Unlike Pope, the "Jennings" are motivated to live a double life for decades because they believe there is something better and more pure about their Soviet homeland, something worth their loyalty. They serve not people, but the Soviet Union and its ideology. And so even when individual people cause them trouble, they remain loyal. There is no room for disagreement.
The only characters on Scandal who display this kind of loyalty are Pope's associates, who are unswervingly loyal to Pope through thick and thin. In the first season, we discover early on that this is because Pope has rescued each of them—from imprisonment, from abuse, from homelessness. And so, for them, doing Pope's work is not about wearing the white hat at all. They could care less about doing something "good." Rather, they're unquestioningly loyal to the one who saved them, which means they can torture and lie and cheat as long as it serves Pope's ends.
Scandal's many plotlines and twists give us this conflict again and again: is it best to choose the right, or does making the choice make it right? And because its characters are both the most powerful public figures on the planet and are intensely vulnerable to hurt from those whom they love, they are different than the same set of characters on House of Cards, who care for nobody and nothing. (Cyrus Beene, the Scandal president's chief of staff, most closely approximates Frank Underwood, but is starting to come apart at the seams.) Whatever its weaknesses as art (not to mention moral lessons to live by), Scandal does give its viewers real humans.
Television seems to imply these days that there are two choices in politics: be idealistic, and therefore irrelevant and excluded or used by the powerful (like Scandal's U.S. Attorney or House of Cards' many casualties or The Newsroom's news anchor or, perhaps, The Americans' Jennings); or be a self-interested pragmatist and pursue your own good, no matter who gets in your way, without regard for anything like a moral code. At present, there's little room in television dramas for anything like, for instance, proximate justice.
Except in one place: NBC's Parks & Recreation (recently renewed for its seventh season), a show that takes our national political shenanigans and brings them down to small-town Indiana municipal politics. On this show, a progressive (Leslie Knope), a hardline libertarian (Ron Swanson), an economic conservative (Ben Wyatt), and a host of other characters are not only coworkers: they are friends, people who love and respect one another, even when they disagree. Again and again, they are forced to work together and overcome their differences—to come up with good options—in order to serve the (frequently ungrateful) people of Pawnee. The only bad guys on Parks & Recreation are people like Councilman Jamm and the folks who own Sweetums, who serve only their own political and personal gain.
That kind of cooperation and pursuit of what some have called proximate justice makes for good comedy. It might not make for great drama. But it's worth balancing out our dark political imagination, in which the powerful win because they have the biggest bulldozers and those who would do good succumb over and over, with a reminder that there aren't just two options. The struggle in Washington may be more about pragmatism vs. idealism than it is about right vs. left, but let's not imagine that's all we have.
Alissa Wilkinson is chief film critic at Christianity Today, assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College, and editor of QIdeas.org. She tweets at @alissamarie.