'Scandal' Case Study: Shonda Rhimes on the Show's Impossible Love and Shaky Morals

The showrunner breaks down the series premiere and what that slap says about the nature of Olivia's relationship with the president.
"Scandal's" Kerry Washington and Tony Goldwyn

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Thursday's premiere episode, "Sweet Baby."]

On Thursday, ABC unspooled the series premiere of Shonda Rhimes and Betsy Beers' political fixer drama, Scandal.

Set in Washington, D.C., Kerry Washington plays Olivia Pope, the head of Pope & Associates, a crisis management firm with a unique staff of lawyers, investigators and hackers who in the first episode help a decorated war hero escape murder charges for the slaying of his girlfriend.

In addition, viewers learned that Olivia once worked for President Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn) when his chief of staff, Cyrus (Jeff Perry), calls on her to "fix" a pending problem when a former White House aide (Liza Weil) claims she had an affair with the leader of the free world.

The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Rhimes ahead of Thursday's premiere to break down the episode and whether Olivia really covets the normal life.

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The Hollywood Reporter: How nervous have you been in the days, weeks, months leading up to the premiere? Does it get any less nerve-wracking?
Shonda Rhimes:
I wasn't nervous at alluntil this morning. I really love the show, I hope other people love the show. My biggest concern was that I want to be able to get to make episodes of the show for next season. I wasn't caring about if it did extremely well or what everybody thought about it. Then I woke up this morning and I was ready to throw up (laughs). It's also that aspect of feeling like there's so much press about it, which is awesome. The reviews are coming out and I turn on The Viewand Kerry Washington is on; there's a saturating point for me that makes me want to go back into my hole and just write.

Upon first impression, everyone at Pope & Associates seems very well put together. Yet later we see how broken some of them are. Do they all need an Olivia Pope for their personal lives?
I think everyone needs an Olivia Pope in their personal lives. They all do, most of all Olivia Pope. What I thought was interesting about this world is you don't learn very much about their back stories in the pilot at all and that was purposeful; I didn't want this to be a show in which you knew everything about everyone. I wanted you to form your opinions of them. Things get peeled away and you start to discover things and some of the things become increasingly more disturbing over time for some of them. Some of them just explain who they are.

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Olivia tells Stephen (Henry Ian Cusick) and Mellie (Bellamy Young) that she won't date -- because she's "not normal." How much of that is really the case? Does that also imply that neither of them is aware of her affair with Fitz?
I do think she doesn't date at this moment in time, Olivia is damaged in that way and she's screwed that up for a while and isn't interested in getting back into it at all. That's important. Are Mellie and Stephen aware of Olivia's affair with the president? Only time will tell.  

We've met all the associates -- and they each seem to have shaky ethics and morals. Is that something we'll see tested? Is that what makes them ideal for the job?
I don't know if it makes them ideal to work at Pope & Associates. When it comes down to it, everyone has shaky ethics and morals, some more than others. But in certain instances, from other people's points of view, almost anyone can seem like they're living in the gray area. We are going to see who they are get tested a lot -- and the things they think they'll do because you never know how far you'll go until you're in a given situation.

It's that personal and professional test: Where's the line, where's the limit?
Exactly. And is there one. Some of them definitely do have a line. As the series unfolds you discover more and more about these people and discover that most people aren't what you thought they were in the beginning. You discover that maybe what you thought was their line really isn't, or the line is moving because their perceptions of who they thought they were is changing.

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What does it say about the nature of Olivia and the president's relationship that she's able to say no to him and leave the White House and to still have such access to him even after slapping him?
It wasn't just a work relationship, that for sure (laughs). There's an intimacy there. It speaks to a familiarity: she can only speak to the leader of the free world like that if she was very familiar with him and if they had an intimate relationship in some capacity. She could only have -- or only would have walked away -- because of that same familiarity and intimacy. I think all of that stuff is very revealing about their relationship.

The president is married and in love with Olivia. Is this the ultimate impossible love affair? What made exploring that relationship appealing?
I hope it's the ultimate impossible love affair. I love that it was a problem that I couldn't solve right away. Most of the time in modern dramas, the romantic issues -- unless you're a vampire with a human, which is painful (laughs) -- most of the time the romantic issues fall into the category of, We can't be together because of my own emotional neurotic problems or my own psychic whatever; there's never a true obstacle anymore. It's not like the 1800s where there were issues of class, race and sexuality. None of that stuff is really true anymore. There's nothing that can stop two people form being together except for the fact that he's leader of the free word. We'd be on set and I'd joke with [Tony Goldwyn] who'd say, "Why can't I do this?" And I'd say, "It's about the country." I think it's true. I like that as an obstacle. I thought it's fairly insurmountable and thus allowed me a bigger challenge.

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How long could we see this impossible love story continue, as long as he's in office?
Yeah, and he could always get re-elected.

Cyrus catches Fitz and Olivia kissing and discovers their relationship. How will that impact the way he views the president?
Cyrus, more than anybody else, idolizes the role of the presidency. He truly believes in the presidency. In his own way, more than anybody else, he is the biggest patriot on the show. For him, [Olivia and Fitz's relationship] is more devastating than for anybody else because he simply didn't believe that the president was capable of such human feelings.

How much of Olivia taking Amanda on as a client is done out of protection and loyalty to Fitz vs. it being her way at getting back at the president?
She says that she takes Amanda on as a client but has she actually taken her on? That's another question. This comes not from wanting to protect the president. The instinct to take Amanda on as a client is about doing the right thing, and a little hell hath no fury. How that plays out begins to turn. Her loyalties become tested very quickly.

In the final moments, we see Olivia break down as she watches Stephen get engaged. Does she secretly covet that normal life?
I think so. There's something about the idea of normalcy that's exciting to her. More importantly, for me that moment was about the fact that the most devastating things are going on in her own life and she's not allowed to have any feelings about them whatsoever. She has to buck up because Stephen needs her and she has to go to the restaurant and take care of Stephen to make sure he has what he needs and that his problems are fixed. Then she has to go make sure Sully's problems are fixed. She doesn't ever get a moment to deal with her own stuff.

Speaking of Sully's case, Don't Ask, Don't Tell has been repealed since the pilot was shot. Were there other upcoming scandals that were impacted by political changes?
Other than that one, no. The next case involves a madam with a list. The upcoming cases haven't been impacted. In a weird way, times and leaders change but scandals stay the same.

What did you think of Scandal's first case? Come back to THR's Live Feed next week for another Case Study postmortem. Scandal airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. on ABC.

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