The Episode That Captured the Best and Worst of Scandal

As the political soap nears its end, it’s worth recalling the hour that embodied both the show’s early promise and unfortunate excesses.

Tony Goldwyn, Scott Foley, and Kerry Washington in a still from 'Scandal'
A still from "The Price of Free and Fair Elections" (ABC)

Romantic intrigue, White House drama, fancy coats, vintage wine, and the melodrama of the morally bankrupt—ABC’s Scandal has all the intoxicating elements of escapist television. Inspired by the real-life crisis manager Judy Smith, the show has followed Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), a Washington, D.C., political fixer running her own firm while navigating a tumultuous long-term affair with the married president, Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn). It was a juicy premise that helped the Shonda Rhimes–created show become a ratings giant over the first four seasons of its run. (While the series averaged around 9 million viewers per week at its peak, Seasons 5 and 6 saw a stark decline in audience.)

On Thursday, Scandal comes to an end. Six years after the show’s debut, it can be easy to forget that Olivia Pope was network TV’s first African American woman lead in a drama in nearly four decades. Sensationalistic plotlines and gauzy storytelling have come to define a series that has often offered a surprisingly profound look at the travails of being a black woman in America. Through Olivia, Rhimes and company have addressed same-sex love, workplace sexual harassment, abortion, anti-black police violence, and of course the character’s much-debated interracial romance with Fitz. But the show was also known for getting bogged down in its nastier, convoluted arcs, leaning perhaps too heavily into the spirit of its title.

As the series finale approaches, both loyal and lapsed fans may recall one memorable episode that illustrated the show’s early promise and its worst impulses—essentially Scandal in a nutshell. The Season 3 closer, “The Price of Free and Fair Elections,” was a particularly powerful hour of layered storytelling that felt keenly aware of its heroine’s identity as an African American woman in a white-dominated political sphere. But the 2014 episode also foreshadowed the show’s spiral into one of its worst subplots about torture and kidnapping, and underscored Scandal’s failure to situate Olivia within a black community.

In “Free and Fair Elections,” Olivia’s storyline gives viewers a strikingly nuanced representation of black womanhood. In one telling scene, the fixer’s “white-hat” morals chafe against her desire for political influence. Fitz’s son Jerry has just been brutally killed—a tragedy that Olivia knows will win Fitz a second presidential term. But she’s horrified that her gut instinct, as a high-powered crisis manager working to get her boyfriend reelected, is to register the death as a victory. At one point, she plaintively asks Fitz’s chief of staff, Cyrus Beene: “How did we get like this?” It’s a simple, but heavy, question that offers a window into Olivia’s psyche.

Her quest for power—and its destructive consequences—emerged early on as one of the show’s major themes, but “Free and Fair Elections” lets viewers see the full emotional weight of her choices. At the time, Scandal was one of the only series (particularly in the procedural genre) to explore such high-stakes moral quandaries for black women. That Olivia could be an anti-heroine of sorts and still win an enormous fan base, with viewers of different racial backgrounds, arguably helped spur the success of other hit shows with complicated black female leads, such as BET’s Being Mary Jane and Fox’s Empire.

“Free and Fair Elections” also offers commentary on how corrupt state power can lead to the deaths of young African Americans. Viewers learn that Olivia’s father, Rowan Pope (Joe Morton), was behind the assassination of Fitz’s son—a move that allows Rowan to reclaim his position as the head of the black-ops organization B613. One of Olivia’s colleagues, Harrison Wright (Columbus Short), pieces together Rowan’s scheme, only to find himself staring down the barrel of a gun. In a moment that seems both sadistic and oddly endearing, given Rowan’s mercurial shift from doting father earlier in the episode to ruthless killer, the elder Pope chuckles and says to Harrison, “It’s a shame, really, a waste of such a great talent. Oh, to be young, gifted, and black.” It’s a classic Scandal moment: indulgent and theatrical while making a sharp social observation. In a scene thick with irony, Rowan verbalizes the tragedy in having to execute a bright black man in order to actualize his plan.

Representations of black death at the hands of the state take many forms over the course of Seasons 3 and 4. Unlike Harrison’s murder, Liv’s is a quiet emotional death, the price she pays for being the only black woman really shown working in the hallowed halls of the White House. Scandal notably returned to this theme in Season 4’s controversial “The Lawn Chair” episode. In a story based on the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown, Scandal attempts to grapple with the real-life stakes of systemic violence for African Americans. Though several critics found “The Lawn Chair” to be short-sighted and ill-timed, others praised it for its artistry and its bold interrogation of race relations.

Rowan’s choice of words in Harrison’s final moments is meaningful, too: His “young, gifted, and black” reference points to Scandal’s investment in African American intellectual and cultural traditions. Season 3’s premiere, “It’s Handled,” opens with “Papa Pope” giving Olivia the speech that virtually every black child has heard, in some form, more than once: You have to be twice as good as white people to get even half of what they have. And later, in Season 5, it’s revealed that Rowan’s goal was to “raise an African American girl who felt fully entitled to own the world as much as any white man.” Olivia’s father, who would have come of age during the Black Power movement, was clearly shaped by such sentiments. His line to Harrison is drawn from the 1968 Lorraine Hansberry play (and her autobiography) To Be Young, Gifted, and Black. The singer Nina Simone further solidified the phrase’s popularity, among African Americans in particular, when she wrote the political anthem by the same name.

Viewers can surmise that Olivia grew up hearing her father reference Hansberry and Simone, just as she had listened to his speech about hard work. Rhimes, who acknowledged writing the “young, gifted, and black” line, tweeted the poignant quote as the episode aired, as did Washington. (The actress went a step further, encouraging fans to learn about Hansberry.) Rhimes’s and Washington’s tweets weren’t solely about citing the work of black women who came before them; fans needed to know the cultural touchstones that informed Olivia’s worldview in order to truly understand her.

Unfortunately, Rowan’s phoenix-like rise to power in “Free and Fair Elections” also marked the beginning of Scandal’s tedious multi-season B613 subplot—a tangled thread that ultimately hindered Scandal’s richer character arcs. Rowan was “Command” of B613 once before, until Fitz ousted him. But Fitz, as a father seeking retribution, reinstates Rowan to catch Jerry’s killer—whom he thinks is Liv’s estranged mother, a spy known as Maya Lewis (Khandi Alexander).

As a crisis-management procedural, the show was at its best when it invested in its interpersonal dynamics. For example, there’s the moment during the Season 3 premiere when Olivia’s colleagues (her “gladiators”) rally around her when her affair with Fitz is exposed. And, later that season, Fitz’s wife, Mellie (Bellamy Young), hires Liv to run Fitz’s reelection campaign, prompting the two women to work through some of their issues. Whenever Scandal tried to weave in espionage-thriller ingredients—explosions, torture scenes—the character development suffered. The covert-ops storyline in particular had many outlandish turns, including a multi-episode arc in Season 4 where Olivia is kidnapped at the orders of the vice president and auctioned on the dark web. (In the Season 6 finale, she herself becomes Command of B613, in her father’s footsteps.) Those plotlines tended to feel like overwrought filler material, getting Scandal away from the more relatable human elements that helped ground its more preposterous side.

For many African American viewers like myself, one of Scandal’s most obvious omissions from the start had to do with Olivia’s inner circle: Why didn’t she have any black friends? After all, the series had filled out her personal life in other ways, unraveling the origins of her romance with Fitz in Season 2, then introducing her parents and explaining her pro-black roots in Seasons 2 and 3. The natural next step seemed to be to place Olivia within an African American community—maybe showing her mentoring black teens, attending a black church, or frequenting a favorite black-owned haunt—distinct from the Scandal’s Capitol Hill milieu.

But this never happened. Instead, fans continued to see Liv self-soothe alone with bottles of ’94 Du Bellay and gourmet popcorn. In “Free and Fair Elections,” she’s left to mourn the loss of her married boyfriend’s son in a hospital, with a work colleague. At the very end, she flees D.C. with Jake (Scott Foley), a B613 operative she’s not in love with, to try and right her moral compass on a remote island “a hundred miles off the coast of Zanzibar.” Maybe if she had some black girlfriends, many fans like myself imagined, she wouldn’t be running halfway around the world to dodge her problems. In other words, we were concerned for our beloved Liv and her shark-tank existence.

After multiple seasons, Olivia’s disconnection from everyday black people came to look more like a gaping hole in the series, rather than like a deliberate meditation on being born into privilege or on the challenges of being the only black woman in the room. A nonblack viewer might not think this is important. But because the writers also show that Liv was raised in black cultural traditions, it seems unlikely that she’d then not have a connection to black people and institutions at all outside of D.C. politics.

Fortunately, in its final season, Scandal has been thoughtfully revisiting many of the race-based themes that emerged in the “Free and Fair Elections” episode. Much of this material was never fully explored during the series, but it’d be reasonable to think that Rhimes wants the show’s early commentary on race, and black womanhood in particular, to be an integral part of Scandal’s legacy. The most recent episode to help cement this reputation is Season 7’s crossover with the Rhimes-produced How to Get Away With Murder, titled “Allow Me to Reintroduce Myself” (a reference to the Jay-Z song “Public Service Announcement”).

In the episode, Olivia and HTGAWM’s protagonist, defense attorney Annalise Keating (Viola Davis), team up to advocate for the civil rights of incarcerated men and women of color. The story also allows for banter between Liv and Annalise, another formidable black woman who becomes a friend of sorts. The two women—of different hues, from very different class backgrounds—trade jabs about colorism and black bourgeois behavior, in a black-owned hair salon. Annalise fires: “I’ve dealt with plenty of bourgie-ass black women just like you.” To which Olivia replies, “Don’t worry about your wash-and-press. I’ll be sure to put that on my siditty-ass, no-limit platinum card.” Words like bourgie and siditty (slang for being stuck up) and wash-and-press hairstyles were all language that rang true to black women. Despite their differences, Annalise ultimately concludes: “We’re the same.” Both women endured serious hardships in their ascent to the top of their professions, even though each has her own way of carrying the burden of being black and female.

In another exchange in “Allow Me to Reintroduce Myself,” the activist-turned-political insider Marcus Walker (whom viewers met in “The Lawn Chair”) explains that while all of Olivia’s white friends have abandoned her, he still meets her regularly because, “We’re black. Which means I’ll always be here for you. I’ll always root for you. That’s how we do.” Thus, Olivia’s realignment with her moral center—after being expelled from both B613 and the White House—is inspired, in part, by the love and validation of a black kinship network.

As viewers prepare to see Olivia Pope make her last strut through the White House, more than anything, they should remember Scandal as a conversation starter. For many seasons, fans watched in real-time, oftentimes glued to their social-media accounts, because they wanted to be a part of the dialogue, whether they were there to praise the show, lambast it, or both. Thanks to Rhimes, viewers were prompted to think about the joys and challenges of interracial love, and the dangers of unmitigated power—all through the eyes of a heroine whose many flaws only amplified her significance. Washington perhaps summed it up best in a recent New York Times interview: “We were going to do our own thing our own way, and we were going to make it loud and bold, and to hell with what everybody says TV is supposed to look like.”