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Prior to Scandal’s season 7 premiere, creator Shonda Rhimes said the show would be “going all out” in its final batch of episodes. She wasn’t kidding.
Though Rhimes wasn’t in attendance at Saturday’s Scandal panel at Vulture Festival LA, stars Kerry Washington, Guillermo Diaz, Darby Stanchfield, Tony Goldwyn, Jeff Perry, Scott Foley, Joe Morton, Cornelius Smith Jr., Joshua Malina, Bellamy Young and George Newbern were all on hand at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel to discuss what Gladiators can expect going into the final stretch. And after that shocking midseason finale (au revoir, Quinn), the show’s ardent fans are no doubt chomping at the bit for answers.
One of the main questions hanging on viewers’ tongues this season: Is Washington’s character, Olivia Pope, (not to mention the rest of the characters) redeemable, or has her “soft, chewy center” hardened for good?
“We were talking about this yesterday on set,” says Goldwyn. “And Josh [Malina] made the point of like, ‘Do these horrible people deserve a happy ending?’”
For his part, Malina (who joked that he’s “a big proponent of Red Wedding 2” as a possible ending to the series), sees major parallels to our current political situation in that Scandal fans still love Olivia and company, even when they’re doing horrible things.
“I think what makes [the show] so apt as a reflection of the contemporary political scene, is that it takes a cavalcade of monstrous characters and makes you root for them,” says Malina. “And I think that’s not a bad description of the current political state. We have some of the most vile people running the government that we’ve ever had… and yet there’s a substantial percentage of the American populace that continues to root for them.”
Malina was partially (though not entirely) kidding, but it’s salient to consider what the series brings to the table in these divisive political times. For Young, who stars as President Mellie Grant, just seeing a woman in the White House, fictional or not, resonates.
“[The show is] acclimating the country to seeing females in power,” says Young. “I think the genesis was watching Quinn [played by Katie Lowes] become in charge of QPA… and being pregnant in the workplace. … There are a lot of lady presidents [on TV] right now, and I think it matters. Shonda’s thing is always, if you can see it, you can be it.”
Indeed, as Washington noted, Rhimes isn’t so much about “diversity” as she is about normalizing characters who go against the grain of what we normally see onscreen — and even in the greater world. “She talks about abandoning the word ‘diversity’ and replacing it with ‘normalizing,’” says Washington. “I think it’s part of the testament of, you look up on this stage and what this cast is made up of is a ton of people who society would say belong to minority or disenfranchised groups… you know, there’s two straight white guys up on this stage, and that community feels disenfranchised right now.”
“I think when you have a lot of people who identify as ‘Other’ put together in situations, you’re avoiding the idea of being the only one in the room. When you’re the only ‘other’ in the room, you don’t get to explore situations of ‘otherness,’” she continues. “But when you normalize the population, then we get to explore what difference means, and how it feels and how it lives in the world, because ‘other’ becomes normal.”
Though the specter of sexual misconduct looming over Hollywood right now wasn’t broached directly, it did serve as an undercurrent to much of the conversation happening onstage. Among other things, the cast talked about Rhimes’ commitment to creating a culture of mutual respect over the show’s seven seasons.
“In a business that is often very cutthroat and where, in my experience, there are often producers and people in positions of power that don’t create that environment, and frankly a lot of actors that don’t create that environment,” says Goldwyn. “It has had an impact I think, and I think we all [in the cast and crew] will carry that into our future ventures. And I hope that it does resonate, because it’s super important.“
Added Washington, “It’s a very high-functioning, compassionate, loving environment that has taught all of us a lot about what a workplace can look like and what friendships can look like and what bosses can look like. So I hope that that ripples out into the business and into the world, that we each go and expect that in our other workplaces.”
While the show’s massive success over the past seven seasons has no doubt resulted in happy careers for the show’s cast, the question remains: Can the characters they play enjoy happy endings as well? Or is the whole idea of “happy endings” a dusty notion in the bold new TV world that Rhimes has had such a large hand in creating?
“My feeling is like, to steal a Shonda phrase, these characters are all gonna have to earn it,” says Goldwyn. “There’s some kind of redemption that’s gonna have to take place in order to not have it be an old-fashioned, contrived kind of happy ending. And I believe that if Shonda’s decided she does want to have happy ending, we’re gonna have to go through an ordeal.”
But what would a happy ending even look like? That, as Morton pointed out, depends on the person who’s watching. “Happy endings cannot be the same for all of us… it not only can’t be the same for all of us, it can’t be the same for all of you,” says the actor, addressing the audience. “It’s what Tony’s said: Somebody’s going to be dissatisfied somehow. So whatever Shonda and the writers come up with may be satisfying for some of us, but certainly not for all of us.”
No matter how the series wraps up, Washington predicts that at least one person will come away satisfied.
“Shonda will be happy,” she jokes. “I know that. I don’t know if anybody else will be happy, but I know Shonda will be.”
Scandal’s final batch of episodes premieres January 18 on ABC.
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