ABC/Tony Rivetti; Inset: Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP
Lynette Rice
January 26, 2017 AT 10:00 PM EST

EW talked to executive producer Shonda Rhimes about tonight’s return of Scandal. But first, a SPOILER ALERT! Do not read if you haven’t watched the episode.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Remind us all why we had to wait until this month for more Scandal.
SHONDA RHIMES: I had already gone to the network and said I wanted less episodes or this was our last season, because the pace was killing us. They were very nice and said to figure out how many I wanted to do. Then we had the happenstance of Kerry Washington being pregnant and that meant that suddenly we went from doing less episodes to, how do we time doing less episodes? There was no way to start any other time but January. That was the only way to air episodes continuously.

When you began writing this season, was there ever a scenario in your head that Mellie would win?
I knew where we were going. There was no scenario about Mellie winning. That’s not what the season is about. It was about what happens when you have your elected candidate not be alive anymore, before they have actually been elected by the electoral college. To me, that was much more interesting.

All the actors said that when they came to that first table read, they all expected Mellie to win.
Ah, that’s interesting. That makes sense knowing that. It never occurred to me that we would tell a story that Mellie won because why would we tell that story? The story had nothing to do with who was president as much as what happens when you have a president-elect die and didn’t have a legitimate president anywhere. Does the vice president get to be president? Even though nobody voted for him? Does the person with the next highest votes get to be president?

Did it feel dark to you as you were writing and shooting it?
That’s the challenge of this season. Scandal has always lived in this dark place with this idea that Washington is filled with this underbelly of monsters, that if the real world understood how dark, twisted and corrupt it really was, they would never agree with our government or want to be part of it. It’s been kind of fun to live in that world. It felt like a fictional world.

Did the real-life election ever permeate your thinking as you were breaking stories?
When I walked into the writers’ room [last summer] and said, let’s talk about next season, all of my writers were like, ‘Here is what we are going to do with the election.’ I said I don’t want to play a minute of watching an election happen. I already knew that we were all going to be sick of an election. I wanted to start on election night and go forward.

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The cast said you addressed them before you returned to work after the hiatus.
Usually we try to have a dinner or a gathering in general. This time, for everybody — including everyone in the country — there was this election. And whether you were happy about it or not, it was an event that everybody experienced. Scandal wasn’t together, which was very odd for us. We are a very tight-knit group of people. It was strange for us not being together. I felt like we should gather as a group and have our moment to talk about it, to reflect.

Did they express concerns about the premiere feeling too eerily similar? Did you reassure them you’ve got this?
I don’t feel like the story is eerie. There is nothing about Frank Vargas or the GOP candidate that is Mellie Grant having anything to do with our real election. I did feel like people were worried about the nation’s appetite for watching something about politics and I think people were worried about the darkness. Do you want to watch a scary story in the dark? They wanted to know where I was taking the show. There had been arcs that had been planned forever [that she dropped], mostly because of the stories that I am now in the mood to tell. Like everybody else, I need to talk about something that was a little more positive now. It’s no longer fun to live in that world as much.

What’s going to happen in the coming weeks? Will we see everyone’s point of view of election night?
In a way. You don’t exactly see the full election night from everyone’s point of view but we do keep coming back to three or four central moments during that time to help unfold this mystery of what happened and who is responsible.

Will it come down to an electoral college decision? Can you say?
I can but I’m not going to.

Will the question of who assumes the presidency dominate the season?
Who assumes the presidency stops being the central question fairly quickly but it isn’t because somebody becomes president.

So will the singular thread be the mystery of who shot Frankie?
You find out who did it within the first 5 or 6 episodes. That becomes clear. But as usual for Scandal, the thing you think is the story is not really the story. You think we are going to watching a story about who is president. Yes, that is interesting, but it doesn’t really have much to do with where we are going.

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Is Mellie out of politics?
I don’t think so.

Will Olivia work her way back into the White House?
That’s an interesting question. We talk about that a lot in the writers’ room. I don’t know yet. We’ll see.

What will become of Fitz?
Um, well he is still the president. He’s working on what his legacy will be.

Do you know how the season will end?
Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t. That’s my most honest answer. We have three different endings for this season. They are planned out and we go back and forth a lot — which is more than I can say for some seasons when we had no idea how we are going to end. So I’m excited about that.

Scandal airs Thursday nights at 9 p.m. ET on ABC.

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