A charismatic leader with a bitch of a wife and scheming advisor, who’s carrying on an affair. A world of politics where assassination and character defamation is part of the tool kit and the only thing that matters is upholding the populous’ belief in the republic. And a small group of soldiers and politicians who operate above the law, going so far as to decide who wins elections. This may sound like something out of Ancient Rome, but in fact it’s the plot to ABC’s Scandal, set in modern-day Washington DC.
Scandal focuses on a small group of people, led by a woman named Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), who call themselves gladiators. Their job is basically to keep politicians’ public image completely free of their private mistakes, but this isn’t a mere PR firm. As one of the gladiators implies in season two, their work is akin to a calling to a higher service: “Gladiators don’t get to have feelings. We rush into battle. We’re soldiers.”
Olivia’s team may call themselves gladiators, but they way they operate is closer to that of the praetorian guard. Established by the emperor Augustus, the praetorian guard was not the emperor’s body guard. Instead, they were elite soldiers with both military and political power. Rather than guarding the emperor’s body, they guarded his political reputation, and occasionally that of the senators. But their role was more involved than simply protecting the emperor: they protected the entire republic of Rome, even if that sometimes meant protecting it from the emperor himself. They kept emperors in power, assassinated both them and their rivals, and sometimes went so far as to force people into position–such as the emperor Claudius, who became emperor after the praetorian guard assassinated Tiberius.
That certainly bears a resemblance to Olivia and her “gladiators.” Olivia helped rig an election to make sure Fitz (Tony Goldwyn) was reelected POTUS. But even more than Scandal’s gladiators, the attitude of its politician characters is similar to the ethics of Ancient Rome, where people were held to a different ethical standard in the their public and private lives. In public, a patrician–member of the ruling elite–was expected to follow Rome’s surprisingly strict moral expectations of dignity, family, self-control, and discipline. Yet in private, the patricians often behaved in the exact opposite of this moral ideal, plotting to kill their family members and indulging in every imaginable vice and whim. It didn’t matter as long as their public personas appeared ethical.
Like Ancient Rome, appearance are everything in the world of Scandal. In one episode, Cyrus (Jeff Perry), the White House Chief of Staff, says that he was raised to be the president but can never be because he lives openly as a homosexual. In another scene, Fitz kills the Supreme Court Justice Verna Thornton (Debra Mooney)–not because she was involved in throwing the election, which she was, but because she was going to tell everyone about it. Even though Fitz had nothing to do with rigging his reelection, he can’t abide Verna living long enough to confess and ruin his public reputation.
The real question is, how does this reflect on the real Washington DC? There have been comparisons between the United States and the last days of the Roman Empire since the 1970s (Three Days of the Condor springs to mind), but do people really believe Scandal reflects Washington reality? If they do, it may not be so much the scandals the characters find themselves involved in but the separation between the people who lead the country and the average citizen strikes a chord. The characters in Scandal often refer to the “people of the United States” as if they’re some barely controlled, amorphous hive mind. Part of the appeal of Scandal is that it is a convincing portrayal of what happens in Washington. But if the show’s creators are deliberately referencing the last quarter of the Roman Empire, which their use of the term gladiators suggests, then one wonders who they’re trying to warn of the dangers of a dissolute government: Washington DC, or us?
by Tasha Brandstatter