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'Scandal's' Shonda Rhimes on Season 4: Harrison Is 'Gone,' and Focus Is Back on 'Core People'

"We're in a very different spot and everybody has been wiped clean, and anything goes, in a weird way," the showrunner tells THR.

Scandal
"Scandal"

ABC's red-hot Scandal returns for its fourth season with a bit of a creative reset, according to showrunner and uber-producer Shonda Rhimes.

The third season of the Kerry Washington-led political thriller ended with a massive twist: Olivia dissolving OPA and taking off on a plane with Jake (Scott Foley) after she realized/was manipulated by her father to believe that she was the root of the scandal impacting everyone around her.

With season four, Rhimes says the show will go back to focusing on its core cast after seeing its world greatly expanded as President Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn) ran for re-election and the supporting cast was broadened to help accommodate star Washington, who was pregnant with her first child during Scandal's abbreviated 18-episode run.

The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Rhimes on Tuesday at the Television Critics Association's summer press tour to preview how season four will be different, how Columbus Short's Harrison will be written out, what's ahead for rest of the Gladiators and more. 

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You're taking over Thursday nights. What kind of pressure do you feel to deliver?

I don't. I'm not responsible for programming. I decided that a long time ago, when they decided to put Private Practice on Wednesday nights. I can't be pressured about when they put a show on. That's not my job. My job is to make the best piece of television I can. The real estate it gets is not my job.

Were there any conversations about moving Grey's to 8 p.m.? Will the moves for Grey's and Scandal influence any of the storylines?

When the decision was made to move Grey's, it was my job to say I'm not changing the content of my shows, and to hear the support from the network was great. I'm not trying to push the envelope or be crazy, but we've pushed the envelope at 9 p.m. with Grey's, and I felt really good about that. I don't think there's anything we've done at 9 that we can't do at 8, and I'm not about to change the content of what my show is to match some arbitrary rule.

And the same would apply for Scandal at 9 p.m.

Absolutely not. I have no intention of changing what's happening on Scandal at 9. That will be interesting. I look forward to being censored.

Looking at Scandal, will there be a time jump when season four returns?

I don't like the phrase time jump. We come back in a different place. I guess it's a time jump; it's not that big.

Fitz has been re-elected for a second term. Structurally, do you look at it as how to stretch out his four years in office? Do you already know how it ends?

I'm not worried about that at all. I've already decided when Scandal is ending. I think there's only so much Scandal you can tell satisfactorily. The Fitz-Liv thing can only be told so long and in such a way. It's not a 10-season or eight-season show. I've already decided how long that is and what that's going to be. I'm not really worried about that.

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Does the end of his term mean the end of the series? Because it would be really interesting to follow him after he leaves the White House.

It would be interesting. But I've given myself a parameter of what that is, and whether or not that means we end up deciding to stretch or shrink his presidency based on that remains to be seen.

How will Harrison's absence be addressed?  

His absence will be explained definitively. What you think happened to his character happened to his character.

Who will be most impacted by his death?

Olivia, really, but all the Gladiators are. It will be very devastating for Abby in a surprising way. You'll see how she's coping with it in a very different way than you would expect.

Season three was pretty dark.

Yes, purposefully.

You explored rape, the murder of Fitz's teenage son — will season four continue to push the boundaries with controversial and sometimes polarizing storylines?

I think of each season as its own entity, especially on this show for some reason. Each season is very distinct. Season four is going to be very different from season three, the same way season two was different from season one. It just is. We're telling different stories. Liv was in a different place. The characters are in different places. We're in a different space. What I loved about when we got to the end of the season, we pushed a very strange reset button. Everybody's life got wiped clean in a very odd way. Maya went back into the hole, Harrison is gone, OPA no longer exists, Fitz has been re-elected, his child is dead, and Mellie is a mess. Everything has been put in this very strange spot. Fitz is destroyed. He's won the presidency, but he's lost everything. We're in a very different space than we were when we were even three episodes toward the end. We're in a very different spot and everybody has been wiped clean, and anything goes, in a weird way.

That must have been incredibly liberating.

It was very freeing, and terrifying. We spent a lot of time talking about what comes next, and I was very adamant that we're not trying to top ourselves. I feel like when you have a show like this that reaches those operatic pitches where you get to a place where you're continually trying to top yourself, you end up in such a bad place. You get to a place where things start to seem ridiculous, and I wasn't interested in that. We were trying to tell stories about these characters. First and foremost, Scandal is a character study with very crazy things that happen, but it's not a show in which it's just, "How crazy can things get?" What I loved about what we're doing is, we're evening things out a bit.

Season three expanded the Scandal universe a lot, adding several new characters to service. Will season four narrow the focus a bit?

I think so. It feels like the universe is getting smaller again. As we're telling stories, the stories really do seem to be more focused on our core people. By necessity, in a weird way, last season we had to expand our universe. We had a lead actress who for reasons that are private [Washington's pregnancy] was moving slower and could work less. So we had to hold things in front of her and tone it down a lot more. It just meant for us that it was a different energy for her, and we were taking care of somebody. She couldn't work 14 hours a day, so we had to tell our story in a different way, and that necessitated other people both picking up the slack in beautiful ways — we got to really see Bellamy Young [First Lady Mellie Grant] sing and all the amazing moves she could do. We got to see those people sing in amazing ways and bring in other people for them to play against. We had to expand the universe for those things to happen. A lot of it was a way of taking care of Kerry, but now that we have the ability to use Kerry the way we need to use her, it means we get to bring everything back to our core in a way that we had in season two and one.

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More of the "case of the week" we previously saw?

Definitely more of a case of the week, but also literally we can tell a story in which our characters are in a room together. In season two and season one, Kerry is in almost every scene, and that's not possible in season three. So it just necessitated a different mode of storytelling, and we're very excited to get back to Olivia-centric storytelling.

In what ways will the core characters be affected by Olivia getting on that plane? That's a pretty big betrayal.

Everyone has been betrayed, and the family has been blown apart. I love the idea that Liv really felt by getting on the plane she was doing what was best for everybody. She's been tricked in a horrible way, and she's very possibly completely wrong. What has happened to Harrison happened. What she discovers about that is going to be very bad. The betrayals are very bad, and how those betrayals change everyone is going to be permanent. Those changes will be permanent, and how she deals with that is going to be permanent. The world we are coming back to will be forever changed and forever different, and that is going to be very interesting. We're really excited. I can't wait for the first table read. Kerry keeps calling me and going, "What's happening?"

What about a crossover with How to Get Away With Murder and Scandal? Do those shows exist in the same world?

I've never even thought of that. I don't know the answer to that.

Huck [Guillermo Diaz] knows his wife, Kim [Jasika Nicole], and son are both alive and well. What will he do with this information, and how will that affect his new relationship with Quinn?

It's going to have a profound affect, possibly not in the way you think. Huck is a very damaged soul in every aspect of his life, and he came to terms with something; he let go of those people. He let go of the fact that they existed. That's what I love about the [season three] finale, when he says, "They didn't exist anymore." He wasn't sure they were alive, so he let go of the idea that they existed. To discover that they were real is almost devastating to him, because he had stopped fighting. If you stop fighting for something and then discover it was out there and you should have been fighting all along, that's horrible. It's going to be devastating for him.

Could we see him as that family man in flashbacks again?

There are all kinds of opportunities. Those flashbacks devastated everybody who worked at Scandal. Everybody was devastated and broken by those, from the crew to the cast to the writers.

Will Jasika be a regular part of season four?

We love her and she's amazing. We really want to tell that story in a very specific way. I don't want to say more because it will give it away.

Sally has lost the election, and there's a new VP. Will Kate Burton be back? What about Paul Adelstein?

Right now, I don't know what it means for Sally. We know what it means down the line for Sally in the near future. I know what it means for Ellis Grey's past in the near future.

Scandal returns for its fourth season on Thursday, Sept. 25, in its new time slot at 9 p.m. on ABC.

Email: Lesley.Goldberg@THR.com
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