in a long line of TV characters who wrestled with the abortion decision, and one of the few who ultimately decided to go ahead with the procedure. Television is littered with circumvented procedures, with many shows having capitalized on the dramatic upheaval of an unplanned pregnancy without ultimately wanting (or being allowed) to take that step. From miscarriages to deus ex machina periods, the narrative purpose of abortion is often to be listed as a viable option by empowered female characters who ultimately find another path. Girls’ Jessa got her period just after blowing off her clinic appointment. Party Of Five’s Julia had an accident on the way to the abortion clinic. Even after reaching the clinic or the doctor’s office, characters like Beverly Hills 90210’s Andrea, Mad Men’s Joan, and Sex And The City’s Miranda ultimately decided not to go through with the procedure.
Characters who actually had an abortion—like Six Feet Under’s Claire in the fantastic episode “Twilight,” or Becky in Friday Night Lights’ just as exemplary “I Can’t”—are rarely if ever established professionals making a rational and thought-out lifestyle choice, but teenage girls with much more limited options than Olivia Pope has. The fortysomething title character of Maude, in a groundbreaking 1972 two-parter, has more in common with Olivia than most TV abortion veterans since. When the procedure is a part of a character’s history, it is often in the form of backstory—the shadow of a past experience delivered in often-wet dialogue, as Carrie did in that same SATC episode. Abortion as an active, real-time choice is still barely touched soil in television and Shondaland has been unapologetic with its shovel.
In Scandal, the abortion was a reflection of everything wrong with Fitz and Olivia; the toxic eye of the storm. Will their lips quiver inches away from each other again before Scandal ends? Probably. Given that the entirety of Scandal was built on Olivia and Fitz, it’s hard to imagine the show standing without that pillar at its center. But as the vicious confrontation that followed Olivia’s procedure highlighted, a child is rarely, if ever, a solution. Television has comfortably avoided this truth for decades, and Shonda Rhimes has now gone out of her way to acknowledge twice, even if it may mean the end of another of her star-crossed couples. Even those who don’t like her politics, or her shows, have to acknowledge Rhimes’ willingness to breach a real political arena where the stakes are higher than apolitically political dramas typically allow. Her own characters are tools: Typically for entertainment and melodrama but occasionally for something much bigger and more current.