So, I love Scandal. It’s great. It’s like one never-ending crazy drug trip where you never come down and you only get higher the more drugs you take. It’s the soap opera every soap opera wants to be when it grows up.
Something has bothered me ever since the first episode. Harrison tells Quinn by way of introduction that Olivia Pope and her team of fixers are like ‘Gladiators in suits.’ What he (and by extension Shonda Rhimes and writers) mean by this is that they’re in the middle of it all, fighting the good fight. Everyone sides with the gladiators, right? They were slaves, most of them, victims of a corrupt and powerful system that used them as pawns for entertainment. Taken with the long view like this, comparing Pope & Associates to gladiators makes a certain amount of emotional sense. Olivia Pope is very proud of that white hat. But when you actually stop and think about it for even as small an increment of time as one second, the analogy completely falls apart. And the weird thing is, I can’t tell for sure whether that falling apart is intentional.
Let’s look at the assumptions you need to make in order for this analogy to ring true:
1. Gladiators fought to the death. Okay, this part might actually work if we stretch it a little. Olivia Pope and her team of supposed gladiators are always working on cases involving what always seem like end of the world events. IF WE DON’T FIX THIS RIGHT NOW LIFE AS YOU KNOW IT IS OVER. Two sides enter the arena, only one leaves alive. If Pope & Associates lose, it nearly always means a sort of metaphorical death for their clients (or themselves) and sometimes even literal death (hello, Amanda Tanner, Molly whatserface, others). BUT even if we can stretch this assumption to fit, it doesn’t take into account that …
2. Gladiators fought each other. In this analogy, if P&A are gladiators (who consider themselves to be the ones who wear the white hats — remember, at the beginning of the series how Olivia could always tell by looking someone in the eye whether they were telling the truth, whether they were worth saving?), then by extension those they are fighting are ALSO gladiators. So what does that mean exactly? The most obvious conclusion we could draw here is that Shonda and Co. intend for us to realize that Olivia’s use of the word gladiator is a deluded one, that we as the audience recognize that these people are far from being heroes, but in order for them to function on a daily basis, they all need to believe they’re still the good guys. But gladiator fights were not battles between good and evil, or even the powerless vs. the powerful. They were fights between the powerless and the powerless, while the powerful sat up high and watched the ensuing slaughter.
So, excluding the fact that sometimes the Pope & Associates peoples do engage in the occasional infighting, they largely see themselves as fighting for good, rather than fighting as pawns in a corrupt system. This means that either a) Shonda and Co. realize that P&A are using the word gladiator incorrectly and have created this dichotomy on purpose so we could question the characters’s judgment and place in the world, or b) Both Shonda & Co. and her characters are unaware of the implications of using the word ’gladiator’ to describe themselves. Which brings me to my next point.
3. Gladiators fought at the behest of their Roman overlords as an extension and reminder of Roman power. On the surface, again, this works. Washington D.C. would fall apart without people like Olivia, political fixers whose job it is to clean up after the movers & shakers make their messes and commit their foul deeds. Even though they might tell themselves otherwise, Olivia and her employees fight to protect the secrets and enforce the power of Washinton’s elite, the people who can afford to hire her. But in reading it like that, we’re ignoring the fact that Olivia is one of the movers & shakers, even if she is technically retired. Again, this could be deliberate.
At the beginning of the series, Olivia had forcibly removed herself from politics, instead opting to start her own firm to fix what’s broken in D.C. To wear the white hat. And look, she can believe that all she likes, but she wouldn’t be Olivia Pope if she didn’t have those White House connections, hadn’t slept with the President of the United States, helped to steal an election, and befriended the majority of the higher ups in the West Wing. And before she ruined his life, it was the freaking District Attorney she went to for favors. Olivia is not a gladiator. She’s a Roman who feels bad about doing Roman things and makes herself feel better by using her powers to help out those who can’t help themselves, because they’re plebes (or gladiators or slaves). I know ‘Soldier’ or ‘Centurion’ or ‘Imperator’ doesn’t have the same ring to it that ‘Gladiator’ does, but it would probably be more accurate to her situation. What does Olivia do? Olivia looks people in the eye and judges them guilty or innocent, and only if they seem innocent (or if it’s in her best interest) does she take their case. Hell, even if she called herself ‘Champion’ like she was freaking Angel the vampire or something, I’d accept it. But not gladiator. It just doesn’t fit. So let’s talk about the two main purposes of gladiators, to clarify a few things:
4. Gladiators fought to placate the masses. Ever heard of panem et circenses? I’m sure you have, but just in case, it means bread and circuses in Latin, and it’s what the Romans provided to the plebes so they could do their Roman things and not have riots in the street about it. Let’s go to the encyclopedia for dum-dums for a second: “Bread and Circuses is a metaphor for a superficial means of appeasement. In the case of politics, the phrase is used to describe the creation of public approval, not through exemplary or excellent public service or public policy, but through diversion; distraction; or the mere satisfaction of the immediate, shallow requirements of a populace, as an offered ‘palliative.’” Translation? Entertain the masses with blood and food and parties and people killing each other right in front of them, they’re going to be too busy gorging their brains on mindless violence and the pleasures of the senses to think too hard about what’s really going on. Olivia and her gladiators do not function in this way at all. Everything they do is concentrated behind closed doors. They are the puppetmasters, not the puppets. In fact, one of P&A’s specialties is feeding the mass media altered stories that paint their clients in a favorable light or which catalyze movement in their client’s favor. IN FACT, Pope & Associates are the ones providing the bread & circuses in order to appease or titillate the masses, depending on what’s needed in any given situation. They are the ones who provide spectacle in order to sway public opinion.
5. Gladiators fought to deter and punish Roman enemies (which might include rebellious plebes, not just other nations). AND YEA ROME SAYS TO YOU, YOU SHALL NOT FUCK WITH US OR WE SHALL MAKE YOU CUT OFF EACH OTHERS LIMBS FOR SPORT. Most, if not all, gladiators were slaves, and a large portion of slaves came from prisoners of war, or the children of prisoners of war. Roman slavery was not motivated by race, but by culture. Instead of de-humanizing a race of people so as to use them as free labor, the Romans dehumanized and punished their enemies by using them as free labor. Sometimes free labor meant being a gladiator. There is really no comparison that I can think of that puts P&A anywhere near the realm of political prisoners. They’re not being forced to kill one another for sport, they weren’t kidnapped for political reasons. They do what they do because they want to do it, and because they feel loyalty to Olivia Pope.
6. Gladiators are not warriors or champions, they are slaves. This is the one that really got me. That moment last night when Olivia refused to be Fitz’s first lady out of loyalty to her team (and out of self-preservation, but that’s a between the lines thing — if she allies herself with a murderer, it becomes all but impossible to convince herself she wears the white hat). In that moment when Olivia tells Fitz “I’m their gladiator” it’s just so wrong on so many levels. If Olivia was indeed their gladiator, she would be their slave, fighting for their amusment, and it’s very clear in the moment that what she actually means is that she is their champion, fighting on their behalf (and on behalf of every powerless person who needs saving). She sees herself as their white knight, their beacon of amazingness and political superpowers, who saved them from their own lives. (It’s why the costumes she wears are nearly always white. That, and Kerry Washington looks flawless in white.) Olivia goes around telling everybody she’s Spartacus, when really, she’s Bruce Wayne.
And after writing all of that? I still can’t decide if Shonda realizes all of these implications.
So, best case scenario, assuming Shonda does in fact realize that her usage of ‘gladiator’ doesn’t work at all? The idea of the gladiator is a lie Olivia tells herself so she can sleep at night, because if she is a gladiator, then she can be redeemed. She is the victim, the little guy, the powerless nobody. What’s worse, it’s a lie she drags her team into as well. In the first episode, when Harrison is trying to convince Quinn to come work for Pope & Associates, you can see in his eyes that he really believes they are fighting the good fight. But in reality, being part of Pope & associates means they’ve already committed ten different horrible acts before they realize what they’re doing, that they’re not really gladiators or white hats, but Romans in disguise.
And if that’s not what Shonda’s going for, then she needs to find another word before my head explodes.