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.