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'Scandal' Case Study: Shonda Rhimes on Trust, Loyalty and Forgiveness

The showrunner breaks down the second episode, "Dirty Little Secrets," and what the president's confession to Cyrus means for the White House's chief of staff.

Scandal Kerry Washington Jeff Perry - P 2012
Colleen Hayes/ABC
"Scandal's" Kerry Washington and Jeff Perry

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Thursday's "Dirty Little Secrets" episode of Scandal.]

Olivia Pope's world grew more complex during the second episode of ABC's new Shonda Rhimes political fixer drama Scandal on Thursday.

During the episode, in which Pope & Associates takes on the case of D.C.'s finest madam, President Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn) confesses to his chief of staff Cyrus (Jeff Perry) that Olivia (Kerry Washington) is the love of his life. Meanwhile, a hungry reporter picked up on the scent of former White House aide Amanda Tanner's (Liza Weil) alleged affair with the leader of the free world.

The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Rhimes ahead of Thursday's installment to break down the episode and whether or not Cyrus is worthy of Olivia and the president's trust, plus how much trouble hungry reporter Gideon (Brendan Hines) will cause.

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The Hollywood Reporter: Olivia had gone against her gut initially with Amanda and backed the president. In this episode, was she trying to make that up to her by looking out for her?
Shonda Rhimes:
She does. She has a sense of duty and what's right and wrong. She did feel bad that she made somebody want to kill themselves and she wants to make it right. She knows if there's anybody who could actually do something for Amanda Tanner, it's Olivia Pope. I don't think she's a protective mother; she's going to try to fix Amanda's problem, that's really the goal. Amanda begins to make specific demands in terms of what she wants. By the end of the next episode, you'll think Amanda knows a little more than you thought she did and was involved with people a little more than you thought she was.

Cyrus questions Fitz on the nature of his relationship with both Amanda and Olivia but Fitz is unwilling to confide in him until he's drunk.
Their relationship is really complex. Fitz needs him and there's a moment down the line when Cyrus basically says, "I do the dirty, disgusting part of the job and you smile and hold the babies." It's a sense that Fitz is the dream and Cyrus is the reality. When you're the dream you don't really want to live in the reality so much. For Fitz, he does trust him but he knows better than to be anything other than the dream for Cyrus. That's what that moment in the pilot was when Cyrus realized that the president was having an affair: realizing that this person wasn't the dream that he thought he was.

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What is that going to do to Cyrus over time, especially after Fitz confides in him that he's in love with Olivia? Does Fitz trust him?
In a weird way, Fitz letting him in wins Cyrus' loyalty even more. Cyrus truly believes in the office of the president and believes Fitz is a man destined to be president. For him, it only makes him fall in deeper. Fitz is a very charismatic man and as Cyrus says, he's the best politician in the world. There's that idea that he's also the best politician in the world but who's not to say that Cyrus didn't fall for that?

Abby is always the one who says she never judges but yet she clearly judges Stephen. Could how she views him change him at all?
Abby holds Stephen to a higher standard; there's an attraction there. It's not something she's going to act on but it's there and underneath pretty much everything that she does. She wishes Stephen wasn't such a disappointment. Stephen is surrounded by people pushing him to be a better person; that's what Olivia was doing. Everyone is trying to help him be a better man. In a lot of ways, he's comfortable where he is. When you find out down the line where he's been, you begin to understand that Stephen is the way he is because that's how he copes. In a weird way, he's wiser than all of them.

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Billy, the vice president's chief of staff, spots that Cyrus and Olivia are on opposite sides -- a rarity in the White House. How will that hurt Fitz? What kind of a guy is Billy?
I don't know if it's going to hurt Fitz that he has that knowledge. It's such a split vice president-vice president relationship as it is right now and that's only going to get more complex. Billy has his own political agenda but he means well. He thinks he's doing the right thing, too, which in his own head makes him a good guy but doesn't necessarily mean he's a good guy. We're going to see more of Billy and more of what that president-vice president relationship is about.

Olivia tells Amanda that she was wrong to doubt Amanda's story. Does she really believe that Amanda and the president had an affair or is she lying? Can Olivia actually boldface lie to somebody?
Olivia is capable of lying to somebody but I actually think Olivia believes that she was wrong; that Amanda had a sexual relationship with the president and Olivia was wrong to say Amanda was lying. No one is totally what they seem.

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Mellie, whom we've only met briefly, tells Cyrus to put Olivia on the Keating case. Is there a trust bond between Mellie and Olivia? How much more of their history will we see? Does Mellie have her own agenda?
We're going to see a lot more of that back story and discover much more about who Mellie is than we ever imagined. We meet Mellie in the pilot and she's got one scene with a smiling sweet face, but the more you get to know her, the more complex she is. Mellie takes being first lady very seriously and views it as a political office and a position of power. I don't think I'm wrong in thinking any smart, together woman who was in that position would view it that way. There are responsibilities and she has this very complex, political marriage that works to tend to. Coming up, we have this awesome flashback episode where you get to see where things got started. You will begin to understand the nature of the relationship, and that, too, is not what you think it is.

When talking about Keating and his wife, Fitz tells Olivia that love allows for forgiveness. How much was he projecting his feelings for Olivia? What does he need to be forgiven for? Is this a confession to the Amanda relationship?
He's asking to be forgiven for any number of things that happened in their relationship. When we come in, Olivia is no longer working in the White House, not interested in spending time, is drawn in by Cyrus to come help with this thing. So clearly, she left for a reason. There are those things to be forgiven for as well as what's going on with Amanda Tanner. I think it's Fitz's way of asking her to forgive him for what ever he may have done. I don't think it's a confession.  

When Amanda turns to Quinn at the end of the episode, Quinn confesses she was in trouble once before. How much more of Quinn's history will we learn? Is Olivia aware of her past? Is that mystery what makes Quinn idolize Olivia?
In a lot of the episodes you start to hear it talked about that there's something not quite right about Quinn and that builds and builds. It's very complex and whether and how Olivia knows about it is part of the issue.

Gideon is hot on Amanda's story -- how much trouble could the reporter cause? What will his presence do for Olivia, Quinn and Amanda?
It's going to give Quinn a chance to show what she's made of, which is really nice. But for Olivia, he's an unbelievable thorn in her side and things get more and more difficult. The idea that he might be some little bit reporter but those things grow. Watergate was two sentences; some little reporter who thought he found a story may actually have found a story. He plays a rather large role; he's got the scent of something and isn't really going to let it go. How Olivia handles him and where it leads him are really interesting twists and turns.

What did you think of this week's Scandal? Can Billy and Cyrus be trusted? Hit the comments with your thoughts. Scandal airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. on ABC.

E-mail: Lesley.Goldberg@thr.com; Twitter: @Snoodit