“You have to make the call now, Mellie, before too much time goes by,” Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) firmly tells Mellie Grant (Bellamy Young) in the first few minutes of the Scandal Season 6 premiere, which aired Thursday night. As her campaign manager, Olivia has the difficult job of forcing Mellie to face the reality that the presidential election is over and that she has lost to Democratic candidate Frankie Vargas (Ricardo Chavira).
But Mellie does not want to give up. “This is not over! It’s only 4,000 votes,” she retorts in a room full of campaign staffers, including Fitz (Tony Goldwyn), her ex-husband and the current president.
“America has made its choice, and it is not you,” Olivia screams back, her eyes welling up with tears and her voice slightly cracking as it fails to mask her devastation. She takes out her cell phone, dials Vargas’s number, and hands it over to a gobsmacked Mellie. She freezes, but survives the call — just barely (and only because Olivia walks her through every word).
“It was Mellie’s whole life and she deserved it, and she’d be great,” Young told BuzzFeed News in a recent phone interview of Mellie’s mindset during that concession call. Her character is “so in shock in that moment and denial, it just felt like dying slowly from the inside out,” Young said.
“You can’t walk through that moment correctly in anyone’s eyes,” she explained. “Like [Olivia] says in the episode, you’re a woman, so if you cry, then they’re going to call you weak, and if you don’t, they’re going to call you a bitch.”
The long-awaited Scandal season premiere comes one week after the inauguration of the 45th US president, Donald Trump, who defeated Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race. And watching the episode, it’s hard not to draw comparisons between Clinton’s fate and Mellie’s: In both situations, America watched as the first woman to get the bid for president ultimately does not make it into office.
But in Young’s opinion, Mellie and Clinton don’t have all that much in common save for the “barest of facts.” Scandal, she admitted, “started in an arguably Clinton-esque moment…with accusations of adultery in the White House.” Though Young thinks the women are ultimately “very, very different people,” she understands why the parallels are drawn.
“We’ve only gotten to watch one woman ever have this chance [to run for president], so we think that woman is every woman,” Young said. “When we get used to seeing many women in that position of trying to become president or being president, then we’ll see them as people.”
The Scandal cast stood staunchly behind Clinton early on in her campaign. Young and the rest of her castmates tweeted, posted Instagrams, and publicly campaigned for Clinton, who visited the Scandal set in February 2016.
“I don’t raise my voice because I have a job on the TV,” Young said about being a public figure and expressing her political opinions. “I raise my voice, as Mr. Obama said, because I hold the highest office in the land, that of a citizen.
“That’s the America I believe in. I believe in the people of America, we the people, and the fact that I believe that isn’t any more important than what you believe, but the fact that I live in America means I get to say what I believe.”
Young filmed Mellie’s concession call scene before knowing the results of the actual 2016 election. (The first five episodes of Season 6 were shot between July and September of 2016, due to Kerry Washington’s pregnancy.) And like many Clinton supporters, Young struggled to watch the Democratic presidential candidate make her own concession speech on the morning of Nov. 9. “I wasn’t thinking about my job at all,” she said. “I was thinking about love and inclusion, and the world that I believed us all to be living in and wanted, I thought, to continue to live in. I was watching and hearing that slip away.”
Earlier this month at the Television Critics Association winter press tour, Scandal creator Shonda Rhimes told reporters that the sixth season didn’t have anything to do with the 2016 election results. While talking to BuzzFeed News in late January, Young reiterated that Rhimes and other Scandal writers “never rip from the headlines” or take plot points directly from real news events. “They’ve always been firmly entrenched in honoring the story and characters and the world that they’ve [created], the dominoes they’ve set in motion,” Young said.
“It kind of begs the question, what’s the point of art?” she continued, adding to her thoughts at TCA about where Scandal fits in as a source of entertainment and as a reflection of the current political atmosphere. “Are we just to entertain or are we to educate? Where do you land on that continuum? Do we go darker, or does the world and nation need hope?”
The latter half of Scandal Season 6 is currently in production, and the show is certainly looking at real-life, if not imitating it. Young mentioned this season was originally supposed to include a storyline about Russia hacking the election, but the writers are adapting because it feels too relevant.
As the show goes on, Young hopes Scandal continues to cover “issues that are talked about in terms of statistics and numbers” and humanize them by showing them as personal stories. She cited Olivia’s abortion and Mellie’s 16-hour filibuster in favor of Planned Parenthood in Season 5 as an example.
The Scandal writers, Young said, are “telling the story of the world they see.” “I think it’s time we raise our voices even higher and make sure that everyone’s stories are protected, everyone’s rights are upheld, and we all move forward together.”