By Arturo R. García
SPOILERS AND TRIGGER WARNING FOR THIS POST
It’s possible Shonda Rhimes, writer Peter Nowalk and the Scandal creative team intended for Mellie to dominate the water-cooler talk after this episode, and explicitly set out to “out-do” not just Quinn’s descent into B613’s clutches, but the confirmation that Olivia’s mother is still alive and Fitz’s realization that Olivia’s father is the man atop B613.
It’s also apparent that they succeeded. But not without going to a highly questionable place.
Again, TRIGGER WARNING for subject matter under the cut.
Picking up on Cyrus’ “Greek tragedy” remark from last week, we learn that Fitz’s ambitions for higher office were more or less foisted upon him by Mellie and his father. Although it’s possible that Fitz has come to realize this, what he apparently doesn’t know is that his father raped his wife the night before they conspired to set him “right” and, along with Cyrus, begin the process of polishing him into a suitable candidate. At the end of the episode, it’s also strongly suggested that the couple’s child was actually conceived during the attack.
The “out” here appears to be that Mellie is written to be the one blackmailing the elder Grant into supporting Fitz in exchange for her silence, thus showing Mellie “toughening up” as she leads Fitz into the political arena. But it’s difficult to make the argument that any subsequent revelations — assuming we get any — will help the queasiness induced by this plot point, and maybe not for the reason Rhimes and Nowalk intended. This may have been the most “shocking” way to tell this story, but as Jamie Nesbitt Golden explains at XOJane, “shock value” is an increasingly depressed commodity these days:
I’m sure, had the writers given it a little more thought, they could’ve come up with a better way to make Mellie more sympathetic, more human. I would’ve been totally fine with some rare terminal disease that could only be cured by enjoying Fitz’s penis during a full moon, or her losing her mother to a bizarre lumberjack accident. ANYTHING BUT F-CKING RAPE.
Why? Because it’s a lazy and incredibly shitty plot device that—nine times out of ten—ends up being handled in such a hamfisted way that it makes me throw things at the screen. It snatches the power away from the characters, makes them objects to be acted upon instead of human beings dealing with a traumatic experience. Gemma’s rape by aryan skinheads only serves to repair the fractured relationship between her husband and son. Liz’s rape is used to transform her character from Uber Bitch to Disney Princess so that viewers were more willing to stomach her budding romance with Lucky. And Tara? I’m guessing for shits and giggles, because it did absolutely nothing for her storyline.
And what makes this whole thing even more perplexing is that Shonda and Company know better. Though I have my issues with the fact that—once again!–another annoying female character is cut down to size in an extremely violent way, when “Private Practice’s” Charlotte King is brutally raped in Season 4, it is handled with such thoughtfulness and care that you almost forget it was done to make her more amiable. We even get a big ole trigger warning at the beginning. And KaDee Strickland’s performance was Emmy-worthy.
Similarly, Bellamy Young and Barry Bostwick’s performances are not the issue. But surely they could have handled material that didn’t cast a pall over the entire episode this grotesquely. If the goal here was to humanize Mellie, then right now it feels like a failure — not because Mellie is not “sympathetic,” or because rape victims are not valued, but because, as Vulture’s Margaret Lyons points out, the character had already carved out her own fanbase, simply by being the most self-aware member of the show’s central love triangle. Mellie may never have been the hero of this story, but a capable rogue is just as valuable. And if Nowalk and Rhimes’ objective was to give her another “layer,” then they forgot that sometimes, less really is more.