In Olivia Pope, 'Grey's Anatomy' creator Shonda Rhimes has created her most vibrant and complicated character yet - the tour-de-force towering figure at the heart of 'Scandal', a woman seemingly indestructible when it comes to solving other people's problems, but one with a tantalising Achilles heel that has slowly begun to emerge over the show's three hit series.
Olivia Pope - a rutheless professional, with a hidden soft side that we're only just learning about
Who is Olivia Pope? Well, for US fans, she is semi-based on George Bush's former communications aide turned crisis management expert Judy Smith. For UK readers (for that, read 'West Wing' fans), this will mean less than perhaps imagining an even better-dressed, and just as articulate CJ Cregg - this time with the heady mixture of the stunning looks of actress Kerry Washington, a killer wardrobe on which whole boutique ranges have been based, and a sense of enigma that has left fans of the show - calling themselves Gladiators after Olivia's own colleauges - gasping and tweeting frantically after every episode.
So, what does Olivia Pope do, and how does she manage it?
Olivia has become the go-to fixer for the nation's elite, a scarily high-functioning manager of a crisis, whether it's a young soldier with a secret, or a politician with... well, yes, another secret, people she never judges, but operates with skill to protect.
Olivia's colleagues are happy to work just as hard as she does
She manages all this, firstly, with her startlingly plump Rolodex, with anyone from baseball stars to CEOs on speed dial. Everyone in Washington DC, it seems, owes Olivia Pope a favour of one sort or another. She even has a hold on the local DA, whereby he's willing to work with her somewhere along blurry ethical lines, as long as she's willing to remain wearing the metaphorical white hat. And as the President's former aide (and on-off mistress), she enjoys peerless access to the White House, when she's not busy working TIRELESSLY for her clients. It's not uncommon to find her making phone calls and startling appearances in the small hours, something she expects equally of her team.
Ah yes, her team, surely her biggest asset. For Olivia has surrounded herself with a troupe of colleagues, as able, savvy and cynical as herself, Early on in the show, it turns out that new recruit Quinn Perkins (Katie Lowes) is actually someone her boss has saved, and will save again, from a murder charge. But this murky past turns out to be true for all of Olivia's team - there are hardened drug addictions, violent marriages in there - and these debts they are all willing to repay, ruthlessly and without boundary. If there are bullets to be caught, this lot are ready.
Everyone has a weakness... even Olivia Pope
So, with all this to enjoy, what keeps Olivia Pope awake at night, generally sinking a large glass of red to still her wandering mind? Well, we know her care for other people is paramount, what actress Kerry Washington emphasises as her maternal side, inviting clients even to stay with her when trouble hits, the message always being, "I WILL take care of you, this WILL be sorted" but Olivia seems unable to give herself the same promise. Her Achilles heel remains, in a word: relationships.
What gives this show its real edge is the difference between Olivia's cool exterior and the heat we know is inside, particularly when it comes to her secret love, the married President Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn), a man who doesn't function very well when she's not around, but who, when push came to shove, chose power over her. Alongside him in the Oval Office is his chief of staff, Cyrus Beene (Jeff Perry), a man who greatly admires Olivia, mentored her previously, but will stop at nothing to preserve his boss's tenure in the White House. Does this make Cyrus Olivia's friend or foe? Keep watching.
Another evening at home, another big glass of red
Meanwhile, always hovering behind the President is the First Lady, Mellie Grant (brilliantly played by Bellamy Young), a woman capable of making great leaps over moral dilemmas when it comes to keeping her marriage and status intact. Does this make her Olivia's friend or foe? Again...
Without giving too much away for first-time viewers, what becomes clear throughout these first three series is how little of Olivia's past we actually know - apart from the fact she swims, a fact borrowed from actress Kerry Washington's own history, and in a white swimsuit, obviously, like all her other clothes.
What on earth happened to her family, her friends that made her like she is? All we know initially is that she is a woman who lost her mother when she was a little girl, which explains why her team are family, friends, everything, to her. And as more titbits are drip-fed to us over the course of the three series - after all, she had to get those qualities from SOMEWHERE - we realise the price Olivia has had to pay to become the tough cookie she is, admired by the city's power-players, but understood by none of them.
Never mind the glamour, the swift pace of the plots, the banter or the uncertainty of who's good, who's bad, what really keeps us watching 'Scandal' is admiring the security Olivia Pope has built for herself with her skill, her glamour, her die-hard team, while knowing the constant risk of it all crumbling away, leaving just a string of perfect white pantsuits left on their hangers.
Scandal Series 4 airs on SkyLiving. Series 1 to 3 are available in DVD boxsets.