Scandal boss Shonda Rhimes reflects on Olivia Pope's legacy
After seven seasons and 124 episodes, Scandal will sign off Thursday with one final battle for the Gladiators to tackle.
“It doesn’t quite feel real that it’s going to be over, and I think we’re all in denial about that,” executive producer Shonda Rhimes says of the end of the ABC political fixer drama, which debuted in 2012. The show quickly cemented its place in the pop culture zeitgeist, thanks to its fast-paced storylines, its captivating inside look at what really happens on the Hill, and a legion of Twitter followers who aptly took on the Gladiator moniker.
The show has come a long way since then, evolving from its scandal-of-the-week format, with a Monica Lewinsky-esque through-line of President Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn) sleeping with an intern, to an enthralling look at the widespread corruption that underlies the government. That was never more apparent or shocking than when viewers discovered their heroine Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) had rigged an election to get Fitz in office.
“It’s always been my intention that the Oval Office is a place that corrupted anybody who came near it, and the closer you came, the more corrupt it made you, the more it damaged you,” says Rhimes, referring to just about every character on the series, from Olivia turning full-on black hat this season once she got Mellie (Bellamy Young) elected, to Cyrus (Jeff Perry), well, being the worst offender of all.
Now a heartbeat away from the presidency, Cyrus aims to oust new POTUS Mellie Grant from the White House, forcing Olivia to reveal the existence of black-ops organization B613, which has secretly been controlling the Oval Office for more than 30 years. “We’ve put them in a fairly impossible position, and you get to find out what happens and how that gets solved and where our characters go from there,” Rhimes says of the finale, explaining that the story is both wrapped up but also left somewhat open-ended, leaving it to the viewers to imagine what’s next for our favorite Gladiators — something Washington also previously teased to EW. Read on for more on Scandal’s series finale and legacy, which Rhimes recently discussed with a handful of reporters:
On Olivia Pope’s legacy
You know what? I’m still in it, so it’s really hard for me to think of it that way, or to even consider something like legacy or impact. I feel like she’s been a very three-dimensional, independent woman who was, at a time when female characters really weren’t antiheroes, an antihero. I hope that that’s something that has happened. And now it feels very normal and obvious that female characters can be antiheroes, and it feels normal and obvious that women of color can lead shows. So hopefully that is something that this show has done.
On what the show’s inclusiveness has done for marginalized groups
Hopefully that will make it that they’re no longer marginalized. I mean, seriously, literally, hopefully we’ve created a world in which we’ve stopped seeing these characters on televisions and it’s a magical anomaly that they’re there, and that there’s an otherness to them. Getting to be a three-dimensional character on television isn’t something that only happens to white people. Hopefully, we’ve made a dent in that.
On whether the series finale includes her previously planned ending
No, I mean, I think whatever was planned in 2013 — and I have no idea what that was at this point — probably was altered as we moved forward, but also probably was altered by the election. You know, I had a different plan for what season 7 was going to be in general, and that completely changed. I think we did basically what I had planned to be all of season 7 in the finale of last season’s Scandal. So no, it’s very different.
On how she would describe the series finale
I have no way of describing the finale, and I don’t know that it compares to the other Scandal finales because a series finale and a season finale are so different from one another. A season finale is geared to launch you into another season of something and leave some questions open, and the series finale is the end of a story, so I guess it’s very different. I think we’re finishing the evolution of the character of Olivia Pope. The story is being completed and you’re going to find out what happens, basically. We’ve put them in a fairly impossible position, and you get to find out what happens and how that gets solved and where our characters go from there.
On whether the characters will ultimately pay for their past mistakes
One of the things that Olivia says in the penultimate episode is this idea that standing up and being somebody who puts everything out in the open is important. Whether or not everybody pays for what they’ve done, I don’t necessarily know that that’s what the finale is about, as much as it’s about seeing what happens once that choice has been made.
On whether any familiar faces will pop up in the finale
Yes, we tried really hard to bring back some familiar faces in the final episode simply because it is the final episode. And at the very least, we wanted to spend it with some of the people that we have spent a lot of time with; that’s also important. We had a special dinner where we got together with all of our great guest stars and our cast, and we all had a dinner together where we just got together to reminisce about the seven seasons and what this all meant. It’s been really wonderful to have them. So yes, we do bring back a few people in the finale.
On whether the finale wraps up storylines, or leaves things open-ended
I think that there’s a “both” to that. I mean, yes, the story is wrapped up, and yes, the audience gets to imagine some of what happens next for the characters.
On whether the series finale was influenced by real-world politics
No, we’ve been telling a story this entire season and heading towards an end, and the finale is really just about finishing telling the story.
On what she hopes the audience takes away from the show about D.C.
That is for the audience to decide what the larger takeaway is about what the show has to say about D.C. I think we’ve been talking about a political world that I hope no longer exists, or that I hope begins to cease to exist at some point. But I think that’s up to the audience to decide.
On which character, aside from Olivia Pope, that she’s enjoyed writing for
I think I’ve enjoyed writing for everybody. It’s always so much fun to write for Cyrus Beene, because you have Jeff Perry to write for and you know that anything you write is going to be delivered and glib and be so interesting. Writing for Joe Morton has been heaven on earth, honestly. To truly have somebody that you could write things that were so extreme for, and to know that they were going to come out and always feel like Shakespeare, just because they came out of his mouth, is amazing. But I think, honestly, it’s been so surprising and exciting to write for Bellamy, to write for Mellie, mainly because when we started the show, she was a costar with a couple of lines in the pilot, and I really didn’t know where that character was going to go. And to grow that character and to watch Bellamy grow that character, the more we wrote for her, the more interesting things you wrote for her, the more that character expanded. And so to me, probably that evolution, the evolution of that character as a woman, from bitter, bitter wife to president of the United States of America, has been just a dream.
On the show coming full circle to Cyrus being the ultimate villain
If you think about it, Cyrus wasn’t the original villain. Cyrus was sort of her ally, while they dealt with Billy [Chambers] and all of that stuff, but to me, Cyrus was the person for whom the Oval was the most special, and he is the person who has been the architect of the most amount of what’s going on. And his goal of getting into the Oval, this place that he was never going to get to, he wanted it more than anybody else and he never made it there. It’s always been my intention that the Oval Office is a place that corrupted anybody who came near it, and the closer you came, the more corrupt it made you, the more it damaged you. To watch that sort of happen to our characters was really important, and to watch Cyrus, who had circled this world and put people in the office, and had his nose pressed to the glass of this, finally make his leap with the ultimate corruption was very interesting to me.
On the evolution of Olivia’s goals and ambitions on the show
Before we knew her, she’d already fixed an election. But she started out as the character that we knew who has very much believed in this power, and how important this particular kind of power was, and how molding it and being a part of it was. We watched her, like everybody else, become absolutely corrupted by it, and make all of the same mistakes that everybody else makes to get what she wants from it. Then we watched her hopefully fight her way back from it. So we’re watching the evolution of somebody who has sort of been to hell and back.
On how important it was for Olivia to earn back the white hat before the series finale
I think it’s more important to watch her figure out who she is. That, to me, was the most important thing that I thought was key, was to watch her fully realize a few things about herself. I’ve always said I’m more Team Olivia than every other team, because everyone always asks what team. I’m more Team Olivia than any other team, and it was most important to me to watch Olivia figure out who she is and what she wants as a person. It’s not necessarily about any hats.
On whether she struggled with writing Olivia’s ending
No. Once I knew what story we were telling this season, I always knew exactly how we were going to end it. So that was not a difficult thing at all. I had a really satisfying moment when we were reading the penultimate. We were doing our table reading for the final episode, where I realized that it works, like the story that we wanted to tell and the ending that we wanted to get to was actually going to work, which might’ve been the first time I actually cried about the fact that we were finishing, because it meant that we were actually doing it correctly. I find it exciting. So I wasn’t worried, I’m very pleased to see that it worked the way we wanted to work.
On which storyline from the show’s run she’s personally proud of
Oh gosh. I don’t know if there’s a particular storyline. I’m most proud of the way we told story on Scandal, which felt different when we started doing it, which was a high-speed, breakneck pace, but mostly because we were telling the story as it felt like it needed to be told to convey what we felt like, what was the level of corruption and mania and insanity that our characters were swirling in. So I think I’m most proud of our style of storytelling.
On whether there was a storyline she wanted that didn’t make it into the show
No. I felt we were coming to our end because we’ve told the stories I wanted to tell. We’ve told the canon of Olivia Pope in the way that I wanted to tell it. So I don’t feel like we have stories that we didn’t get to tell that I wanted to tell.
On her broadcast TV legacy now that she’s heading to Netflix
I’m not one to examine legacy, at this point. I feel like I’m still working. I think I finished editing the finale on Friday and we’re not quite done yet. So I don’t know that I have an answer to that question, and I haven’t stepped back to examine it. I’m not necessarily the person to ask about what my legacy is. Well, I think it has a bigger picture for somebody standing on the outside of it than it does if you’re standing inside the cyclone, I guess. I’m still doing it, so to me, I don’t have that sense of anything. This is where I’ve spent my entire career and this is where I learned to write television, and it’s the only game that I know, in that sense, so I don’t have a way of comparing it to anything else. I’ve been incredibly fortunate.
On how she’s personally preparing to say goodbye to Olivia and Scandal
I’m fully in denial still. I’m trying really hard to stay in denial, but we’ve had a lot of our moments already together. We’ve had more goodbye dinners than anybody I know. We had our last night on set together, we were all together until about 4 in the morning filming. We are going to all be together on the night that it airs. We’ve become very close as a group of people. I’m not necessarily sure that it’s going to feel the same as saying goodbye to some other show or another story. It doesn’t quite feel real that it’s going to be over, and I think we’re all in denial about that.
Scandal’s series finale airs Thursday at 10 p.m. ET on ABC.