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Olivia Pope embodies this struggle. Every action in Scandal's universe is driven by the ends—by what "works" at the moment, what seems correct at the time, a sort of individualistic realpolitik. Pope fixes situations for politicians and public figures who'd like to politely sidestep the law. She's willing to sleep with the married president over and over, reasoning that he's unhappy anyway and at some point, when he leaves public office, he'll also be able to leave the conniving Mellie and they can be together at last. She and the president's cronies even fixed the election, after a fashion, telling themselves that they were doing it for the country's good.

Robin Wright and Kevin Spacey in 'House of Cards'

Robin Wright and Kevin Spacey in 'House of Cards'

You could argue that there's not a wide gulf between Olivia Pope and, say, Frank and Claire Underwood, the calculating couple at the center of House of Cards whose only good is their own ascent to power. (In fact, characters in the second season of House of Cards, which released on Netflix two weeks ago, repeatedly refer to the Underwoods as "ruthless pragmatists.")

But Scandal gives Pope an extra facet the Underwoods lack: she is very concerned with "wearing the white hat," a phrase that surfaced at the start of the show as Pope tries to convince a new staff member that their illegal "fixing" was morally okay. That white hat is what Pope needs to tell herself that she's not a bad person even though, on paper, she sure can look like one. But the greatest shifts in her character occur when she realizes that her sense of what the white hat-wearer ought to do was off—that what she told herself she was doing for the good of the country was, in fact, for her own good.

So when it gets knocked off, how can Olivia get the white hat back on? Though the show purports to answer this question, the fact is that this D.C. is devoid of any framework for real moral judgments, except from backwards sourpusses like the vice president (who nevertheless has her own confrontation with her ideals in the third season). Others who seem to be idealists simply get trampled, like the U.S. Attorney, who tries for many episodes to enact justice according to the law, but eventually caves after the powerful pragmatists cause his life to grind to a halt. Nobody's willing to say that one thing is better than another, because they have no way to judge other than what seems to be working at the time. There are no values. They serve themselves (or those with whom they're sleeping).

This is what makes a show like The Americans so interesting. The FX drama, whose second season starts February 26, focuses on Cold War-era Soviet spies (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) who have been living in D.C. for decades. They've posed as an average married American couple, the Jennings, with two kids and a picket fence. In fact, they are not married (though they have lived as such and have children together), and their jobs and lives are merely a front for their work as KGB agents.

Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys in 'The Americans'

Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys in 'The Americans'

The Americans' first season posed an interesting question, one that strikes today's viewer as almost anachronistic: what could possibly inspire this kind of unswerving loyalty to an ideal of home and country in intelligent, modern people? Early on, Phillip (Rhys) considers whether it might be better for him and Elizabeth (Russell) to defect—America, he says, isn't such a bad place after all, and has been a good place for him and his family. They remain KGB, but their loyalties are sorely tried, and the struggle seems likely to grow in the second season.

Watch This Way
How we watch matters at least as much as what we watch. TV and movies are more than entertainment: they teach us how to live and how to love one another, for better or worse. And they both mirror and shape our culture.
Alissa Wilkinson
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today's chief film critic and assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College in New York City. She lives in Brooklyn.
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