As anyone who has watched just five minutes of the crazy-popular ABC drama Scandal can tell you, the series is brimming with whiplash story developments and surprising moments that shake loyal fans to their core. Even knowing that, though, it’s unlikely that Scandal viewers were prepared for this season’s most shocking twist of all: that they were going to fall in love with Mellie.
Every Scandal fan has their own moment when they stopped loving to hate first lady Mellie Grant—who would result if Lady Macbeth hailed from Stepford and drank cocktails with Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf —and started to simply love her.
Some of it had to do with fatigue over the callously brazen affair between the show’s protagonists, Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) and President Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn). Much of it came as heartbreaking details about the ambitious—if embattled—character’s past came to surface and helped explain away the malicious wrath that seemed to be her guiding light. But, more than anything, the shift came as we all had the realization that the actress bringing Mellie to life, Bellamy Young, is just damned good at her job.
Brimming with all of Mellie’s elegant grace, but with humble warmth replacing her character’s occasionally vicious grit, Young’s been witnessing the shift in attitude toward her scene-stealing creation. “We’re not all good and we’re not all bad as people,” Young says. “We have good moments and bad moments. I’m so lucky that the writers didn’t just leave Mellie to play her darkest, ugliest moments. They’ve allowed her in to the sun for a little while. And they’ve allowed her a little joy.”
Don’t be fooled, though. It’s been a slow transition. This is a woman who’s done so much blackmailing, dastardly plotting, and betraying that even though her husband has been cheating on her before their eyes, fans still rooted against her. But Young has chewed into each storyline with not just her teeth bared, but also her soul. The result is that, especially once we started learning empathetic things about her past, Mellie’s actions started to not only become easier to relate to, but also root for.
We’ve watched her husband lie to her, the media vilify her after she was caught on camera bad-talking a congresswoman, swallow her pride to work with the woman having an affair with her husband, and we’ve learned that back when she and Fitz were young newlyweds, Fitz’s father raped her and possibly fathered her child.
But we’ve also seen her light shine through. “The writers have given her little pockets of love and light, not just the black, black dark,” Young says. We’ve watched her become empowered, and stand up for herself. For a brief stretch, she was the one carrying on an affair. (With her husband’s re-election running mate, naturally. This is Scandal.) And in the strange universe that Scandal creates, we were totally on board with it.
“It’s so interesting to see Mellie in different situations and figure out how she would live through different things… to see her be loved,” Young says. “Like how in the world would she respond to being loved?” But she’s quick to add, “Also, it worried me because I have dined out on and built the whole character on Mellie’s soul-crushing devotion to Fitz. But that’s great too because it makes her human.” She laughs. “She’s a hypocrite like everybody else.”
Not that Young judges her character. Quite the contrary. She is quick—and eloquent—to defend Mellie against her critics, which probably helps to explain how she’s turned what could be a one-note villain into one of Scandal’s most fully realized humans.
Why is Mellie, or anyone, for that matter, merely satisfied with small acts of vengeance against her cheating husband? Why does she stand by her man when her man parades his philandering in front of her face, bluntly telling her that he doesn’t love her?
“You know how you just act the ugliest with the people you love the most?” Young says. “For some weird reason, they get all of you. You don’t just serve the good bits for the people who deserve the good bits. You give them everything. Mellie’s acting abhorrently because she’s at that place of no return where she loves him so much and perceives herself to be so rejected by him that all bets are off.”
Most of us just see the scorching, tortured feelings that Olivia and Fitz have for each other on Scandal, where the love is fierce when there’s love and the hatred even fiercer when there’s hate. But Mellie feels that, too. “All’s fair in love and war, and she was pulling no punches,” Young says. “But it was always out of the pain, always out of the love. It was never a cold sort of unemotional villain. She’d be screaming something horrible to him, but underneath it’s like, 'Why don’t you love me anymore?’”
Then there’s the controversial rape scene. One camp saw it as necessary to understand why Mellie acts a certain way. But just as many thought of it as a cheap plot device used to, perhaps misogynistically, “humanize” Scandal’s female villain. They rejected the idea that a character’s rape be used to make her more empathetic or likable.
On a series that has depicted waterboarding, self-mutilation, dismembering, and one character chewing through her own wrists, it says a lot that the rape scene was one of the most unflinching and difficult-to-watch sequences Scandal has aired to date. And Young, once again with admirable eloquence, stands by it.
“To represent that particular kind of horror for a number of voiceless women was important for me, and how it played out in the story was important to me,” she says. “You know, if you look at her life as a pie chart, part of that pie chart is really frozen in time. Something traumatic causes a person to truncate himself or herself in that way. So, really, almost with a difficult truth it made my job easier, because it explains how she’s walking through her present.”
Give credit to Scandal’s writers and give credit to Young’s complex performance and nuanced characterization, though, because, with Scandal’s season finale set to air Thursday night, it's incredibly difficult to describe just how Mellie is “walking through her present.” The most basic question of all is the toughest one to answer: Is Mellie happy?
“I think the real question is, what would make Mellie happy?” Young counters. “Because she hasn’t even answered that question, and I think she wakes up every day trying to define the question in terms of the circumstances she has at hand.” But if she was actually forced to contemplate her happiness on a deeper level? “I don’t think she would allow herself to do that because it would be a tsunami of unaddressed guilt and grief and sorrow and rage, and she just doesn’t have the luxury, in such a crucible in the White House, the world is watching, and Mellie very much feels the burden of propriety.”
Someone who seems to definitively be able to answer the question of personal happiness, however, is irrefutably Bellamy Young, who erupts with choruses about how she’s the “luckiest girl in the world” easily a half-dozen times during our discussion about Scandal.
A journeyman actor with over 60 credits, but all mostly supporting roles, the most high-profile of which were in Mission: Impossible III and the short-lived series Dirty Sexy Money, Young was originally supposed to be on board for just three episodes of Scandal’s first season. Young counts her blessings that the series took a more character-driven than procedural direction in its second season, during which she became a series regular. “I think they found that Mellie was a lever, you know?” Young guesses. “As an engine of mischief and mayhem and much suffering.” In other words, she was great TV.
“It’s like winning the lottery,” Young says. “I’m 44 and a woman in Hollywood, so a job this great is exponentially more unlikely because of my gender and my age.” More specifically, though, it’s the Shonda Rhimes Lottery she’s won, as the Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy, and Private Practice creator has made a name for herself assembling TV’s most diverse casts--be it race, sexual orientation, or age.
“It’s about souls, not bodies,” Young says. “I’m a longtime Shonda Rhimes fan, and that’s what makes her work really resonate with people. Because people see themselves in it. She hires souls and then she lets those souls be as messy as we are, you know? You get to be ugly, and life is often ugly.”
The reverse, though, describes the brilliance of Bellamy Young, who took a character who used to be so ugly and, to our collective surprise, turned her into someone complicated. Even beautiful.