Welcome to Role Call, where we call up TV’s leading ladies to talk about their most vital, memorable, and feminist episodes.
When you talk to Scandal star Bellamy Young, a theme starts to emerge when it comes to her indomitable Shondaland character, the great Mellie Grant. That theme is the Terminator. Yes, like the hulking cyborg from the future who will not stop when it comes to fulfilling his murderous goals. Although Mellie, who clawed her way into the Oval Office come Hell or high water, is more preferential to jewel tones and pearls than black leather and machine guns, there is a certain resemblance. After all, Mellie entered Scandal as the First Lady we were all expected to hate for standing in the way of Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) and Fitzgerald Grant’s (Tony Goldwyn) love story.
Yet, during Thursday night’s series finale, “Over A Cliff,” it was hard not to cheer as President Mellie Grant was assured, by none other than former romantic rival Liv, she is “going to be great” at leading the free world solo. Although Olivia Pope might be the GOAT, Mellie still left television with one of Scandal’s most necessary, feminist arcs.
That’s why, when Young told Refinery29 over the phone, “Getting to play Mellie has changed me at a molecular level. Watching her achieve her dreams. Watching her never give up on herself. Watching her fall flat on her face and stand up like the Terminator and walk straight toward the fight again, I marvel,” the response is, “Which fan doesn't?”
Although the gladiators at home now marvel at the tenacity and Southern-fried shade of Mellie, it wasn’t always that way. And, even Young herself understands why. “It’s so fun the way the pilot started, it was like you were in a little pinhole and you could just see these people [Olivia and Fitz] and their chemistry. You’re like, ‘Oh God, this is so hot,’” the actress recalled. “You were already so invested in their love, and you just wanted to see more of them and the sexy sexiness, that Mellie was a problem. Mellie was in [the] way.”
Mellie was so in the way, Young confirmed, Scandal was originally going to get rid of the high-haired First Lady after a mere three episodes. After that, there would be a presidential divorce, and then bye-bye Mellie forever. But then the Shondaland powers-that-be decided to make wildly ambitious, intelligent Mellie a series regular role in season 2.
“At a certain, thank heavens, early enough point, they realized that’s a story to tell, too,” Young explained of her jilted character. “That resonates with people. There are a lot of people out there for whom love has become unrequited, and for whom they said, ‘First you, then me.’ Then ‘Me’ never happened … [Scandal] just started tucking in to the beast that was Mellie, luckily I just got to be there and show us her truth.”
To watch her start again and really go forward with a Terminator death stare right to her future was empowering.
The more we saw of Mellie’s inner life, the more it was impossible not to root for her. Fitz’s entire season 2 opening “You’re ornamental, not functional” meltdown at a very, very pregnant Mellie, whose hands were on her stomach through the entire screaming fest, reminded us maybe, just maybe, the First Lady was worthy of your compassion. The next season’s reveal that Fitz’s monster of a father, “Big” Jerry Grant (Barry Bostwick) raped Mellie proved she deserved your empathy. And, by season 5, divorced from Fitz and done publicly mourning the “death” — aka B613-sanctioned murder — of her son Jerry Grant Jr. (13 Reasons Why’s Dylan Minnette) we all cheered for Mellie as she gave a barn burner of a Scandal filibuster to defend Planned Parenthood.
“She finally got that divorce and got over grieving her son, and started really, really reinvesting in her own path. That was beautiful to watch because all her dreams had been deferred for so long,” Young said. “To watch her start again and really go forward with a Terminator death stare right to her future was empowering. She got to say so many things that I was so happy to get to bring to light.”
As Young’s co-star Katie Lowes pointed out earlier this week to Refinery29, Scandal had a habit of dropping real, honest talk between the O-M-G shockers. That “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” speech was definitely one of those moments, as Young explained, “Everything that Mellie said, all of those line items, were real. It’s important people know what kind of crazy things are in the budget.”
Yet, the season 5 tour de force isn’t solely important for real-world politics. It also marks the point where the political futures of Mellie and Olivia, women who were at odds for years, actually begin to dovetail. It is important to remember as Mellie fights to protect women’s health rights with her filibuster, Olivia goes to secretly get an abortion after leaving Fitz.
Later that season, recognizing the other’s dazzling strengths, Mellie and Liv pair up for the presidential election as candidate and campaign manager, respectively. This is the partnership that gets Mellie into the White House. This is the partnership that gives the Scandal world its official first woman president, complete with a portrait of suffragist Victoria C. Woodhull, the first woman to run for president, hanging on the wall of the Oval Office. Even the words around the presidential seal rug read, “I believe that the influence of woman will save the country before every other power.”
“I hope our show in some small way helped normalize that for folks … [Mellie] did her job, and she did it really, really well. With a wonderful, formidable woman beside her doing her job, arguably even better,” Young said of the unstoppable Melivia. “We talk about feminism, it’s simply equality … So to be able to live in a narrative where the women were seen as just as powerful as the men in a very natural way is the truth of the world for me.”
The only downside here? Young didn’t get to take that Woodhull portrait home. “I asked for that! I wanted to take that home. I don’t know who got that.” Well, whoever they are, they probably didn’t get the TV presidency.