Drinking with Scandal’s Olivia Pope

Scandal's Olivia Pope drinks expensive red wine. Lots of it. Jennifer Cacicio explores wine's role as a symbol of power, knowledge and family and why it's become a key part of Kerry Washington's character on the hit ABC show.

Writers have long been associated with drinking—Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Bukowski, Kerouac, Faulkner, Carver, Parker, Poe—but in addition to the decision a writer makes of what to drink while writing, there’s the subsequent question of what to have his or her characters drink. Hemingway’s protagonists have sipped everything from absinthe to vermouth; in Carver’s incredibly depressing (but so good) short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” the two couples drink so much gin they forget to go to dinner.

Since shows like The Sopranos, The Wire and Breaking Bad have led us into the so-called “Golden Age” of television, writers rooms all over LA have learned to answer the same question for the screen, and most have gotten it exactly right: Don Draper orders Old Fashioneds; Carrie Bradshaw sips Cosmos; Liz Lemon drinks Funky Juice, a blend of white wine, ice cubes, and Sprite. Consider the style, tone and era of each character and show, and it just plain works. And now, I’d argue, there’s a new character worthy of induction into the perfect-drink-counterpart Hall of Fame: Olivia Pope of ABC’s Scandal and her deep and complicated love of expensive red wine.

Let me be clear: Olivia Pope doesn’t just drink red wine. She chugs it. She turns to it for solace and comfort in moments of extreme sadness and high drama. Does she drink a glass of red while tearfully watching footage of her mother’s (supposed) plane crash on television? Yes. Does she sip an unnamed bottle of “the good stuff” at 9 a.m. because she’s waiting for the police to show up and arrest her for rigging a Presidential election? Of course.

For those of you who think you’re above television this good, Olivia Pope is a Washington fixer of epic proportion. She’s a strong, brilliant, intelligent, gorgeous gladiator in a suit who talks insanely fast, wears a lot of white, tames the scandals of our capital and carries the weight of the White House on her shoulders. And did I mention she’s in love with the President?

Red wine has been a charged symbol since Jesus gave all those folks in Galilee a mega upgrade on water. Biblically speaking, it’s a symbol of Christ’s blood. And blood is life, of course, which is why many churchgoers still drink from the sacred cup every Sunday. In a way, Olivia Pope is actually a bit of a Christ figure.

At first glance, Olivia’s red wine habit could be taken as little more than a fun character detail, and you get the sense that the writers thought so too. The first time she drinks wine is in the fourth episode of Season One, when a coworker shows up at her apartment at 3 a.m. with a bottle laughably labeled California Oak. “You called and I came,” he tells her, “and I brought our best friend Shiraz.” In Season Two, Olivia becomes choosier with her wines, on one occasion recognizing a three-hundred-dollar bottle of wine after taking only a sip. But it’s not until Season Three that it all comes together: the second episode reveals both the source of Olivia’s oenophilia and establishes red wine as a tried and true symbol of Scandal, one that represents power, knowledge and perhaps above all, family.

Titled “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” the episode oscillates between past and present to tell the story of Olivia’s relationship with her father. In a flashback, Eli/Rowan Pope cooks dinner for his daughter and is delighted when she’s impressed by the first bite. “Try it with the wine,” he says, and fills her glass from a decanter. “I don’t really like wine,” she tells him. “I don’t have the taste for it.” (This comes as a surprising fact, of course, because by this point we’ve been watching her not spill red on her white suits for two seasons; but this is the past, remember, a fact that Scandal always makes clear by giving Kerry Washington amazing bangs.) “Because you’ve never really had fine wine,” he argues. “Try it. Go on.” And she does. She sips, she swallows, she smiles. “This is amazing,” she admits. He writes down the name of the wine shop for her, gives her the slip of paper and pen. “Happy to expand your palate,” he says.

And expand her palate he does. With fine wine, yes, but also with the knowledge that B613—the super-secret spy organization that does very bad things—exists. And not only that, but her father, whom she believed to be a curator at The Smithsonian, is actually the head of it, and therefore the most terrifying man in all of Washington. Of course Olivia puts this all together because the pen he gives her at dinner bears the name Acme Ltd., the fake company that works as a cover for B613. Yes, everyone, this is what you call good television, and the reason Emily Nussbaum so rightly called the series “a giddy, paranoid fever dream, like ‘24’ crossed with ‘The West Wing,’ lit up in neon pink.”

This episode unravels everything Olivia has ever believed about her father, which is devastating for her, but it also establishes how very much alike they are: two cunning, powerful people who run Washington by day and drink amazing wines to unwind by night. Soon enough, Olivia is the one bringing the wine to her father’s Sunday dinners and telling Edison Davis, her fiancé at the time, to open it because “it needs to breathe.” This proves Olivia to be a quick study, but it also proves that Shonda Rhimes, the show’s creator, and the rest of the writers, are really putting some symbolic weight into the wine on Scandal. Suddenly, all those late night phone calls between Olivia and Fitz (aka President Fitzgerald Grant) where she sips red in her chic pajamas and he swirls scotch in the Oval Office take on new meaning.

Red wine has been a charged symbol since Jesus gave all those folks in Galilee a mega upgrade on water. Biblically speaking, it’s a symbol of Christ’s blood. And blood is life, of course, which is why many churchgoers still drink from the sacred cup every Sunday. In a way, Olivia Pope is actually a bit of a Christ figure. She sacrifices her own wants and needs for the greater good of the country, believing that if she broke up the President’s marriage once and for all, only the American people would suffer. (Oh, Scandal.) In addition, the notion of blood also links red wine to family. Think of the ever-present wine on the dinner tables of The Godfather or The Sopranos, the way the guys in Goodfellas cradle the bottles of red they smuggle into prison for dinner. In films and TV shows such as these, red wine is a symbol of family and togetherness, of standing up for your blood, even if that means someone else’s blood must be shed in the process.

Scandal is about a Washington fixer who can’t seem to fix herself, but at its heart, it’s about a woman searching for a family. Her biological one is a disaster: her father is a monster who can’t be trusted, and her mother, who recently resurfaced this season after years of being supposedly dead, is an international terrorist. A few weeks ago Scandal put the three of them together for the first time, in a white tablecloth restaurant where they all held tight to their steak knives, waiting to see who would make the first move. Maya Pope, Olivia’s mother, casually took a sip from Olivia’s glass of red: “In my 22 years in prison, you know what I missed most of all? Really good wine. We always did have that in common.” Not exactly the Corleone family, but not that far from it either.

Scandal likely has at least a season to go, so only time will tell what will become of Olivia, whether she will someday leave all this craziness behind to “stand in the sun” or if she will be swallowed whole. My guess is the former, and though it might take a few more plot twists and turns, Fitz will probably be right there with her. In Season Two, Olivia sits on her couch with Cyrus Beene, the President’s Chief of Staff, drinking a bottle of “Bordeaux that’ll bring tears to your eyes.” They’re talking life and love, and at one point he asks her what the holdup is with Edison, her love interest at the time. Cyrus studies her for a moment, then comes up with the answer himself: “All roads lead to Fitz.” Olivia sips her glass of red, then sets it down and repeats the line: “All roads lead to Fitz.”