Why you should care
If red-wine-chugging, white-garb-wearing healer Olivia Pope is truly a Jesus figure, she might well die before Scandal ends.
Pooja Bhatia is an OZY editor and writer. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Economist, and was once the mango-eating champion of Port-au-Prince.
I was raised in the hinterlands of eastern Iowa by Hindu parents who told me, “God is a mountain, and there are many paths to Him.” That was the extent of my religious education, and although as an adult, I aspire to many values considered Christian — love, peace, forgiveness, humility — I am not in the fold.
So when I say unto you that Olivia Pope is Jesus Christ, I say it humbly, and with no intent to cause offense to you, yours, or the Lord above. Forgive me if I do. In fact, could we please blame Shonda Rhimes for any blasphemy contained herein? The woman is pushing Judeo-Christian buttons I never knew I had.
The Season 3 finale of Scandal airs Thursday, April 17.
Several have already pointed out the likenesses between Olivia and Jesus, usually obliquely. Last year, a Times reviewer leavened his criticism of Kerry Washington’s acting by noting, “It’s never easy to play Jesus.” By then, What Would Olivia Pope Do (WWOPD) had become a kind of mini-meme — one that Scandal character David Rosen name-checked in a mid-March episode: “Someone really needs to put that on a bracelet.” (Um, they already have. And on T-shirts, too.)
She has a taste for wine, she preaches an ethic of good to “white-hat” gladiators who were once lost or lowly…
Others point out that Olivia favors white garb, that her last name has a holy connotation, that she has a taste for wine, and that she preaches an ethic of good to a cohort of “white-hat” gladiators who, like Jesus’ disciples, were lost or lowly before they were saved by her.
I glommed onto these references only in retrospect. For me, the true epiphany struck last month, in Episode 14 of the third season, “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.” Olivia has just discovered that Jake Ballard, her sometimes-lover and supposed good guy, has murdered a few people to cover up the coverup of another murder. (Of all people — Jake! He of the expansive pectorals and stubbly square jaw, he who lustily beseeches: Save me, Olivia! Let’s live in the light together! )
Stay with me here.
In her crisis of faith, Olivia seeks counsel from her father, Rowan (aka Eli) Pope. (Note that alias, too: It’s short for Elijah, the prophet sometimes considered a harbinger of Jesus.)
Everyone is worth saving. Even the monstrous.
“I don’t know what the point is,” Olivia laments. “Of this. Of democracy and freedom and patriotism. If there are no white hats, if everyone is evil, if the deck is always stacked, if everyone I love is a monster, if no one is worth saving — what’s the point?”
Papa Pope laughs. How little his child understands. First, he explains that Jake has already been punished, because he serves as command of supersecret agency B-613. He must choose who will live and who will die, and that is the heaviest burden.
Papa Pope knows from what he speaks. As former command, he ordered nearly 200 deaths, and:
…always suffered a bit with each one. The responsibility of that. The gravity of that. The weight of it. It marks me, it stains me, it never leaves me. I am responsible. Being the Hand of God is already the worst punishment in the world.
He delivers all this in staccato, deep-voiced intonations that seem intended to evoke the Almighty.
Olivia quivers on the verge of nihilistic collapse. That is, until Papa Pope elucidates the larger lesson of a world where everyone’s a sinner.
“And if everyone you love is a monster, there is in fact someone worth saving,” he tells his daughter.
“Who?” she asks.
”Everyone!” says Papa Pope…
Everyone is worth saving. Even the monstrous. Even the demons. Everyone is worth saving. In the face of darkness, you drag everyone into the light. That is the point. At least I like to think that is the point of you.
So. The self-described Hand of God is telling his progeny that her duty is to drag all the sinners, the whole ugly monstrous world, into the light. Sound familiar?
Even a heathen like me knows the verse “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” That, after all, is what many are honoring this weekend on Easter: the sacrifice and the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who died to save everyone else.
After that revealing father-daughter scene, I began to see more connections between Olivia and Jesus. She and her father have Sunday dinners that involve copious amounts of red wine. A colleague pointed out that Olivia’s mother, Maya, started off with the name Marie. Olivia has kickass intuition. And, she is charged with being of the world, but also better than it. She takes upon herself the sins of everyone else. Like a confessor, Olivia must know everyone’s dirtiest secrets — their sins — and absorb them.
That’s hard, too. “I want to be a normal person,” she laments. “I don’t want to live in this world and know these things.”
It could get worse for her. After all, Jesus died on the cross to absorb the sins of the world. His own father sacrificed him. Is Olivia destined to be sacrificed by her father, too?
Now, plenty of people would disagree with the ”Olivia is Jesus” hypothesis, starting with a long line of Christian pastors who use Scandal as a teaching lesson for their flocks. Many of their sermons deal with adultery – ”turning Olivia Pope into Hester Prynne for a hip-hop generation,” as a commentator wrote last year.
’Scandal’ is so replete with plot twists and machinations that you can see nearly anything you want in it…
To be sure, Scandal is a melodrama so replete with plot twists and machinations that it’s like a Rorschach test: You can see nearly anything you want in it. Cultural critics have had a heyday. Many see Olivia as an empowered black woman —– all the more so because Scandal generally doesn’t hyperventilate over people of color holding positions of power. In contrast, others consider her a prop of the white male patriarchy — “a political mammy mixed with a hint of Sapphire,” as Brandon Maxwell argued last year. (He accused the show of “peddling the same tired societal representations of black womanhood albeit under the guise of progressivism.”) Some cast the show as a sign of disenchantment with Obama, while others wish Obama would be more like Olivia.
My demands are comparatively simple. I don’t even want to be right — in fact, I’d prefer that Olivia Pope survive another season rather than watch Ms. Rhimes spin this allusion all the way to Calvary. Save yourself, dear Olivia, not us. Do I hear an amen?