“Scandal” is the most confusing show on television.
I’m not talking about the constant plot twists, the characters’ ever-changing moral standing (White hat’s off! White hat’s back on!) or even about whatever’s going on in the inscrutable mind of Mellie Grant. The most confusing thing about “Scandal” is how one little musical motif makes me accept (hell, even actively love) an abusive and dangerous relationship.
As soon as those first notes of “The Light” by The Album Leaf play, all bets are off for me. I can go from a discerning and classy critic lady to a full-blown Fitz and Olivia shipper in the blink of a teary eye. Something about the minimalist, somber piano and the romantic melody perfectly captures a love that isn’t meant to be, the notes somehow communicating the love between a man who’s emotionally unavailable and the woman who didn’t mean to fall for him. Every time it plays, the tune brings with it the memory of all the other times it’s been played, the cadence of their entire relationship since that time on the campaign bus. It’s powerful stuff, the kind that makes you stop thinking about the toxic codependency that serves as the foundation of their love and just revel in the beauty of “one minute” of a gorgeous song and a pairing that appears just as gorgeous.
But the thing is, Olitz isn’t gorgeous. While the first and second seasons built Fitz and Olivia up as some idyllic dream couple, the more recent seasons have been all about breaking the illusion that Olitz is meant to be. Fitz is no longer the sensitive, misguided man we met in the first episode. He’s a scotch-guzzling, snarling, volatile man who grabs and pushes and insults the women in his life. While the Fitz of the past maintained some idealism (before he knew his presidency was built on a lie and a rigged election), that innocence is long gone ever since he, you know, murdered an elderly Supreme Court justice.
I do appreciate a good anti-hero, so this moral ambiguity alone isn’t a problem. But what is troubling is that Fitz lets this violence bleed into his relationship with Olivia. Fitz makes romantic promises — he vows to move to Vermont and leave Mellie and start a beautiful, low-profile life with Olivia as soon as his term is over — but his kind gestures stop as soon as “The Light” turns off. He’s got an ugly sense of possession for Olivia, and hires a professional spy to keep tabs on her while he pouts and pours himself another scotch. He tries to break up every relationship between Olivia and another man, with no concern for whether she’s happy or consents to dragged back home by her concerned lover.
In the latest episode, “Like Father, Like Daughter,” Olitz finally reunites after months apart while she was in hiding with Jake. Their meeting goes exactly how one would expect from Fitz and Olivia. He starts by saying, “I’m the most powerful man in the world,” a reminder to Liv (and the audience) that he’s a president not to be fucked with. To boot, all the doors in the room are closed, and he’s circling around Olivia like a hungry piranha. He eventually goes up to her and grabs her by the ass, pushing his body against hers with zero regard for consent.
After a summer’s vacation from Olitz, I almost forgot that an integral part of their relationship is based on non-consensual physical contact, but this scene is a great reminder of what we’re in for. He augments the implication of physical abuse by saying “Don’t ever leave me again,” suggesting to Olivia that her purpose is only to serve his wants and needs and to ignore her own personal safety. To say the least, it’s not a romantic moment. I feel physically sick watching the scene, but then “Scandal” goes ahead and fucks everything up and turns me into a shameful, Olitz-loving puddle of tears.
Yup, “The Light” again. In a sequence that’s otherwise chilling in its portrayal of emotional manipulation and dysfunction, one musical piece transforms the whole thing into pure romance. One minute he’s unbuttoning her jacket while she looks on helplessly, and the next their bodies are close, the passion no longer one-sided. Olivia is the one true love of Fitz’s life, and he’s not exaggerating when he says that he’d die if she ever went away from him again. She’s the one thing that’s keeping him sane in his insane and tragic life.
The song brings with it the memory of the “one minute” scene from season one’s “The Trail,” in which Fitz requests a single untainted minute in which he could enjoy Olivia’s company before he had to go back to the White House. In these sixty seconds, he could pretend he wasn’t the President and Olivia’s apartment was theirs, he could put his arms around her and lean in and dream of a life where they could actually be together.
“Scandal” plays a cruel and confusing trick on fans now. “The Light” still plays during every Fitz and Olivia scene, but the nature of their relationship isn’t as pure and idyllic as it was for that “one minute.” Somehow, their relationship has transitioned to the point where Fitz can grab Liv by the shoulders and push her toward a wall, and “The Light” still soars as a cue for us to see this as another stolen, perfect Olitz moment. It’s especially problematic, because as much as I despise Fitz’s entitlement and rudeness and abuse, I’m put right into Olivia’s shoes, and for one minute he becomes Prince Charming again.
Romanticizing abuse is particularly disturbing, but even more so when the audience is duped into their relationship just as much as the victim is. But let me just sit down, listen to “The Light” and stop thinking about all this. Just for one minute.