Papal Infallibility

Scandal could easily be a sword-and-sandal drama, because it's not about people so much as it is about flawed gods. (However, I don't mean to overstate how much people are like people.) Undoubtedly I have this image because one of these characters calls them "gladiators in suits"--the cheesiest line that ever was, as another acknowledges. Every character is remarkable and/or "weird" (and "weird is good"). Even their names seem ostenatiously legendary or fictional: Cyrus, Gideon, Pope, Huck. But greatness only lands on them like so many traumatic bricks; the rest they have to work at. The plane of infallibility is out of reach insofaras it is already within them.

While the writing begins with a bountiful antagonism reminiscent of Aaron Sorkin, it moves quickly toward forceful monologue. Olivia Pope executes takedowns not with elaborate ploys, as Gossip Girl's Blair Waldorf would, but with a single bomb of a speech made up on the spot.

Cyrus has the sarcastic version of her eloquence, and naturally becomes more her enemy throughout the course of the first season. There are reasons for this, but I'd like to entertain the possibility that Cyrus is untrustworthy simply because the mechanics, motives, and effects of his speech cannot be reconciled with Olivia's. Nobody really listens to him, so he is oblique. In one scene he tells the President how his life will be now that his dirty secret is out. He ends this acid prophecy with "but you just work on your speech, because that's important," and a little chuckle.

Olivia Pope is the clearest manifestation of greatness around. But if she were a stable element, it wouldn't be much of a show. The first episode reveals that her gut is never wrong and is wrong, that she doesn't believe in crying and cries. Yet this hadly diminishes our devotion, nor her employees. It seems to us that life's chaos can only be met with rash decision. Anything less is wallowing, or so we are convinced, watching her. With a little swallowed whine of discontent.

Her advice to her cohorts borders on patronizing aggression. She advises everyone to "get some normal," while she herself freely admits "I'm not normal." One of her worst moments is, to use the new employee's word, "demolishing" a girl who claims to have had sex with the president. And if she had not? For her, contemplation is done through action. Which is a fine thing for television. For someone who has made contemplation the only possible thing, it's also tempting, by way of sheer self-loathing, to say Olivia's knowledge through mistakes is the finest thing. Her attitude reminds me of a very defensive thing Michel Foucault wrote (if it were shorter, today it could be called a subtweet):

As to those for whom to work hard, to begin and begin again, to attempt and be mistaken, to go back and rework everything from top to bottom, and still find reason to hesitate from one step to the next--as to those, in short, for whom to work in the midst of uncertainty and apprehension is tantamount to failure, all I can say is that clearly we are not from the same planet.

It's at once inspiring and arrogant. He defends analytic thought from contemplative paralysis, which is nearly tantamount to giving himself a free pass to analyze whatever and however he wants. Olivia Pope means to move herself and everyone around her into such great motion that nobody will ever be stuck or lost ("giving up is not an option"), and her noble cause gives her justification to destroy or manipulate whoever stands in her way.

Also, Olivia Pope is not from the same planet.

Being from a different planet can inspire respect as much as it can eros. A funny thing, for her--she's mostly indifferent to it. But she does have desire. The president's romantic gesture is to ask her for "just one minute." Taking one minute to stand staring into each other's eyes could not be more alien to her nature. Inaction being under such a foreceful prohibition, perhaps for her it's better than sex. They do have sex, but annoying as it is to watch two people look into each other's eyes for this long, surely it's the pause that's apotheotic.

She trusts him; she hates how her trust blinds her. She loves him; she's at war with him. Lucy Snowe (Villette) says it best:

Reader, if in the course of this work, you find that my opinion of Dr. John undergoes modification, excuse the seeming inconsistency. I give the feeling as at the time I felt it; I describe the view of character as it appeared when discovered.

Maybe it's best not to think in terms of opinion. Yet it is so often solicited. The "gladiators" have a ritual of observing their clients from behind glass, before they take them on, but Olivia has always already decided. They're supposed to vote whether they believe the client's story, but the vote never matters. Why do this? Why have a minute of looking into each other's eyes? Any show with a bit of self-respect (or maybe vanity) is more interested in the eyes averted, glancing, or spying. Oddly, the cynical view of characters with cynical gazes gives a clearer picture, while Scandal's direct and sustained eye contact (tearing people apart, too, is done face-to-face) makes character more difficult to gauge. There is no one-way glass. The potential clients know they're being observed. In these open conditions Olivia sees clearly the "character as it appeared when discovered," while everyone, including us, are busy trying to get to the bottom of things.

If the show is so counter-voyeuristic, why this love of bevelled windows? At nearly every opportunity, the camera pans slowly across the edge, yielding a rainbow-tinged double of whoever's there that's always slipping in or out. It seems incongruous that the barrier of the window is necessary to introduce this nagging visual error. In the world of the show, all that is necessary is to pull down all barriers, and one senses a lie crawling away.

6 July 2013