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