Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but after revisiting Aristotle’s Poetics (with the aid of Michael Tierno) – and this time with a highlighter in hand – I’ve decided that I’m an Aristotleian girl and I believe the writers of Scandal are too. Here’s why I think so:
Artistotle believed in Complication and Denouement: the incidents before the opening scene and within the drama forming the Complication; and the rest the Denouement. He also believed that dramatists must depict not merely life but the moral life of a hero, what gets wound up and unravels in the end must concern the hero’s moral conflict that developed during the story’s middle.
Tierno goes on to explain, “It is through the resolution of the hero’s moral conflict in the denouement that the “theme” of the movie is stated.” Using the Godfather as an example, he writes, “Sometimes you must sacrifice yourself and your beliefs in order to do what’s best for your family.” [Tierno, 2002, p.11] It strikes me that this theme, with modification, applies to Scandal, “Sometimes you must sacrifice yourself in order to do what’s best for your country.” Does that give me the moral premise that I’ve been searching for or is it merely a “theme”? In an effort to apply Dr. William’s double-barrel formula, the problem I come up with is, in the case of Scandal – and many of today’s modern heroes is – vice does not lead to failure. In fact, vice saves many of our characters from failure. You’ll see what I mean when I discuss the season one finale.
A tragedy, then, is the imitation of an action that is serious, has magnitude, and is complete in itself. ~ Aristotle
Tierno quotes Alfred Hitchcock to explain Aristotle: if a bomb under a table suddenly explodes out of nowhere in a movie, it’s not a great movie. The audience needs to know beforehand that a bomb is under the table and is about to explode. But, we need to know how to make more than just one scene work, more than how to have just one bomb explode. Doesn’t Scandal have numerous bombs potentially exploding in any given episode - whether it’s the client of the week’s problem or a threat to the presidency? Notably, the main bomb is planted in the first episode when Olivia slaps the president’s face and his response is to kiss her. That’s explosive!
And while Aristotle concedes that viewers are going to allow your story to have a fair amount of “artifice” as long as it moves them, the action must “imitate” so effectively that the audience responds “imitatively” as well, as if to real events. As previously written, this is the art of suturing. It’s no accident that Scandal references real-life events that either threatened or caused the downfall of a president i.e. Nixon and Clinton. Anyone who lived through those eras feels it in their gut when the spectre of a presidential scandal or resignation is raised. And, these days, there are enough books on the subject of America’s demise in the marketplace to spook any God-fearing patriot. Even this bleeding-heart liberal was seduced into downloading onto her Kindle After America: Get Ready for Armageddon just to see what the fear mongering is all about.
The perfect Plot, accordingly, must have a single, and not a double issue. ~ Aristotle
Aristotle insists that in a unified dramatic story the subject is an action, not a person; you write a single unified action as a “through line,” which becomes the story’s subject. All the action, no matter how many characters are running around performing sub-actions, is related through either probable or necessary cause and effect. [Tierno, 2002, p. 26] The audience needs to derive the specifics of what’s causing, in our case, Olivia’s actions, through other characters. Hence, while we have a tight-lipped protagonist who keeps her emotional cards close to her chest, we come to understand who she is through her clients and her team. We come to understand what it’s like to have to keep your love secret; what it’s like to be someone’s mistress; what it’s like to be young and idealistic.
So that it is the action in it, i.e. its Fable or Plot, that is the end and purpose of the tragedy; and the end is everywhere the chief thing. ~Aristotle
Tierno translates this to mean that the ends are always in the means of the plot. I’m not sure if I reported it in my episode analysis, but within each client’s problem exists the clue to solving the case. In episode one, Captain Sully repeatedly says, “Page is my best friend.” In episode two, it is the Madam’s client list and her clients who, indeed, solve the case, and so on… Also, note that each of Olivia's clients face a moral dilemma in which they must choose their own needs over another's: Sully had to reconcile his happiness with the needs of those who had supported the image he'd perpetrated as the all-American hero; the Madam's right to see her grandchildren over her "johns'" families; the General's desire to keep his children with him over the natural fact that they belonged with their mother.
According to Aristotle, there are four distinct “species” of plots and it’s entirely possible for a drama to include all four. Since we’re discussing broadcast television, you’re not likely to see much spectacle, though certainly the scale of sets is growing, and sound – or at least music - plays a significant role in Scandal (something I meant to touch on earlier). Let’s see… Complex i.e. containing a reversal of fortune/discovery – check. Tragedy of suffering – check. Tragedy of character – check.
Aristotle also says that the best tragedies take place over a single day, as this makes the events more intense, giving the change in the hero’s fortune the greatest magnitude and the audience the biggest rush. Within each episode of Scandal, there is always a timeline, always a rush to beat the clock, always a reversal as one day you're "in" with the President, the next day "out."
The center of gravity in a dramatic story is simple: It’s called the tragic deed. [Tierno, 2002, p. 59]. The tragic deed is an action of a destructive or painful nature, such as murders, tortures, woundings, and the like.
In a deed of this description the parties must necessarily be either friend, enemies, or indifferent to one another. When enemy does it on enemy, there is nothing to move us to pity. Whenever the tragic, deed, however is done within the family, these are the situations the poet aka writer should seek after.
This barely needs explaining as allegiances shift and change with the backhanded politics in Scandal, let alone the murder and torture… and this is only season one!
When misfortune befalls a hero is both undeserved and caused by the hero, it arouses pity and fear in the audience. Among the list of twelve undeserved misfortunes that Aristotle outlines as subject matters that arouse pity and fear in audiences are:
1. Death – Amanda Tanner was both undeserving and the cause of her own death.
2. Bodily assault or ill treatment – Charlie was both undeserving and the cause of his own torture.
3. Having your good expectations disappointed – applies to Abbey, Harrison, Huck and Stephen… as well as Olivia.
4. Having good things happen but being unable to enjoy them…
Which brings me, finally, to Episode 7. Next blog post!