Have an affair with the president and lose the respect of some of your closest friends, forfeit a stable relationship with a decent person, and be hunted down by a secret sect of the CIA. Step out on your husband after a heated argument and toss the career you've built over a decade into the can, as well as your relationship with your work partner. Just for laughs, the son of your partner in crime will develop a creepy, oedipal fascination with you. These are just a few of the travails of cheats and mistresses on the hit show Scandal and its less-lauded placeholder Mistresses.
Across history and medium, female characters have been given the ultimate boot after engaging in, or simply being suspected of, interfering with monogamous institutions: death. Take Anna Karenina and Fatal Attraction's Alex, who were shunned and ignored before they were killed off. Even Toni Morrison's Sula, whose misdeeds give her depressed and repressed Ohio community an entity to rally against, is sent to the grave.
Television is moving away from punishing mistresses in such an extreme way. "Behave or die" is not a lesson that would go very far with today's audiences, especially on a serialized television show. For one thing, what moralistic or mundane viewer would want to see a new person struck down fatally, week after week, for being bad? And on the other hand, as Hope Reese writes, the "third golden age of television" is all about antiheroes, including women, whose terrible behavior captivates us. So, then, the most reasonable treatment a contemporary mistress can expect is ongoing humiliation of every variety. Though she can't simply just die, she cannot go unpunished; social devolution is the answer. The new mistress' intelligence will be questioned, her clout within an important community diminished, and her everyday life disrupted in remarkably convoluted plotlines. When that weird science of punishing female cheaters is successfully realized, you get Scandal's Olivia Pope; when the characters and plot are stock, you have nearly every woman on Mistresses.