Recently, I finally got around to watching the highly anticipated crossover episode between Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder. While I absolutely love all of Shonda Rhimes’ work, I've found myself slowly losing interest in the plots of both shows. However, this one episode has returned my interest in full force and invoked in me, once again, a sea of emotions which brought me to tears several times throughout the 43-minute duration of the episode.
Rhimes offers a chapter replete with black feminist teachings, highlighting the necessity of black sisterhood, the often overlooked divine power of black motherhood and the irresistibility of black love. She analyzes the role of white women in both their opposition to and allyship with black women, she provides commentary on the degrading actions of white men, she teaches viewers about intersectionality and she analyzes the ways in which black women persevere, despite numerous forces constantly acting against us. Rhimes uses all of this to address the prison industrial complex and the disgusting nature of mass incarceration. It is for these reasons that I view this episode as a black feminist manifesto.
The episode beautifully follows the developing relationship between Olivia Pope and Annalise Keating, two black women who fans know are powerful and formidable, but who also are far from perfect; two women who are presented as strong, yet lonely and oftentimes misunderstood; two women who have dedicated their lives to helping others out of their mess while consistently failing to avoid their own personal, all-consuming issues. However, in the crossover episode, we witness the critical importance of black sisterhood. We see Olivia and Annalise represent a loving relationship between two black women who support one another, call each other out on their faults and pull each other up when the rest of the world beats them down. They are both aware of the magic the other holds and they trust that by working together they’ll be able to do more than they could do apart. I was reminded of Alice Walker’s definition of a “womanist,” where she states how it describes a woman who might be viewed as “outrageous, audacious, courageous” and is, “a woman who loves other women [... who is] committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female.”
This commentary on black women’s loving relationships and their commitment to their community does not end here, rather it continues with a stunning tribute to black motherhood and the ways in which black mothers love their own and all those who need them. Through Annalise's mother, Ophelia, we are gifted with an appreciation of black motherhood and poignant commentary on the potentially destructive nature of the “Strong Black Woman” motif. Ophelia, after spilling food on Olivia’s white coat, speaks to the need black women feel to constantly take care of others before taking care of themselves. She makes a beautiful comparison to the way in which she is also an inspiration and caretaker, even though she isn’t as famous as Olivia and Annalise. Through this, Rhimes gives honor to “ordinary” black women, making the statement that there is no such thing.
The poignant commentary on black relationships — which also includes the introduction of Nate’s father to Annalise’s parents, that could be viewed as a symbol of reintroduction to freedom and a statement that we have not forgotten about the humanity of the victims of mass incarceration — is constantly juxtaposed with the role of white characters. A white male judge who is intent on disrespecting Annalise, constantly cutting her off by telling her not to interrupt him; a white woman who symbolizes manipulation, trickery and the fact that black women are strategically placed on an uneven playing field; another white woman who, despite knowing the importance of Annalise’s case, calls to chastise her moments before she is supposed to enter court; and a white woman who, more sensitively, approaches delivering worrisome news to Annalise at the end of the episode, probably to remind us that not all white people are bad.
Finally, the episode makes direct commentary about the importance of intersectionality and of considering the various different oppressive forces at play operating against marginalized groups. In a scene where the same white male judge mentioned earlier tries to force Annalise to choose between making an argument about race or class, we are reminded of similar circumstances of black women historically being forced to choose either between their race or their gender when arguing cases in court. While I could continue to go on and on about how brilliantly Rhimes places layers of symbolism, implicit and explicit commentary on race, gender, class and more, I will conclude by simply saying that this episode is a necessary watch. Whether you’ve always been a fan of Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder, whether you’ve started to lose interest in their plots or whether you’ve never watched an episode of either, this one stands out on its own and we all have something to learn from it.