How Scandal's Olivia Pope Became a TV Icon

An ode to one of TV's most incredible characters as Scandal prepares to say goodbye for good

By Lauren Piester Apr 19, 2018 5:21 PMTags
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Just over six years ago, Olivia Pope changed the game.

When Kerry Washington's white-hatted (and often luxurious white-coated) Washington fixer debuted on ABC's Scandal, she wasn't yet the Olivia Pope we know today, but she was getting there. She was ruthless but fair, and if she did bad, she did it for what she believed to be the greater good, or at least the best good in the moment. She was a burgeoning antihero, but one surrounded by good people and one who could easily be pulled back over the line if she started to go too far. Still, we had rarely seen a woman like her on TV before.

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She didn't appear in the first scene of the series, but we quickly learned she was a force to be reckoned with. Just the mention of her name was enough to stop Quinn Perkins (Katie Lowes) in her tracks and get her to rethink the blind date/job interview/job offer she was trying to breathlessly reject. 

"Olivia Pope is as amazing as they say," Harrison (Columbus Short) promised, and even though that was the first we had heard of her, he was still right.  

We finally met the woman herself in an elevator preparing to short change kidnappers by three million dollars in exchange for a baby, cool as a cucumber. In fact, she was more focused on making sure her colleague Steven (Henry Ian Cusick) was prepared to propose to his girlfriend.


She got the baby back with no sweat, and not a drop of blood on that tailored white trench. Later, even during a major crisis, she dropped everything to talk Steven through his proposal. 

She was in charge of everything. She seemed to control every situation, or she took control of whatever could be controlled, a master at thinking on her feet. There was no storm this woman could not weather, and she was at the center of a lot of storms.

The first storm was that she had been having an affair with the married President of the United States, and that's a relationship that constantly verged on defining her, until you saw how much she was really capable of. When the Vice President had her kidnapped and auctioned off (!!!) because he knew it co­­uld convince the President to start a war, Olivia got her revenge by straight up murdering him with a chair.

Olivia also took part in multiple election riggings and murder plots and dealt with the fact that her father was running a secret branch of the CIA and her mother was a thought-to-be-dead wanted terrorist. She was busy, and she was messy, and she never looked it.

That was just another iconic piece of her puzzle. No matter how much of the republic was at stake or which of her boyfriends had murdered someone, she always looked completely put together on the outside in a way that was less "that's so unrealistic and sets an impossible standard" and more "how the hell hasn't this incredible woman stained any of her clothes with her endless red wine?" A wine stain was even once used as a sign that something was terribly wrong, but when we caught up with the kidnapped and tortured Olivia, she still looked good as she overpowered guards and took apart her bra to use the underwire as a lock pick. Sweaty, but good!


On top of that, she eats either total garbage or nothing at all, and still glows at every opportunity. But hey, she's Olivia Pope, and her problems transcend nutrition and skincare.

Olivia Pope's problems do not, on the other hand, transcend men. She's always sleeping with someone who's up to something nefarious, or who are the president, or both, but that's the thing. She's sleeping with them—dare we say she's f—king them—for what appears to be purely her own pleasure. As much as we argued over Fitz vs. Jake (Scott Foley), Olivia saved "love" for the man she could not have in the way she wanted to have him, and by the time she could have him, the show had moved beyond her love life taking center stage.

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At one point, Olivia got the chance to get everything she might have wanted, if she were a different person. Fitz (Tony Goldwyn) and Mellie (Bellamy Young) had broken up, Liv was pregnant, and he was offering her the chance to stand in the sun with him as the actual first lady, doing as first ladies do. But while Mellie excelled at that role as a precursor to running for the actual presidency, that was never Olivia's thing. She realized she could never just stand by Fitz' side and raise children in the public eye in the way he seemed to want her to, and that a kid wasn't going to fit into any version of the life she wanted, so she chose to have an abortion in season five.

While that story was profound and a defining moment for Olivia, the show has not always lived in such a real place.


Scandal is a wild show, and has only grown in its insanity over the years. Its plots are incredibly complicated and every character is somehow woven into a web of one murder or another. It often shouldn't work, but with Olivia Pope at the helm, it does. With another lead, this show might be a mess, and on another show, Olivia might be a dramatic disaster, but together they work, and they've worked for seven seasons now, through literally anything an imaginative team of writers could come up with.

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There are a few infamous TV drama characters whose names have come to mean something more in pop culture, like Don Draper, Walter White, Tony Soprano. There are even fewer who are women, and who are black, who hold a ton of power, who lead 20+ episodes a season on a broadcast network, and who defy the idea that cable TV is the only place for complicated characters­ to thrive. Olivia Pope is in a league of her own.

During a recent conference call with reporters, creator Shonda Rhimes was asked what she hopes Olivia's legacy will be.


"I feel like she's been a very three-dimensional independent woman who was, at a time when female characters really weren't antiheroes, an antihero," she said. "And now it feels very normal and obvious that female characters can be antiheroes. And it feels normal and obvious that women of color can lead the shows.  So hopefully that is something that this show has done."

If you ask us, Scandal—and Olivia Pope—have done that and more.

Scandal's series finale airs tonight at 10 p.m. on ABC. 

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