Last Night on ‘Scandal,’ America Watched Olivia Pope Have an Abortion

For a minute or so, it looked like Scandal‘s Season 5 fall finale was going to be a good ol’-fashioned Christmas special. The episode opened with a red-accented black-and-white montage of the White House’s newest resident, Olivia Pope, doing everything that’s expected of a FLOTUS during the holiday season. She examines china patterns, gives tours to kids, smiles at vegetables on the cover of magazines. It all looks just a bit Stepford, and it’s downright heartbreaking when a woman urgently pulls Liv aside to ask for her help… only to inquire about a cookie recipe.

[Spoiler alert: While the headline doesn’t spoil any ongoing storylines, the rest of the piece does discuss them. You might want to wait until you’ve watched the episode to read further.]

But restrained, domestic psychodrama is neither Olivia Pope’s style nor Shonda Rhimes’, and the episode titled “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” quickly escalates into what might be Scandal‘s most radical hour to date. The show has never shied away from political controversies, addressing everything from the Black Lives Matter movement to the religious right, but last night it took on an issue TV rarely touches: abortion. And it did so with an even rarer, unflinching bluntness, as Planned Parenthood, Scandal star Kerry Washington, famous allies like Laverne Cox, and regular Rhimes fans cheered on Twitter. As film critic Mark Harris wrote, “If you’re not watching Scandal tonight, you are missing as pure a demonstration of Shonda Rhimes’s clout as has ever existed.”

Scandal always has at least five storylines going at a time, but this one begins with new senator Mellie Grant learning that a spending bill that needs to be passed before Christmas will move Planned Parenthood’s funding to the discretionary category. The bill’s sponsor — a white guy, obviously — all but orders her to just vote for it, so everyone can go home for the holidays. But when she sees that it’s about to pass, Mellie suddenly decides to filibuster. As she explains, if Planned Parenthood’s funding is discretionary, that means the Senate can decide, “We’re a little over budget this year, so why don’t we give that little ladies’ organization a little less than they asked for?” And then the slide down the slippery slope begins, slowly chipping away at the organization’s finances until there’s no Planned Parenthood left at all.

Mellie’s filibuster entails reading a list of all the ridiculous — and real — government expenditures that aren’t discretionary, from a beauty queen’s travel budget to talking urinal cakes (which, in case you were wondering, are indeed a thing). It’s a good reminder that when politicians try to depoliticize their support for women’s reproductive health, positioning it as yet another unjustifiable expense, they’re betting on our ignorance about the thousands of genuinely stupid line items that do end up getting funded.

Rhimes and the episode’s writer, Mark Wilding, also manage to shoehorn in some educational statistics about Planned Parenthood itself. In a scene where Scandal‘s vice president (regular-yet-uncommonly-principled-woman-goes-to-Washington Susan Ross) saves Mellie by taking the floor for long enough to allow the senator a bathroom break, we learn that abortion comprises only 3% of its services (a number that, it’s worth noting, doesn’t quite tell the whole story, but nonetheless proves that PP isn’t the singleminded abortion factory the right makes it out to be). In which case, says Susan, “Let’s talk about gonorrhea!”

Meanwhile, in the bathroom, Mellie runs into Olivia — who has, of course, engineered Susan’s interruption in part because she just can’t stomach any more cookie talk. The wounds between the two women are still raw, but both realize that Mellie’s stand is more important than who’s sleeping in the president’s bed. So when she’s about to give up, Liv uses their tension for good: “You’re the biggest bitch I know,” she says. “Don’t tell me you can’t do this.” And then Mellie goes back in there and finishes her successful filibuster. “I’m sorry I had to resort to theatrics to protect what should be basic human rights,” she says, before ceding the floor.

That statement is the clearest expression of the show’s support for Planned Parenthood, but its most powerful message about abortion is nearly wordless. Olivia, it turns out, isn’t just showing Mellie some feminist solidarity — she has a very (some might say absurdly coincidentally) personal connection to the issue at hand. We watch her, in a waiting room, watching Mellie’s victory. And then, a nurse calls her in and we see Olivia Pope having an abortion. To be clear, the procedure isn’t just implied, the way it generally is on TV and film. We see Liv in the stirrups, with her doctor. We see the surgical instruments.

We also see the aftermath, at the White House. Liv has missed a cabinet dinner. Fitz makes it all about him. They don’t talk about the abortion, but their conversation makes it clear that they’re in no position to have a child together. She isn’t built to be a political spouse — “your housewife, your girlfriend, your property,” she calls it — and it’s not fair of him to force her into that role. By the end of their conversation, the yelling has subsided, the drinking has begun (Fitz can barely swallow the Mason-jar moonshine Liv keeps around for emergencies), he’s admitting that she’s always right, and she’s packing her bags for home.

Scandal has never been a subtle show, but “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is the very rare case that bears out some of what we recently heard from Slate’s “Against Subtlety” guy. And that’s because abortion is an incredibly common phenomenon that, even in light of recent strides, remains too rarely represented in pop culture. In mixing political polemic with personal experience, showing women’s support for reproductive rights triumphing over their romantic rivalry, and giving us a complicated protagonist who isn’t perfect but did make the right decision for her life and relationship, Shonda Rhimes, Kerry Washington, Mark Wilding, and the whole Scandal team have made an episode that will go down in feminist and TV history.