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Scandal’s “Survival of the Fittest” is a brilliant, focused start to a promising season

Scandal’s season premiere was about what happens to women when they lose.

Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

This post contains spoilers for Scandal’s season six premiere. It discusses the plot and events taking place in the episode.

Scandal has never been timid. The show has always operated at a breakneck pace, hurtling from one mind-shattering development to the next — Supreme Court justices getting murdered, the main getting character kidnapped, our heroes torturing people with drills and snipping off fingers, just to name a few — often folding in real-life events along the way.

Those qualities coupled with last year’s world-changing presidential election give this season’s premiere, the show’s sixth, a special charge.

Titled “Survival of the Fittest” and written by show creator Shonda Rhimes, the premiere lived up to the hype, delivering a twist that only Scandal could pull off. We get a time jump to election night, when Mellie Grant (Bellamy Young) has lost the election. But moments after her concession speech to her opponent Frankie Vargas (Ricardo Chavira), the man is shot dead, leaving the United States of Scandal in a tailspin.

Rhimes definitively said at this year’s Television Critics Association winter press tour that this season is not directly commenting on the presidential election and Donald Trump (the episodes were written before Trump’s win). But even if it isn’t directly commenting on Trump and Hillary Clinton, the show is reflecting some of the elements we saw at play in the election, particularly when it comes to being a woman in the public eye.

True to Scandal’s strengths, though, the premiere did much more than give us a real-life parallel — it also produced a shocking twist, one that’s big enough to reset the show and give some much-needed focus and structure to this new season.

The premiere was a story about being a woman in the public eye

For a seemingly liberal show (Rhimes and several of her shows’ stars endorsed Clinton) about Washington, DC, and a Republican administration, Scandal isn’t very concerned with Democratic or Republican issues. Season after season, scene after scene, line after line, the show’s political worldview has been crystal clear: Policy and identity mean nothing, whether liberal or conservative. They’re just a means to an end, and the end is power.

It says a lot that the majority of people on Scandal are either sociopaths, murderers, or some combination of both, and most have at some point flipped and back-flipped when it comes to their political identification. They’ve all cheated and broken the system to get ahead. Even our hero, Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), is one flawed, twisted human capable of extreme ruthlessness.

Given Scandal’s political agnosticism, it’s fascinating to see what kind of messages the show does decide to lean into. In this season premiere, the message was clear: Regardless of their specific stance, women politicians in general are disproportionately scrutinized — especially when they’ve lost.

“You have to make the call now,” Olivia says to Mellie, demanding that she give her opponent a concession call. “You wait too long and the press will say you’re ungracious. They’re going to label you a sore loser. And because you’re a woman, half of them are going to call you a bitch and half of them are going to report that you cried. You don’t go down like that.”

Rhimes makes clear that women have to be twice as good and work twice as hard to win, and that the same applies to losing. Even though the loss is devastating to Mellie, and it’s completely normal to not want to give up, she, just like any other candidate, has to abandon that hope. But she has to be even more gracious about it than a male candidate would, because in the face of her loss, her behavior, mannerisms, even the amount of time she took to concede will be scrutinized harshly — not because of her political affiliation, but because she’s a woman.

It’s not difficult to hear the real-world echoes of this message. When Clinton gave her concession speech a day after losing the election, or when she attended last week’s inauguration, all eyes were on her demeanor. The way she held herself sparked discussion. And Clinton, like Olivia and Mellie (and Rhimes), seemed to understand that she needed to appear unflappable.

But Shonda Rhimes and Bellamy Young know how to have fun too

Given the unintentional but unavoidable parallels between Mellie’s loss and the results of the 2016 presidential election, Scandal could’ve gone serious, spinning into broader, reality-inspired meditations on what a female candidate’s loss means for women and the glass ceilings that keep them down.

But that’s not the world Scandal lives in. When it comes to high-ranking women politicians, the show is more progressive than real life, having previously featured not only two female Republican vice presidents but also female presidential hopefuls, like season three’s Josie Marcus (played by Lisa Kudrow).

This alternate reality version of Washington, DC, gives Rhimes the opportunity to take Mellie’s loss into a different direction, and allows Young to gnaw on some scenery in the process.

“I will be gracious out there,” Mellie says later, drunk on champagne and lying in a bathtub. “In here, I’ll be spiteful and petty.”

She goes on to make fun of Cyrus Beene (Jeff Perry), mocking his surname and calling him a vampire. Her behavior underlines the fact that for her, this loss is personal. It’s not about failing to break barriers or achieve gender equality, it’s about the sting of losing to a rival who she thought she beat.

Later in the episode, when Mellie is asked about what she truly wants, she gives a speech to her ex-husband and the former president, Fitz, about being jealous of him, how he didn’t even appreciate the power of the presidency and the “rare air” when he had it.

“You’re not weak,” she tells Fitz. “You’re just not power-hungry.”

Mellie wants power. This is true to her character, who since the show’s first season has maneuvered, bullied, schemed — whatever it takes — to maintain it as first lady. Everything else comes second. Some part of her might be concerned with changing lives, or duty, or breaking glass ceilings, but it all comes after her main priority: whatever best serves Mellie.

The season’s massive twist may help streamline Scandal

One of Scandal’s biggest weaknesses is that there’s a lot going on at any given time. People kill each other. The “good” guys torture and maim. There was a gay wedding that involved a prostitute and blackmail. At one point in the show, Olivia was kidnapped and almost sold to Iran.

Everyone on Scandal is a sociopath embroiled in some kind of three-layer mess that all comes back to murder. And on top of that, all these sociopaths have very short memories and love to make out with the people they blackmailed, attempted to murder, or tortured.

Put simply, the show gets messy.

But this premiere’s twist of killing off Vargas, and the accompanying mystery of whether Cyrus did or didn’t have a part in it, just might give this season the sort of strong narrative framework that Scandal sometimes needs to rein itself in — Joe Reid at Decider spotted this toward the end of last season when it began to focus in on the election.

Scandal is infinitely more fun and more fluid when Olivia Pope is a fixer than it is when she’s kidnapped or fighting for her life. In the upcoming episodes, we’ll no doubt see what it took for Mellie and Olivia to win the nomination. But where we are now, with the story grounded in a fight between Cy and Olivia, set within a presidential campaign that echoes many of the past year’s real-life political dramas (faithless electors, intelligence investigations into candidates), could give us one of the best Scandal seasons yet.

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