Around this time of year, “Silent Night” typically evokes nativity scenes: a mother and child, in heavenly peace. Which made it all the more dissonant to hear the song near the end of Thursday’s mid-season finale of Scandal, as—spoilers ahead—Olivia Pope laid down on a table in a clinic to have an abortion.
Scandal, as millions of fans will attest, is a show where political corruption, torture, assassination, and terrorism regularly figure into weekly episodes. But the decision to show a woman undergo a legal procedure felt especially shocking—largely because television is still so skittish about abortion, even more than 40 years after Roe v. Wade. In the instance that a major female character on a show contemplates ending a pregnancy, she rarely goes through with it, and if she does, it’s depicted offscreen. So Scandal should prove a meaningful example to other shows moving forward for the straightforward, unflinching, but sensitive way it handled the big moment.
For one, the moment really wasn’t all that big. The episode was largely about the ex-First Lady and now-Senator Mellie Grant filibustering a spending bill that would have threatened Planned Parenthood. Olivia’s abortion scene lasted less than a minute and featured no dialogue. It wasn’t preceded by handwringing or debate between Olivia and other characters, including Fitzgerald Grant, the President of the United States and Olivia’s boyfriend. The camera didn’t ogle, but it didn’t shy away from Olivia’s wide-eyed gaze either. The message? This is normal. This is acceptable. This is Olivia’s choice, and hers alone.
In addition to “Silent Night,” there was a voiceover by Olivia’s father, Rowan Pope (who, among his share of crimes, orchestrated the death of Fitz’s son):
Family is a burden … a pressure point, soft tissue, an illness, an antidote to greatness. You think you’re better off with people who rely on you, depend on you, but you’re wrong, because you will inevitably end up needing them, which makes you weak, pliable. Family doesn’t complete you. It destroys you.
The monologue tempered the real-life resonance of the scene with Scandal’s unique, dramatically cynical touch. And yet the words aren’t to serve as an indictment of those who choose to have children. Those who watch the show will recognize how Rowan’s words referenced his deeply complicated relationship with his daughter. The sentiment—that family is destructive—may have figured into Olivia’s personal reasons for not going through with her pregnancy, but the speech isn’t meant to serve as a broad rationale for why women have abortions.
For all Scandal’s overt progressive commentary on current events, it’s still a show that’s unafraid to give itself over to theatrics. And because the show let that spirit infuse Thursday’s episode—Rowan’s soliloquy had the Shakespearean quality of all his speeches—the abortion scene felt organically like a part of the larger story the season has been telling. Sure, it was making a massive point: that even a financially stable, healthy woman who’s pregnant by the most powerful man in the world is entitled to make a choice about her own body. But it took a step back from the national politics of the earlier part of the show to focus on Olivia’s abortion as an intimate event portrayed without judgment.
Planned Parenthood, other pro-choice groups, and the former Texas State Senator Wendy Davis praised the episode. Fans on Twitter alternately celebrated and condemned the abortion scene, with some upset that Scandal’s creator, Shonda Rhimes, seemingly injected her beliefs into the story. It’s possible that when the show returns February 11, it’ll tackle the consequences of Olivia’s decision and her breakup with Fitz. But it’s likely that the show won’t turn her choice into a source of emotional distress, or use it as some poisonous secret that could come back to haunt her. Which would be an admirable degree of restraint for a show called, after all, Scandal.