Hollywood will always be Hollywood. There will always be ridiculous chase scenes, impossible rescues and implausible conspiracies, each accompanied by the proverbial warning, “Don’t try this at home.” But sometimes, when art seems to imitate life and aspects of the fantasy world on the page or screen seem to mirror our reality, we end up asking ourselves, “Is it possible? Is that really true?”
The highly successful political drama series, Scandal, was a perfect case in point. The main character, Olivia Pope, a Washington crisis manager (a.k.a. “fixer”), was based on the real-world crisis manager and former Bush administration press aide, Judy Smith. Smith & Company has managed very real crises for clients such as Monica Lewinsky, Wesley Snipes, Michael Vick and Sony Pictures Entertainment as well as provided strategic communication consolation to various Fortune 500 companies. Olivia Pope & Associates managed the reputations of the Washington wealthy and powerful by whatever means necessary, escalating from manipulating media coverage to crime scene clean up and beyond, all while Olivia deftly (and sometimes not so deftly) managed an affair with POTUS.
But there’s more . . . because . . . Hollywood.
Just under a quarter of the way through Season 2 (of 7 seasons), in episode 13, we encountered the cryptic moniker B613. And just like that, the world of fixing was forever altered. Just like that, Scandal’s faithful audience wondered incredulously, “Does B613 really exist?” And despite its secrecy and lies, ruthless totalitarianism, brutal tactics and fearsome power, we (ahem . . . . I mean, they, of course) almost want it to.
From The Count of Monte Cristo to Charles Bronson movies, to Dexter, The Sopranos and Scandal, the theme of vigilante justice meted out by an ethical-but-not-too-ethical hero persists in the stories we tell. It persists because somewhere, hidden deep in the shadowy crevices of most minds, there is a desire for a protector who is smart enough, and powerful enough, and tough enough, to dispense real justice when the system breaks down.
We like the juxtaposition of tough (really tough) and tender. We feel for Tony Soprano when he struggles with the human condition as he sits across from his therapist, all the while knowing that in a previous episode we saw him carrying a severed head in a bowling ball bag after some serious “wet work.” Likewise, we (mostly) root for Olivia in love and war, even though we are well aware of her unscrupulous, illegal and immoral actions. We feel tenderness when those lips start to quiver.
Several psychological principles seem at play here.
Humans seem to be hard-wired, if you will, to evaluate for aspects of fairness. Fair treatment elicits positive emotions, while conversely, unfair treatment elicits negative emotions. The definition of fairness, of course, it mitigated by individual experience and cultural norms, but regardless of that definition, when principles of fairness are violated, humans tend to seek punishment and/or retribution. Of course, given the circumstances, exacting such justice in the face of injustice is not always possible, practical or beneficial. Yet the desire is there. And because this causes cognitive dissonance, individuals may seek other, less direct measures of righting the wrong — e.g., retribution by proxy. Enter the Dexters, the Tony Sopranos and the B613’s of the world, real or fictional.
A close cousin of our need for fairness is the concept of revenge. Revenge is most often, or most purely, sought in the pursuit of fairness, or rather righting unfairness. However, that definition of fairness as a justification, can be twisted, and revenge can be pursued for less noble causes that fairness — e.g., pure spite or jealousy — think the Nancy Kerrigan/Tonya Harding drama. Again, much of what we might fantasize as appropriate revenge may well be immoral and/or illegal. Thus, we count on others — whether the sanctioned processes of our legal system, or some such entity that rises above the constrains of that system — to do our so-called “dirty work.”
And then, the question becomes, “At what price, revenge?” What do we really gain in the quest to seek justice and retaliation? What do we lose? How much power do we relinquish to any entity to whom we give the task of executing our personal justice? How vulnerable do we become to them?