Polished cynicism is Scandal’s default mode: The ABC political drama rarely finds good intentions underneath its secrets and lies. But Shonda Rhimes’s signature series has recently allowed the occasional gift of wish fulfillment, a burst of optimism of how the world could look. (In this regard, its fictional D.C. is both bloodier and fairer than ours.) Last year’s invigorating Black Lives Matter episode offered a blueprint for hope and justice. First Lady turned Senator Mellie Grant’s (Bellamy Young) Wendy Davis–inspired pro-choice filibuster made possible the idea of an abortion-supporting Republican politico. And the current season’s presidential election — in which the Democratic Party’s nomination is fought over by a Latino governor and a black senator, and the GOP’s by two women and a lone white man — is, superficially at least, the kind of post-racial, post-gender utopia many of us yearn for.
Scandal granted us one more fantasy last night by having the American people dump the show's Donald Trump surrogate, boorish billionaire Hollis Doyle (Gregg Henry). A Texan Republican bigwig who first appeared in Season 2 to help fixer Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) rig the election for President Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn), Hollis was exposed as a fraud and ridden out of town on Thursday’s “Trump Card.” A Hillary supporter, Rhimes has stated that the Scandal team needed to rewrite some of their scripts after the real Trump proved sillier and scarier than her fake one. Hollis served up some of the show’s delightfully overheated monologues yesterday, but his mid-hour fall from grace landed soft. More rousing were the smaller moral victories that the other characters grabbed for themselves. What ultimately won out against the likes of Trump — and even the schadenfreude-laden desire to see him humiliated — were displays of decency and self-respect.
Waggling his brows at President Grant’s “tiny flag,” Hollis ended up only the barest exaggeration of Trump, even a slightly neutered version of the hatemonger. Writers Severiano Canales and Jess Brownell gave us a few hilarious turns of phrase, like Hollis calling his rival Mellie “a classy piece of ass” and old-moneyed Fitz a member of the “Lucky Sperm Club.” But the denouement, in which Hollis revealed that his anti-Muslim, anti-Mexican speeches were just an act for the “boonies” — a matter of “giving the customers what they want” — disappointingly soft-pedaled Trump’s loathing of Americans who look and worship differently from the real-life candidate, who began his GOP career by leading the birther charge and has incited or threatened actual violence against his political enemies. Nor does Hollis’s tumble in popularity ring quite true. His disgust at having to shake the “filthy, inbred hands” of the “mouth-breathing morons” who make up his supporters made him sound like Mitt Romney in a Trump suit. Calculating as he may be, the real Trump seems to be forging a genuine connection (of anger, fear, and prejudice) with his backers.
Scandal’s much-anticipated takedown of Trump, then, was more a firm but civil shove. That’s because the episode was more interested in putting forth its own political and social vision — one that prioritizes awesome shit that has nothing to do with obsessing over white men, and everything to do with prioritizing self-worth.
Olivia and her ex-best friend, White House press secretary Abby Whelan (Darby Stanchfield), for example, finally put aside their squabbling — and their work campaigning for opposing candidates Mellie and Vice-President Susan Ross (Artemis Pebdani) — to defeat Hollis together. In the end, Abby opted not to use her former ride-or-die’s abortion against her. (Olivia made clear that it wasn’t the procedure itself that would’ve embarrassed her, but the fact that she never told Fitz, the would-be father, about it. Bonus points for the cast getting to say “abortion” without blinking thrice in one hour.)
And though she was mostly a bookend to the episode, Susan nearly stole the hour by choosing herself over her real-then-fake-then-real boyfriend David Rosen (Joshua Malina), who didn’t believe enough in her to honestly campaign for her nomination. Every straight woman should be afforded at least one opportunity to brandish Susan’s breakup line to David, wielded after he pathetically proffers that she’s amazing: "I know I'm amazing! I'm witty and cute and funny and smarter than you. I'm incredible, David. I'm going to change the damn world."
But the episode climaxed with a speech from a marginal character, Democratic congressman and party front-runner Edison Davis (Norm Lewis), who aims to become the Scandal universe’s first African-American president. Though warned away from being “too black” by the shadowy Rowan Pope (Joe Morton), Edison elected to call out Hollis’s racism publicly anyway. He then defined real American greatness: its forward motion, not its backward glances. Quite likely the most earnest speech Scandal’s ever attempted, it ends with this barn burner of a closer:
Hollis Doyle is a thug. A punk. And the people who support him are thugs or punks. Or they condone his behavior. They are not Americans. The idea that this country belongs to one kind of person is the least American idea that anyone has ever had. In fact, it is the opposite of the ideals of this nation.
Nothing needs to be restored. Nothing needs to be made great again. We are a better nation than we were 20 years ago. Than we were 50 years ago. Than we were 100 years ago. Than we were at our founding. That is the point of America. We are a country where we are always greater than our past. I am proud to live in a nation where a black man has a legitimate shot at the White House. That's American greatness.
And when Scandal takes a break from its jaundiced disenchantment to soothe us, it’s pretty great, too.