Chloe Gilke: I hope 'Scandal' never stops surprising us

Sunday, November 22, 2015 - 2:49pm

I just saw something I never thought I’d see on network television.

That seems like a ridiculous thing to say in 2015 — the notion of any storyline being “groundbreaking” seems especially outdated. Anyone could turn on “Looking” and watch a show entirely absent of the omnipresent straight white male. Anyone can queue up Netflix and watch Annalise Keating shatter expectations on “How to Get Away With Murder” or Aziz Ansari craft jokes from pure pathos on “Master of None.” Anyone could count the hundreds of ways these shows and characters subvert the typical narrative, and I could have enough fodder for 10 years’ worth of TV columns.

But this is my TV column, so I’m going to talk about “Scandal.” Again. But this time, it’s different. “Scandal” showed me something I never thought I’d see on network television.

“Scandal” is one of the riskiest, most shocking shows on TV. The violence and graphic content it depicts is unparalleled among its broadcast peers. The President of the United States murdered a woman onscreen. Another woman chewed off the skin on her wrist. I won’t go into too much detail about the dozens of torture scenes that “Scandal” has subjected its viewers to, but I will say that there is one involving tooth-pulling, and you are lucky if you don’t know what I’m referring to. The crimes are difficult to watch, but “Scandal” handles violence with a special focus on the victims of violence, so they never feel gratuitous. In season three, “Scandal” explored Mellie’s experience as a victim of sexual assault, which is to this day one of the most devastatingly nuanced portrayals of rape I have seen on TV.

After four and a half seasons, I assumed that “Scandal” had been there and done that. There was no more ground to break.

However, “Scandal” is nothing if not surprising. Its fifth season has been fantastic so far, a welcome respite from the utter garbage of the show’s previous season. This year, “Scandal” has let its most intolerable characters (Papa Pope, Huck, Jake, basically everyone involved in the toxic B613 plot) take a step back in order to spotlight the relationship drama between Olivia and Fitz. As Olivia wrestles with herself over whether she wants to sacrifice her career and independence for Fitz’s love, Olivia suddenly finds her decisions are being made for her. News of their years-long affair is leaked to the press. She moves into the White House for her own protection, and there is nothing for her to do there except play the dutiful First Lady and hunt down a snickerdoodle recipe for a Congressman’s wife. She hates that she is so good at serving her man, dressing up in holiday party finery and standing by Fitz’s side like a sparkly cufflink.

A pregnant sparkly cufflink.

The mid-season finale sneaks this bombshell on viewers in the last 15 minutes of the episode. It truly comes out of nowhere, dropped in the middle of a narrative lull of a scene featuring Olivia’s father and her former associate. Eli Pope reminds Huck, his former employee and metaphorical son, that returning home for the holidays may not be as idyllic as Huck imagines. Huck says that if it weren’t for Olivia, Eli would certainly be dead. It’s all standard “Scandal,” and the details don’t really matter. But Eli turns the conversation ever so slightly. A happy home is not a sanctuary, but a prison: “Olivia is also the reason I’m shackled to this chair. Family is a burden.”

Cut to a close-up of Olivia’s legs and blue medical scrubs moving around them. Olivia Pope, the main character of a television series that airs at 9 p.m. on a weeknight, is receiving an abortion on-screen.

I can say with confidence that this subject matter has never been tackled by network TV. Some statistics say that one in three women will receive an abortion at some point in her life, but television danced around this fact. Even when it made narrative sense for a character to exercise her right to choose, the story almost invariably shifted to her changing her mind (Miranda on “Sex and the City”) or having a convenient miscarriage (Jessa on “Girls”). When TV women did receive abortions, they did so off-screen (Claire on “Six Feet Under”). One in three women will see the inside of that operating room, but TV usually shrouded these stories in narrative gaps and opaque allusions. Abortion was one of the few taboos TV had left, one of the few stories it was still afraid to tell.

But Olivia Pope is a strong woman, the kind of character who will smash every barrier to get the respect and opportunities she deserves. She chooses, and she is not one to hide behind a veneer of fakery. She serves no one. Olivia’s non-stop work ethic and honesty inspire me in every episode, and I feel lucky that this experience that is shared by so many women is represented by someone as unbreakable as Olivia. And if “Scandal” ’s treatment of Mellie’s sexual assault and loss of a child are any indication, “Scandal” will not just let the abortion play out for shock value. Mellie bled and grieved young Jerry’s death for the better part of a season, and hopefully, when “Scandal” returns from its mid-season break, the show will explore the period of adjustment just as fully for Olivia.

In the monologue that scores Olivia’s scene on the operating room table, Eli says, “Family doesn’t complete you. It destroys you.” I never thought I would hear these kind of words on cautious, government-regulated network TV. I never thought that a television woman could be so open about her choice and the logical steps that led her to it. I thought that good characters, strong and likeable ones like Miranda Hobbes and Mindy Lahiri, only really had one option. I’m glad I was wrong.

I hope “Scandal” never stops surprising us.