Sandra Gonzalez
April 05, 2013 AT 12:00 PM EDT

Scandal got off to a slow start in the spring of 2012, but by the end of its second season, its irresistible cast, shocking twists, and major social media buzz had turned it into a ratings gladiator. With the series coming to an end, we’re revisiting our 2013 cover story about Shonda Rhimes’ political megahit. 

Olivia Pope is about to throw a kidney dish at the President of the United States. Sitting in a hospital bed, she looks like a shell of herself, barefaced in a baggy white hospital gown. But even when she’s not wearing a sharply tailored suit, Washington, D.C.’s most notorious fixer has no problem summoning her power. Case in point: She just told the leader of the free world that she hates him. That his apologies are moot. That his feelings are meaningless. ”Get out,” fumes Kerry Washington, who plays Pope with razor-sharp precision. ”Do you want me to make a scene?” When it’s clear he has no intention of exiting, the kidney dish goes flying to the floor, along with everything else that was sitting on her overbed table. Chastened, POTUS gets the hell out. It’s just politics as usual in the crazy, conspiracy-filled world of Scandal. ”I feel like The West Wing brought us Washington as we’d all want it to be,” explains creator Shonda Rhimes. ”And this show brings us Washington as we hope it would never be.”

At the center of Scandal‘s heightened-reality universe is Olivia Pope, an Armani-clad rapid-fire talker who oversees an A team of crisis managers…while carrying on a passionate, taboo romance with the sitting president, Fitzgerald ”Fitz” Grant (Tony Goldwyn). Together, Pope and her associates, who call themselves ”gladiators,” can contain even the most out-of-control situations — like securing a decoy wife for an up-and-coming politician to avoid exposing his secret affair — except the ones in their own complicated lives. Almost all of the characters on the show are grappling with major dilemmas they can’t fix. And that, of course, is what makes ABC’s Scandal such a fun, live-tweet-every-oh-my-God-moment viewing experience. Every Thursday between 10 and 11 p.m., hordes of fans gather online to do just that: The show has averaged more than 220,000 tweets per episode since January, according to SocialGuide; some of these fans include Oprah Winfrey, Lena Dunham, and Mary J. Blige. ”Bill Clinton was another person where I was like, ‘What?! You watch Scandal?!”’ Washington says. ”I feel like it happens at least once a week — that I am totally floored by somebody who watches the show.”

It wasn’t always that way, though. After generating precious little buzz with its April 2012 premiere, the team behind Scandal refused to fade into TV obscurity, and instead waged a deftly fought campaign for the hearts and second screens of viewers.

In 2009, Shonda Rhimes already had two shows on television — the blockbuster Grey’s Anatomy and its workhorse spin-off, Private Practice. That same year, Rhimes and producing partner Betsy Beers met with Judy Smith, an established fixer who’d built a name for herself playing PR manager and image saver to high-profile clients, first in Washington, D.C., and then beyond. (Monica Lewinsky and Michael Vick are among her former clients.) ”I actually heard about Judy through my agent,” explains Beers, also an executive producer on Scandal and Grey’s. ”When I first started looking at her background and her history, it really popped…. She was somebody who had been so powerful and so influential and about whom I’d never heard.”

To Rhimes, a self-described political-news junkie, a powerful woman making order out of chaotic D.C. intrigue was simply a TV show waiting to happen. ”I think there’s something really compelling about a world in which the stakes are this high,” says Rhimes. Over the next year, she played with the concept (an early iteration cast Olivia as the president’s daughter), but eventually Rhimes decided to build Scandal around an intimidating fixer with a major weak spot: She’s in love with the married President of the United States. While Rhimes has written plenty of flawed heroines — in the Grey’s pilot, Meredith had a drunken one-night stand with her attending the night before starting her residency — Olivia posed a different kind of writing challenge. She ”lives in a darker place,” as Rhimes explains it. ”Olivia’s love for Fitz is her character flaw. Most of the time on shows, the reason why characters are not together is all internal. If [Olivia and Fitz] get together, they’re going to bring down his presidency. They have a real obstacle,” she continues. ”Olivia Pope is not wish-fulfillment storytelling.”

Speaking of giant hurdles, finding the right actress to play their heroine was especially daunting. Rhimes always knew that Olivia Pope would be African-American (as Judy Smith is) — which would make Scandal‘s star the first black female lead of a broadcast-network drama in almost 40 years. (The last was Teresa Graves, who starred on 1974–75’s Get Christie Love!) So Rhimes says she and her team saw ”every African-American actress between the ages of 32 and 42 who fit the part.” Recalls the exec producer, ”I really wanted to feel like everyone got a chance — you want everyone to try on the glass slipper and see if it fits.” When they saw Washington, Beers says the actress was an immediate standout: ”She just radiates warmth and self-confidence, which really felt like it screamed Olivia Pope.”

For Washington, who was coming off a run on Broadway in David Mamet’s Race, the possibility that landing the Scandal gig would be a cultural as well as a career milestone didn’t occur to her when she auditioned. ”Maybe one of the reasons I hadn’t thought about it is because I hadn’t seen it…. I didn’t have it in my frame of reference,” says the 36-year-old, who mostly appeared in films (The Last King of Scotland) before the ABC show. ”I hadn’t made a decision to do television, but I made a decision to do Scandal.”

Danny Feld/ABC

Rhimes, meanwhile, made the decision that Tony Goldwyn would be Fitz to Washington’s Olivia — before the actor even knew about the role. ”I just got a call saying that Shonda was doing this pilot and she’d like me to play the president,” Goldwyn says of the out-of-the-blue request. Best known for his role in 1990’s Ghost, Goldwyn, 52, had shifted his focus in the past decade to working behind the camera, and had previously directed episodes of both Grey’s and Private Practice. ”He has this calm-in-the-middle-of-the-storm [quality] that we’d watched when he directed,” remembers Beers. ”He’s authoritative, but he does have this kind of accessibility.” After reading the script and learning the rough plan for the future, Goldwyn signed up.

For the pilot, the show adapted the Oval Office set from Clint Eastwood’s 2011 film, J. Edgar. And it was there that Rhimes witnessed the Fitz-and-Olivia encounter that would launch TV’s sexiest and most dysfunctional couple: ”There’s the magic that happens when two people get together and you go, Oh, this is interesting.” The moment — when Olivia takes the president to task for lying about sleeping with a White House aide — was more than interesting, it was almost unnervingly sexy. Before shooting, Rhimes had only a loose blueprint of the pair’s relationship, but during the filming of that scene, it all came together. ”If you took just the pilot, that relationship could’ve been very adversarial,” says Rhimes. ”It could’ve always been them as enemies, but they were very hot together, and you wanted to see more of that.”

Scandal debuted last April to modest numbers, with just over 7 million viewers, putting it in the middle of the pack with the year’s other freshman series. (The since-canceled ABC submarine drama Last Resort, for example, launched to an audience of 9.3 million that September.) ABC gave Scandal only a seven-episode order, which isn’t a lot of time to build a substantial story arc or entice an audience large enough to merit a renewal. Still, Rhimes claims she didn’t let herself fret. ”[I thought], if we air seven episodes and never air again, then I’m going to be really proud of those seven episodes,” she says. ”If we air two episodes, I’m going to sell the rest of the episodes out of the back of my car.”

Though it never came to that, Scandal seemed destined to be an okay-but-not-great performer — the first half of season 2 earned 6.5 million viewers weekly (which went up to 8.9 million with DVR). But then ratings started climbing. By January, the show’s audience grew to 8.4 million viewers, with a significant bump to 10.9 million counting DVR. (Grey’s, by comparison, pulls in 11.4 million counting DVR weekly.) So how to explain the uptick? For one thing, hashtags. The tight-knit cast (who sometimes get together to watch advance screeners of episodes) engage in weekly live Twitter chats with ”gladiators,” a term fans have co-opted for themselves. ”We were hyped on a grassroots level,” says Goldwyn. ”So by mid–second season, it’s caught on like wildfire.” In December, at the time of President Grant’s attempted assassination, ABC launched a #WhoShotFitz campaign to help capitalize on Scandal‘s burgeoning social-media following, and the network also made season 2 episodes available on so viewers could catch up during the holidays. ”A lot of people became aware of the show in a different way at that point,” says Beers. ”I know from people that I’d spoken to that there was back-watching.”

And today, tweeting about the show is as important to fans as watching it. Scandal‘s March 28 episode, for example, notched 155,000 tweets, compared with 90,000 for the March 31 premiere of HBO’s Game of Thrones. ”People feel that they need to watch live,” says Rhimes with pride. ”What television show do you feel like you need to watch live anymore? So that’s exciting.”

Of course, the remainder of season 2 will have its share of must-see-live moments. In the April 25 episode, we’ll finally learn former CIA assassin Huck’s (Guillermo Diaz) backstory in a series of flashbacks. Elsewhere, the search for Albatross, a.k.a. the mole leaking government secrets to terrorists, heats up. ”By the end of the season, we will definitely reveal who the mole is,” promises Beers. Goldwyn, who is directing a May episode, adds that the triangle involving Liv, Fitz, and spy man Jake (Scott Foley) is ”going to get very messy” after their entanglements start to be revealed. Given how fast the action moves on Scandal — this season alone, the president has been nearly assassinated, had a baby with wife Mellie (Bellamy Young), and murdered a Supreme Court justice — we’re guessing there are at least 10 more holy crap moments in the offing. ”If people think we’re burning through story now,” jokes Rhimes, ”they’re going to be very shocked at what happens in the next few episodes.”

But it’s the May 16 finale that will truly shock fans. ”The wheels are coming off the bus,” teases Beers, who says that Fitz will make a decision that will ”alter the course of what’s coming…. Shonda is really good at teeing up what the next big issue is going to be that carries us into next season.” Rhimes adds, ”It’s going to be a very long summer.”

Scandal fans are no strangers to long summers. The first season ended just as the audience was about to find out the identity of the newest recruit to Pope & Associates, Quinn Perkins (Katie Lowes). The cliff-hanger was a necessity, as the writers hadn’t actually come up with the answer until they went back to work on season 2. And most likely, things will be similarly unfinished after the season 2 finale. ”When we leave this season,” warns Rhimes, ”I have no idea what we’re going to do next season.”

What she does know about season 3 (which ABC hasn’t officially picked up, but we’re not too worried) is that the full history of Olivia’s right-hand man, Harrison (Columbus Short), will come to light, and the window into steely Abby’s (Darby Stanchfield) former life will open a little wider. Everything else — including whether Scott Foley, currently signed on through the end of the season, will stick around — is up in the air.

Unlike the show’s rabid fans, Washington is fine not knowing what comes next. When asked if she can see herself playing Olivia for many more years, she knocks on wood. ”We’ll see, we’ll see. I feel very grateful to be entrusted with this responsibility,” says the actress, who will appear in the Tyler Perry-produced romantic comedy Peeples in May. ”The highs are really high and the lows are really low for your character. You trust the ride.”

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