Somewhere in Season 4, Scandal lost its luster. Where it had once been uniquely deft at juggling high-stakes drama and a preposterous plot, its storylines suddenly felt forced. The multiepisode arc involving Olivia’s kidnapping (so that President Fitz would be compelled to start a needless war with West Angola) was boring. The show’s attempt to be socially relevant via a police brutality episode felt ham-fisted, the remaining Gladiators were split off into too many different subplots, and Olivia’s love triangle—eventually, quadrangle—dragged on, familiar and relentless in its ability to go nowhere.
But one thing about Scandal that has remained consistently and delightfully weird—growing even more so this season—has been Olivia’s relationship with her father, Rowan “Eli” Pope. Amid all the lackluster storylines, a carefully thought-out, slowly building crescendo has unfurled as Olivia and her team try to expose the top-secret government spy ring B613, and ultimately take down Rowan himself, commander of said spy ring. And this has led to a dizzying, electrifying cat-and-mouse game between the two that is twisted, manipulative, perverse, and scary all at once. Their relationship has become the only good reason to stick with the show, because with Olivia and Rowan, Shonda Rhimes and her writing team have created a father-daughter bond unlike pretty much any we’ve seen before. Sure there are familiar tropes here and there—the “Daddy’s Girl,” the “Archnemesis Dad”—but Scandal twists those tropes gleefully.
To start with: Those monologues. Rowan—or Papa Pope, as he is affectionately called by fans and cast members alike—has had some particularly juicy, elaborate ones during the last few episodes. Since his first big speech castigating his daughter in Season 3, he’s been the primary purveyor of the Shonda Staccato, bringing a Shakespearian bent to the most florid dialogue given to any character in the Shonda universe. And in the opening scene of “I’m Just a Bill” from a few weeks ago, Rowan presses Olivia to put a stop to the criminal investigation of B613. He dangles the prospect of Fitz going down with the sinking ship as motivation for her to do so, but realizing the situation between Olivia and her presidential lover has shifted, he soon dances through a series of grandiose open-ended questions:
“Do you wanna dig into some Freud, baby? Are you finding that, no matter how white the knight, that all men in fact, are just. Like. Your. Father?”
Oh yes, please, let’s “dig into some Freud.” One of the things that makes Papa Pope such a sinister character is the way in which he uses men to exert control over his daughter. Disapproving of Olivia’s status as the president’s mistress, he orders one of his B613 agents, Jake Ballard, to distract her from him in Season 2—even going so far as to instruct that he sleep with her, according to Jake. His plan, of course, backfires: Jake really falls in love with Olivia and eventually conspires with her and Fitz to try to take him out. So Papa Pope tries it again in Season 4, this time with Russell, another good-looking dude who seems to come out of nowhere to seduce Olivia but is really working for B613. (Russell gives her father intel as to all of Olivia’s plans to take down the agency.) It’s clearly an unsettling pattern—a father manipulating his grown daughter’s love life for his own personal needs. It’s also the thing Rowan gets off on the most, as Jake put it in his revealing chat with Russell in last week’s episode, Olivia is supposed to eventually discover that these men are sent by her father. “Where’s the power in it, for him, if she never knows you belong to him? He needs her to know that she is never safe from him, never out of his grasp.”
At the same time that he is essentially pimping out men to weaken his daughter, Rowan is also trying to mold her into a vision of himself. Toward the end of “I’m Just a Bill,” Olivia defiantly tells her dad that she has no intentions of shutting down the operation against him or B613, and that she will fight for “justice.” Rowan, ever the flamboyant villain, is just pleased to see that she’s becoming a leader again, not distracted by her love for Fitz. She’s “no longer running after that man to shine his boots,” he proclaims proudly. “We may be on different sides, but at least you’ve become a worthy opponent.”
Their relationship has always been like this: Rowan provides her with backhanded encouragement (“For god’s sake–you know to aim higher, at the very least you could have aimed for chief of staff, secretary of state. First lady? Do you have to be so mediocre?”), while Olivia wrestles to free herself from his control and stand on her own. On occasion, he’ll throw his daughter a bone, as when he spares Huck’s life at her demand in a flashback from Season 3.
But in Season 4, it’s all finally coming to a head. Papa Pope tested her loyalty by allowing her to get a hold of his gun during one of his routine, unannounced visits to her apartment; Olivia came this close to killing him point blank, but the gun was unloaded. His disappointment was visceral: “Never, never in a million years did I think that you would be willing to pull the trigger.”
In pop culture, we like to exalt, analyze, and indulge in fictional familial drama—the twisted father-son dynamic, the terrifying mother-son bond, or the well-mined sibling rivalry, to name just a few. But Rowan and Olivia are among the most compelling. He is constantly leveraging their genetic bond as a way to smooth over his emotional abuse. In an early Season 4 episode, he tells Olivia, “We are family. ... Families fight, that is what they do. That doesn’t mean you stop calling or showing up for dinner.” (This after he framed Jake for the murder of Fitz’s young son—he’s not “family,” Rowan makes clear.) He emphasizes this in that same conversation, stating that her “boys will leave” her and that he will “always be there waiting for” her. Papa Pope is a master at espousing the words of a protective, caring parent while also sounding like a manipulative, jealous lover.
It’s a bit strange that a show with such a firm foothold on feminist ideals finds its groundbreaking protagonist so often foiled and weakened by her father (and the men he chooses to dangle in front of her). But then again, most of what we’ve learned about Olivia—her guardedness, her confidence, her shrewd way of handling everything that comes her way, even her success in Washington—can be traced back to her relationship with Rowan, for better or for worse. He’s a mustache-twirling nemesis to Olivia’s flawed, but well-intentioned antihero, and if she’s finally able to take him down, a large part of her will undoubtedly go with him.
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