Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy: Shonda Rhimes’ Twisted Sisters

by Alexis Stephens

Deep into its tenth season, Grey’s Anatomy remains a well-performing prime time network television show, despite its reputation for being a stale, populist soap opera. Meanwhile Scandal, Shonda Rhimes’ other baby, has earned much more critical approval. As a fan of both shows, it feels unfair that they are judged so unevenly. As Scandal wraps up its most grandiose, most clutch-the-pearls season yet, it’s worth considering how little really separates Olivia Pope and her DC underworld from Meredith Grey and her quaint Pac-Northwest hospital. They are both lovable, flawed characters taking a rather circuitous route to independence and stability.

Both shows share an affinity for over-the-top disaster plots and heart-wrenching melodrama, not to mention a host of actors who’ve appeared in both series. This season’s bomb scare episode of Scandal felt recycled from the bomb and shooting spree episodes of Grey’s; in Scandal’s “A Door Marked Exit,” Cyrus pleads to James, “I’m standing here afraid and in my underwear and without my soul asking you what happens now,” which echoed Meredith’s famous “Pick me. Choose me. Love me,” speech to Derek in season two.

The two shows’ most intimate connection is the kinship between their main characters. Meredith and Olivia are two sides of the same dark, twisty heroine. Both are wounded women whose drive and careers have much to do with contentious parental relationships. Meredith Grey was raised by her overbearing, hypercritical single mother. A brilliant doctor, Ellis Grey neglected Meredith’s childhood to pursue a career saving lives. Olivia Pope was raised by her overbearing, hypercritical single father. To Olivia, Rowan Pope was a curator at the Smithsonian; unbeknownst to her, his standoffishness came from his career saving lives (in his mind), as command of a super-secret government intelligence/thug faction.

In one of Ellis Grey’s most epic critiques of her daughter, she spews, “I raised you to be an extraordinary human being, so imagine my disappointment when I wake up after five years and discover that you are no more than ordinary!” In one of Papa Pope’s most epic burns of his daughter, he grumbles, “You’ve raised your skirt and opened your knees and gave it away to a man with too much power. You’re not rare, you’re not special; your story is no different than a thousand other stories in this town.”

Meredith and Olivia grew up determined to prove their parents wrong. To do so, they have followed in their parent’s same career paths. They are both fans of the sauce as a form of self-medicating the pain of their wounds through alcohol — Meredith prefers tequila while Olivia’s blood is half red wine at this point. Each has formed new family circles with friends attracted to their strength.

Where they differ, I think, is important: Olivia seems to possess more steely reserve than Meredith. Some of the most hardcore Rhimes heroines have been women of color (Cristina Yang, Callie Torres, Olivia Pope), a fact that might reflect Rhimes’ own personal journey to become a black, female showrunner in white male-driven media ecosystem. Papa Pope advised Olivia, “You have to be twice as good as them to get half of what they have.” The option of vulnerability isn’t extended to Olivia to the extent that it is to Meredith.

Men are the kryptonite to both characters. It took a few seasons for Derek to sort out a previous marriage, his dickish tendencies, and decide if he was a “Save-A-Ho” type. In the end, he was too good of a guy and too in love not to marry a woman with some personal work to sort out. By his side, Meredith has been able to sort through her issues enough to become a (mostly) functional adult. Olivia is having a harder time. Is it because she has daddy — not mommy — issues that she finds Fitz’s petulance so irresistible? She doesn’t seem to get that Fitz is a co-dependent, privileged, handsome face with mediocre intelligence. (Do no want.)

The television landscape has been completely been overhauled since Grey’s first launched ten — yes, ten — years ago. In 2006, Grey’s Anatomy was almost through its second season when Twitter launched; the show was in its seventh season by the dawn of Netflix’ streaming service. For many, Grey’s fell off somewhere between the unnatural pairing of Izzie and George and Izzie’s subsequent ghost tumor. The following seasons have admittedly been clumsy and cloying. (It’s kind of awesome, I think, that there are nine million other people still watching the show also don’t give a fuck that it’s been relegated to the “for chicks” outskirts of TV fandom.) But Rhimes has never tried to tie the show up in a neat bow. Along the way, the purpose of the show became less about achieving resolution over the course of a number of finite seasons and more about the never-ending process of an adult’s maturation.

If you haven’t kept up (spoiler alert), Alex Karev has eased off testing people’s ability to love him enough to become a great pediatric surgeon. Meredith is seeking the mystical perfect balance between medical innovator, wife and mother of two. While that might elicit a, “Who cares? Why is that compelling TV?” from some people, it’s a welcome option for television watchers sick of adolescent male fantasies being held up as high art. I get a kick out of the boobs and gore of Game of Thrones or the philandering and psychodrama of Mad Men as much of the next person, but I’ve also enjoyed watching Meredith as she learns how to be a better mom than her own.

Meanwhile, Scandal has been treading into dangerous shark-jumping territory all season. Almost everyone in Scandal’s world has figured out a way to justify cold-blooded murder. No amount of bleach is disinfecting Olivia’s white hat. What the show seems to desperately need is less impulse, bad decision-making and more gutsy, grown-ass fixing.

There’s a key moment in Grey’s Anatomy’s season three, just after Meredith’s near-drowning/quasi-suicide, that sets up an overarching thesis for the series. Karev comments, “Meredith always makes me think screwed up people have a chance.” I’m crossing my fingers that what I see on Thursday is Olivia taking a cue from her twisted sister and overcoming the dysfunction of her past. Shonda Rhimes has made it OK to be flawed. Let’s see Olvia flaunt the cultivated gladiator cool that’s been all but buried this season.

Alexis Stephens writes about global music by day and thinks way too deeply about pop culture at night. Her work can be found in MTV Iggy, SPIN, and Rookie.