The Issue of White Hats: "Scandal" and What a TV Show is Really About
Originally published on TheScriptLab.com
Ask someone what any TV show is about and they’ll likely respond with the central plot surrounding the main character. In the case of “Scandal,” that answer would be, “It’s about Olivia Pope, who fixes other people’s scandals but is also having an affair with the president.”
When “Scandal” debuted in 2012, that’s what the show was about. But, over time, it’s become so much more than that.
Today, as “Scandal” enters its seventh and final season, the show is about limits. Specifically, the events that lead to someone making a decision they can’t come back from, a decision that fundamentally changes who they are. To put it in “Scandal” terms, the show is about what causes someone to take off their white hat, and how they manage to put it back on again.
That’s not to say that’s what “Scandal” is about in each episode. The episodes themselves may be about the White House, one election or another, Olivia’s kidnapping, B613, or any of a slew of specific stories. But what I’m talking about requires you to look at the broad strokes and consider the series as a whole. To do that, you have to examine character arcs across the seasons.
Take Quinn Perkins. In the pilot episode, Quinn is the new kid in the office. She’s naïve, always trying to catch up to her coworkers, and shocked by what Olivia will do to keep a secret from coming out. She wears heels and bouncy ponytails and still looks at everything in Washington D.C. with doe eyes. But by the end of season six, Quinn is a badass. She runs OPA, isn’t afraid to pull a gun on someone, and is the moral compass for everyone else in the office.
That change in Quinn — what took Quinn from timid to confident, quiet to outspoken — happened in a single moment. In season three, when Charlie inadvertently sets Quinn up to kill the man her associates at OPA are looking for, she is forced to make a choice. Either she comes clean and goes back to Olivia, or she covers up what happened. Quinn’s choice — to cover up what she did — changes the entire course of her character. From that moment on, she has to wrestle with what her white hat is and how to keep it on.
Look at the big picture, then zoom in. You’ll find a similar moment for every major and minor character on the show.
It happened when Harrison stood up to Papa Pope. A few seasons later, it happened to Papa Pope when he shot Sandra. For Fitz, “Scandal’s” POTUS, it was when he killed Verna. Sally’s moment was when she stabbed her husband to death. James’ came when he defied Cyrus and insisted on being “Publius.” Huck’s was when he kidnapped his ex-wife’s boyfriend. Abby’s moment was when she told Fitz that Cyrus had been meeting with Frankie Vargas and stole the Chief of Staff job.
These are the moments in which the white hats came off. Whether the motivation was ambition or power, revenge, jealousy, or pain — the hat came off and each of these characters had to work to put it back on.
That brings us to Olivia Pope: leader of gladiators and champion of the white hats.
Olivia has seemingly taken her white hat on and off throughout the series, but if you look just a bit deeper and examine her motives, there is a distinct shift. It happens when she kills one of her supposed captors after being kidnapped in season four. That decision, regardless of the fact that it was born out of her need to survive, spun Olivia onto an entirely new path. It made her a bit more selfish, a bit more reckless, and it brought her to the position she holds at the beginning of the final season — the most powerful woman in the world.
Much like Shonda Rhimes’ other long-running series, Grey’s Anatomy, “Scandal’s” true meaning is revealed over time. In “Grey’s,” when one half of the central couple interest in the show was killed off, many questioned why the show even continued. But “Grey’s” isn’t about Meredith and Derek’s relationship — not at its core. It’s about perseverance in the face of extreme difficulty.
“Scandal” is the same. What started as a political drama about a fixer in love with the most powerful man in the world has become a series about black and white and the many shades of gray in between.
That’s exactly how we can learn from a show like “Scandal.” Start with characters and a premise, then use those characters to explore something deeper, something more meaningful. The characters, and the story, will ultimately be better for it.
I suspect we haven’t seen Olivia put her white hat back on yet — as it is with all good series finales, I think the best is yet to come.