For the writers over at “Scandal”

Let’s get a couple of things out of the way right off the bat, shall we?

1)  I am not a consistent “Scandal” viewer, or even a particular fan.  The Better Half enjoys it, and sometimes I watch along with him.  I’ve liked it well enough when I’ve caught it, but I am only vaguely aware of the plot arc.  When I do watch, I often have to turn to the Better Half and ask if I’m supposed to like some character or not.  I’m sure there are subtleties I’m missing.

2)  Below Be Spoilers.  Fairly warned be ye, if ye watch but haven’t caught recent episodes.  Avast if ye be touchy about such things!

So, the other night we were watching last week’s episode, which focused largely on the travails of Huck.  For the unfamiliar (who have decided to read this post anyway), the show is all about a Washington, DC fixer (played by Kerry Washington [true fact: I know someone who went to high school with her!]) and her crack team of sleuths and scoundrels.  Huck is a former CIA assassin in her employ.  He has a… checkered past, which was explored during the episode in question.

We are shown in flashback a much happier Huck, back when he was a mere Marine.  It seems he was given a battery of tests, and the CIA discovered in him the ideal torturer and murderer.  They fly him home from Kosovo and tell him he essentially has no choice but to join.  Initially conflicted about his new job extracting information from targets by torturing them with power tools before killing them and dumping their bodies, we are treated to several scenes showing him gleefully getting into his work.  Then he has the temerity to marry and have a child, which is a no-no in his career.  Things go poorly for him from then on.

Obviously we’re meant to have complicated feelings for this guy, but to find him ultimately sympathetic.  I have major, major problems with this.

First of all, I cannot escape how profoundly dumb I find this storyline.  I find it implausible that the CIA farms its dirtiest work to military grunts who score well on some mythical array of tests.  And personally, as nauseating as the crimes at Abu Ghraib and Gitmo were, I have a really hard time believing it’s agency policy to extract information from people using drills and acetylene torches.  I just don’t buy it, but YMMV.  What I really don’t buy is that these professional killers subject their victims to horrible, serial-killer-esque torments then dispose of the bodies in dumpsters on trash day.

That’s transparently idiotic.  What, we’re meant to believe garbage collectors will find a mangled, tarp-wrapped corpse and just shrug?  They’re going to freak the hell out and call the police!  It’s going to make the news!  The numerous bodies we’re shown tallying up would be a huge story, and would draw intense attention to actions meant to be super clandestine.  Unless there is a massive conspiracy of local waste management, law enforcement and news media across the country, this plotline is just too preposterous.  Sorry.

But let’s put that objection aside.  As moronic as I find that massive plot hole, let’s say I’m willing to go for it.

What I am not willing to do is root for this character.  He enjoys not a jot nor tittle of my sympathy.  While I’m sure it majorly sucks to run afoul of the soulless goons who pay you to wreak excruciations and death on their enemies, especially when you were apparently dragooned into doing so, I am going to shed no tears for a character we’re shown happily taking a blowtorch and a drill to two separate victims, making blasé faux small-talk with terrified people right before he starts torturing them in a manner that would make John Wayne Gacy avert his eyes.  None.

Maybe I could dredge up some pity for a man driven to slow madness by the sins he is forced to commit.  Maybe.  But someone who finds he enjoys his knack for incredibly evil work, and only shapes up when he violates the company ban on having a family?  Forget it.

Without veering farther into religion than I usually do, I believe there is redemption for everyone who seeks it.  In my real-world community of faith, I would find a place in God’s love for a man such as this were he to arrive, broken, at the door.  But I have no desire to spend my leisure time rooting for this character.  I don’t find him complicated.  I find him loathsome.

So, sorry “Scandal.”  You’ve lost me.  Not only is this plotline dumb, it’s revolting.  Supposed government sponsorship or not, this character was a serial killer, and I can only just barely stand seeing a serial killer’s crimes if I know at the end he’ll get blown away by Clarice Starling.  I’ll pass on more of this.

Russell Saunders

Russell Saunders is the ridiculously flimsy pseudonym of a pediatrician in New England. He has a husband, three sons, daughter, cat and dog, though not in that order. He enjoys reading, running and cooking. He can be contacted at blindeddoc using his Gmail account. Twitter types can follow him @russellsaunder1.


  1. “What, we’re meant to believe garbage collectors will find a mangled, tarp-wrapped corpse and just shrug? They’re going to freak the hell out and call the police! :”

    I laughed out loud when I read this.

    I don’t think I’ve ever heard of “Scandal,” so I guess you’ve “spoiled” it for me. Shame on you! 🙂 Of course, now I don’t have to watch it, unless the CIA forces me to.

  2. This post reminds me of Dexter, a show and character who I sit in complete incomprehension at people actually rooting for.

    • I thought about “Dexter,” too, as I wrote this. I’ve never seen it, largely because I know with iron-clad certainty that I would haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaate it.

    • I’m going to mount a half-assed defense of “Dexter” here, in concept if not execution.

      In theory (I have never read the books, but I do hate-watch the show to yell at the idiotic characters and twists) there is an interesting character and story in here. Someone completely warped by his childhood experience is given an arguably “socially useful” job to do by killing only vicious criminals (for those unfamiliar with the show’s premise, Dexter’s cop foster father realized he had a budding sociopath on his hands, and feeling love and responsibility for Dexter, made the decision to attempt to channel Dexter’s tendencies in ways so that no innocent people would be hurt, so Dexter supposedly only kills bad guys after making sure they are bad, and that the law has failed to deal with them).

      There is a lot of conceptual meat here – is Dexter a sort of “good” guy, since he is not only meting out justice to those who would otherwise escape it, he is preventing the deaths of future innocents that his own victims would otherwise kill? He spends a lot of time attempting to fit in, have a family life, and taking care of others – do these actions count for anything if they are admixed with large helpings of self-interest (as are most people’s actions)? To what degree does *acting* like a good person, *make* one a good person? Can morality and conscience of a sort be instilled in a monster by Clockwork-Orange-style conditioning (and again, is that all conscience & morality *really* is in all of us?)

      Michael C Hall is a terrific actor, and the show also gets a lot of mileage out of the (admittedly-overused and often superfluously-repetitive) voiceover narration, in which Dexter often has the exact same thoughts that we all do in unfamiliar social situations: “How should I act? How would someone else in this situation react? Let me take my cues from what I believe I should do in such a situation, or how others around me are acting” – the joke of course being that Dexter thinks he has these thoughts and issues because he is an unfeeling monster, when really we are all of us “faking it” a large part of the time, and the gap between “sociopath” and “regular person” may not in truth be all that wide.

      So yeah, there is an interesting core concept here, and one good actor.

      Unfortunately, there are no other good actors, likeable characters, or good writers capable of navigating any sort of thematic complexity (or even nominally-believable plotting) on the show.

      • Re-reading my own comment, a much shorter way to say it would be that conceptually Dexter is a sort of “Batman + Spiderman” character: childhood trauma + a foster parental figure directing that psychologically-damaged child to socially-useful ends (with, as I said, “Clockwork Orange” style questions of the intersection of conditioning, free-will and morality in there).

        Pity they can’t deftly handle the material.

        • Except doesn’t Dexter also kill to maintain his secrets? Does the fellow ever get it wrong? He makes no mistakes? Kills no innocent people by accident? Also his locale keeps up enough of a steady stream of identifiable horrible criminals who’ve escaped the grasp of justice for him to kill? That sounds utterly implausible and laughable.

          I mean Batman/Spiderman have a safety valve for their vigilantism; they don’t kill people.

          As to the father shouldn’t he, having realized he had a budding sociopath on his hands, gotten Dexter onto a regime of therapy, drugs and supervision to prevent him from becoming a serial killer? What kind of Dad is he that essentially turns his son into a monster albeit a monster with a half assed justification?

          Well anyhow, suffice to say I loathed the very concept of Dexter when it popped up and so it’s best I didn’t watch.

          • Dexter, as of where I am in the show (season 4) has not yet killed to maintain his secrets. He’s kidnapped in the service of maintaining his secret and someone else killed the person he kidnapped but Dexter killed that person so it’s good.

            Whoops, spoilers.

          • “utterly implausible and laughable” is a pretty good description of the show. And yeah, there have been people who have gotten killed who fall outside the parameters – if you had good writers, these exceptions themselves could be thematically compelling, but they are generally glossed over and quickly forgotten with no impact to the overall story.

            And the foster father believed (with possibly some justification, given the current state of understanding into sociopathy) that there was no “fixing” the boy (and also believed that he bore some responsibility for the creating conditions) – again, if you had good writers, there’s some hay to be made out of whether, under those conditions, the father made the most moral choice he could – if you found a kid that was built for killing only, then maybe training him to be say a SEAL sniper, so that he kills only “bad” guys under strict supervision and controlled conditions would be the best you can hope for, for him and for society.

            Basically, after watching, say, Jaime’s speech in last night’s GoT: if you had THOSE writers writing Dexter, there’s some interesting moral inquiry stuff you could do with the concept.

            Which makes it all the more frustrating to see that potential squandered.

          • Glyph, exactly. I started watching Dexter thinking it’d be a sort of exploration of right and wrong, and of what the absence of a sense of morality or empathy means in everyday life, but it’s got very little if any of that. I still watch it, though. I’m not sure I could even explain why. I will say that it doesn’t disturb me, because it’s so silly.

          • Sounds like you watch it for the same reasons I do – it’s so silly and terrible that it is sort of entertaining.

            We didn’t even mention LaGuerta – the most inconsistent, unlikeable, and incompetent character/cop in a show/department full of them. Who’d’a thunk that Doakes would start to look good, after all the foolishness of the rest of the department?

            I wonder if in twenty years, a reboot could maybe serve the concept better…we sometimes forget that Batman was just silly kids’ pulp once, but there was enough thematic juice to be found in there to make it into something more. BSG too.

          • I read the wiki about Dexter and it says his need to kill stems from witnessing his own mother being murdered and being left in a crate sitting in her blood for a couple days. Somehow I don’t think the cop made the right call.

            But perhaps, yes, they could make some interesting hay out of it but I gather it’s instead a CSI Miami with a serial killer who, it’s just assumed, is a kindof dark superhero. Ugh *shudder* yeah it’s not a show I should try and watch.

          • Oh man, Doakes. I have to admit that I was incredibly disappointed when Doakes died. I thought the major interpersonal dynamic of the show would be the conflict between Dexter and Doakes, and I thought that could actually be interesting. Then, in addition to bringing in Lila (ugh), they made the primary dynamics those between Dexter and Rita, and Dexter and Deb (though I admit I liked Special Agent Rock Star). It’s sort of like they took every potentially good idea that they’d had, and threw them out the window to focus on the really bad ideas they had. Maybe they considered it a challenge, one that they inevitably failed.

          • North – his need to kill stems from witnessing his own mother being murdered and being left in a crate sitting in her blood for a couple days. Somehow I don’t think the cop made the right call

            The cop’s actions were possibly partially responsible for that scenario, so he felt guilty and adopted the kid; he raised him normally, until the kid starting showing signs of being “not right”.

            The premise isn’t *quite* as stupid as it might seem, but the show makes up for that, by making sure the execution of that premise is 100x stupider.

      • Having never seen it, I can’t really comment on its merits or weaknesses. It might be amazing, for all I know. (Sounds like “no,” from your description.)

        What I am much more confident of, however, is that I personally would detest it.

        • Oh, it’s not good, at all, if that wasn’t clear 😉 But there’s nothing wrong with hate-watching something occasionally; there’s a peculiar enjoyment to be had from seeing how monumentally stupid something can be made.

          If you had the flu and were laid up, there are worse ways to spend an afternoon than a marathon of blearily yelling at the most incompetent police force the world has ever known.

          • For my money, the best/worst hate-watching will always be “Charmed.” Every episode is an immersion experience in a vast, tepid ocean of stupidity.

          • Every episode is an immersion experience in a vast, tepid ocean of stupidity.

            Weirdly, this is the exact effect I strive for in my MD posts.

          • Well occasionally Charmed would rip the shirts off some cute guys. So there was that.

        • Dexter (Season 1, anyway) suffers from Character Economy. That is: when there is a mystery character (say, a cat burglar), you know that the mystery character is going to be someone you spend a lot of time with already. The insanity comes when you realize that there are four or five mystery characters.

          • RE: character economy – how about the fact that the city of Miami, a large city with an at-least proportional murder rate (IRL historically at times Miami has punched well above its weight in this category, and of course in-show it is overrun by other serial killers and such) has a metro PD Homicide department consisting of maybe six people? And all those people are completely incompetent?

          • They get into that in Season 2! And Season 3, kinda.

            To answer your question: kinda.

            I blame the unions.

      • This is a great description of Dexter. I watched the whole first season of it a few years ago, and it affected me profoundly. In a bad way. That first season, at least, had really good writers, and the voiceovers you mention were so much like how us “normal” people think and act that I found myself feeling more antisocial because of it. The patterns of Dexter’s self-reflection were leaking into my reality, and it made it just that tiny bit harder to, for example, trust other people. It’s typical for me, when I really get into a fictional universe, to absorb and (internally) live out some of the characterizations I connect with, but usually I don’t connect with a character so toxic as Dexter is. It made me feel slightly icky.

        About 2/3s of the way through that first season, I realized I wasn’t going to watch much longer, but I really wanted to know how the whole story ended. So, I finished the season and then quit. I’m sort of glad I did watch it, but only in hindsight. At the time it was terrible.

        • My brother-in-law genuinely, unironically likes the show, despite being as hyperintelligent and liberal as they come, and sometimes I feel like he really does identify with Dexter’s antisocial tendencies; like Dexter somehow gives voice to those feelings that he (the BIL) feels bad about feeling.

        • Trust is generally a mistake. Understanding motivations and incentives tends to be far more accurate — and leave you less flatfooted at the end of the day.

      • I think of Dexter as the logical end of the road that leads through Dirty Harry. And really, that end is not much further down the road than Dirty Harry. Only Dexter is a much better crime solver than Dirty Harry. In fact, he’s a better crime solver than the entire Miami homicide department combined (or so the show would have us believe).

        I watch the show for Masuka’s shirts (as a fashion guide). Also, I thought Lithgow was good and creepy, and his interactions with Michael C Hall’s character were really good. however, most of the show is crap, and the characters awful. Deb… oh man, Deb. She may be one of the worst written and directed/acted characters in the history of television. I picture the writers reasoning about her dialogue going like this: “OK, we need Deb to have a reaction to this, but I’m having trouble thinking about how she would react. Let’s have her say ‘Fish balls!’ with absolutely no change in facial expression from the moment before she received this life-altering bit of news to the moment immediately after, and then move on to a character we like, like say Quinn or Batista.”

        • Lithgow was pretty good, and I actually though Smits was good too – he seemed genuinely bonkers in a more real-life way. And yeah, Deb is terrible…Masuka is the only likeable secondary character, since he is at least consistent and pretty funny. I thought Quinn was a terrible actor too, but it may be the writers’ fault, because he was pretty good on Justified.

          I like the ep. when Quinn and Batista are supposed to be, you know, SOLVING MURDERS BECAUSE THAT’S THEIR JOB, and instead they just get really stoned and tool around (pun fully intended) in Batista’s midlifecrisismobile.

          Worst. Homicide. Detectives. Ever.

      • Also, if you want to read an interesting exploration of “faking it,” check out Tom McCarthy’s Remainder. I’m not even going to describe the plot, because it will sound too silly, but I think McCarthy pulls it off well.

  3. So what you are saying about Scandal is Goodbye To You.

      • The “scandal” is that I am in comment moderation with only two links!

        • I thought I said that, except I spelled it “A W E S O M E”.

        • Before the lead singer’s shirt forced my retinas to detach in self-defense, I took a moment to admire his resourcefulness. Who among us would look at some leftover battery acid we had lying around and think to style our hair with it?

        • Hey, they spent at least $25 just on AquaNet for that! But even though it cost little to make, the mirrors/foil/lights/rotating camera (and, OK, the hair) add some visual interest, making the most of the no-budget.

          That first Scandal one was just some goofballs jumping around in a room (though admittedly, Patty Smyth was kinda cute there).

          Is it sad that I still kinda like “Space Age Love Song”?:

          Oof, that’s another terrible video.

  4. I have to admit, I am a sucker for this sort of thing. Huck is probably my favorite character on the show. The episode didn’t help my affection for him (aspects of it strained credibility, and it wasn’t the way I wouldn’t have written it), but didn’t hurt it, either. The same is sometimes true of intriguing foreign terrorists and murderers. Tom Clancy is particularly good at this (both Popov and Kovalenko).

  5. “When I do watch, I often have to turn to the Better Half and ask if I’m supposed to like some character or not.”

    I do this with Zazzy, only it tends to be with real people… like celebrity gossip crap.

    “Do we like or hate Miley Cyrus?”
    “Is Mel Gibson still a douchebag?”
    “Are we on team Jacob or team Edward?”

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