"I want his head in the fire and I want to see him burn. I have been destroyed while I have made him president. It is my turn," first lady Mellie Grant told political fixer (and her husband's not-so-secret lover) Olivia Pope on the penultimate episode of this season's "Scandal."
Amidst a months-long conversation about likable female characters (do we expect fictional women to be likable -- and is being likable a bad thing?) and unlikable female characters (the vitriol Anna Gunn received for portraying "Breaking Bad's" Skyler White spurred her to pen a NYTimes op-ed), the women of Shonda Rhimes' hit political thriller slipped somewhat under the radar. But over the last three years, Mellie Grant has steadily proven to be one of the most interesting female characters on network television -- likability be damned. She joins the ranks of the few and far between female antiheroes, right up there with "House of Cards'" Claire Underwood.
All of the characters on "Scandal" are of questionable moral character, and all the more fun for it. Little makes for better television than watching Mellie tear down her tortured, lovelorn husband, plot with chief of staff Cyrus Beene, and alternately verbally abuse Olivia and beg for her help. (And, of course, drink. There is nothing better than Drunk Mellie.)
When we first met "Scandal's" first lady, she was a barrier to Olivia and President Fitz's relationship -- the buttoned-up, Stepford-looking wife who refused to let her husband leave her for another woman and ruin his political image. But this season, Mellie has become a fully-fledged human, a woman who stifled her own ambitions and happiness for the sake of her husband's career, and is just as interesting as Olivia Pope herself. (Side note: Why do either of these badass women want to be with Fitz? He's not only a murderer, but by all accounts, a totally ineffectual and reckless President who would risk his constituents getting blown up in a terror attack to escape the confines of the White House.)
Mellie is ruthless when she feels threatened -- and whip-smart. "The upsetting thing about being as educated as I am and as intelligent as I am is that being first lady is profoundly boring," she tells Fitz in Season 3's premiere. It's easy to believe that a woman who admits she would rather run a war or the CIA than be a figurehead on the President's arm would have a hard time watching her husband and his sociopathic advisors make all of the big decisions.
"It's so easy to disregard or underestimate Mellie," actress Bellamy Young told BuzzFeed's Louis Peitzman of the character she portrays. "She can be so hyperbolic. She has big hair. But she is a smart, smart woman. She is often the smartest woman in the room."
And this season we've seen more of Mellie's backstory. We learned that she was raped by Fitz's father, that she tried to commit suicide and was stopped by now-VP Andrew Nichols, that she very nearly fell in love with Andrew, and that she kept her assault to herself in order to keep Fitz on his political track. And, as NYMag's Margaret Lyons pointed out, fleshing out Mellie's story wasn't a way for the writers to make her more likable, but a way to make us understand her motivations and character on a deeper level.
Because after years of pushing her own needs down and tacitly tolerating her husband's affairs, our dear first lady has reached a breaking point.
"If you knew the sacrifices that I have made, the things that I have given up and the pieces of myself that I have given away for you, and you treat me this way," Mellie tells Fitz in one of the most compelling scenes of the season. "You declare war on me and you shame me and you make me beg for scraps when I have done nothing but fight for you." Of course, this is partially Mellie's revisionist history -- she and Fitz have emotionally tortured each other, it's not a one-way bad marriage -- but Young is at her most electrifying when she's expressing Mellie's pent-up anger.
It is refreshing to see a woman on-screen who is allowed to be both sympathetic and patently awful at times. "Mellie is not the 'scorned woman' or the 'bitch wife' she's sometimes reduced to," writes Peitzman. In fact, it is her flaws and complicated moral grounding that make her so wonderful to watch.
Mellie may not be a "good" person, but she's a fascinating, hooch and whiskey-guzzling, political badass. The beauty of watching a TV antihero is that while you may not like the fictional first lady, you've probably found yourself cheering Mellie on. More of that, please.
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