‘Scandal’: For a Political Drama, 'Watch Me' Remains Suspiciously Stagnant

Season 7 Premiere Review

Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope "Watch Me"
Courtesy of ABC/Richard Cartwright

Packed to the brim with action, “Watch Me” of “Scandal” lives up to the show’s reputation as a serious political drama. With the seventh and final season now underway, it’s readily apparent that creator Shonda Rhimes is pulling out all the stops for her famed Thursday evening show. However, with Olivia Pope in a position of power and a limited number of episodes left, it will be a challenge to keep storylines dynamic with potentially static characters.

Make no bones about it: “Scandal” is still Olivia Pope’s show, and this final season exhibits the heroine at her most powerful. Our first glimpse of the character is one of unquestioned authority: Clad in white heels with hair swaying lightly in the wind, she radiates professionalism in the highest degree. Putting a wayward congressman into place, she presses, “Before, you asked ‘In what world?’ I’m answering: Mine.” With the supporting cast either heeding her orders or falling into step over time, there’s no arguing that Olivia has a stranglehold over this new administration.

And yet, though she’s stunningly composed, and though Kerry Washington knocks the role out of the park, there’s still something unrealistic about her station. Olivia’s greatest flaw is that she’s perfect—perpetually equipped with a steely gaze and a tight-lipped, three-point argument and rebuttal, the protagonist so overshadows her political counterparts that it’s almost boring.

It follows that the show’s brightest moments are when Olivia is challenged. Moments of small rebellion—a news reporter cutting her off, for example, or Mellie (the president of the United States) reminding her who owns the office—are welcome checks and balances on Olivia’s near-tyrannical position. In one foreboding scene, the leading woman speaks with her father at a restaurant about her newfound authority. Between sips of ’91 Bordeaux, he cautions her about the danger of being on top. And while Olivia rejects his warnings, one cannot help but wonder if, as he says, her day of reckoning is coming.

If such a twist is planned, the episode doesn’t show it. Despite featuring romantic frustration, political jockeying, and an overseas crisis, the premiere avoids leaving Olivia in any hot water. The show opens itself to multiple possible conflicts—Olivia against Cyrus, Olivia against the president, and even Olivia against the interests of her own consulting firm—but allows none of them to flourish. Instead, the master maneuverer overcomes all of her opponents effortlessly, a feat which would have been impressive had she not already been in total control. Season premieres are expected to put characters into play and set plotlines into motion, but the loose ends and plot possibilities get tied up pretty cleanly by the end of “Watch Me.”

The show, by virtue of being a political drama, has short forays into social commentary. At one point, the vice president monologues about the education system, and Olivia herself gives an impassioned speech about women in politics. Interesting as they are, these scenes have their impact diluted by the high-stakes drama unfolding around them.

The seventh season of “Scandal” shows a great deal of promise. Given the series’ past success, there’s sure to be plenty of drama between characters who are more titan than human. That said, the best dramas stem from individuals who have room to grow, change, and learn about themselves. The biggest challenge “Scandal” writers have this season is figuring out how to introduce complexity and struggle to characters who have already reached their peaks.

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