thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

ABC’s “Scandal” and the Limits of Empathy

In Scandal, Television, violence on May 7, 2013 at 5:04 am

Sarah T.

Stories teach us empathy. When we get absorbed in the tale of a teenage vampire slayer or rival street gangs on the Upper West Side, we’re forced to step outside our comfort zones and consider the world from other people’s perspectives. I am absolutely down with that narrative project. I want to understand the different struggles we face, including the ones with our own demons. But lately I’ve found myself impatient with stories that ask audiences to channel their empathy toward violent men–to the exclusion of everyone else.

The character that’s tipped me over the edge is Huck on Scandal, the addictive-as-caramel-popcorn television drama by Grey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes. The show follows Washington DC power players and the band of brilliant outcasts, headed by Olivia Pope, who fix their problems.

Huck is probably the most fully-realized character in Pope’s hodgepodge troupe: a former soldier turned CIA assassin turned homeless man turned professional fixer. With his soft, stumbling voice, teddy-bear looks, and gentle manner, he’s one of Scandal‘s most easily sympathetic cast members. We understand the loneliness that drives him to set up camp outside a strange family’s house each day and watch them go through the ordinary motions of their lives, pizza dinners and game nights and walking the golden retriever. We cringe for him when he reveals that his old CIA nickname was “Spin,” short for spinster, “because they said I’d never find someone.”

The show loves to contrast Huck’s lost-soul mooniness with his brutal talents. In one excruciating scene last season, Pope asks him to torture a former CIA colleague for information. Huck agrees to give up his “sobriety” (the show frequently uses the language of addiction to discuss torture) for the greater good. Soon he’s leaning over an assassin named Charlie—someone who’s a lot like him, only meaner. Huck tells Charlie that he’s going to relish the high of making him suffer. “We both know what a junkie I can be,” he says.

Huck is our only point of identification in this scene. We don’t know Charlie very well at this point in the series, and what we do know, we don’t like. We’re not meant to care about his pain. The real source of dramatic tension is how Huck will be impacted by the torture. Now that he’s fallen off the wagon for Pope, will he be able to stop himself from spiraling into a new cycle of violence?

I don’t object to a storyline that examines how violence changes the people who perpetrate it, or to narratives that persuade viewers to empathize with people who do horrible things. What bothers me about Scandal’s portrait of Huck is that the show is so bound up in character loyalty that torture only matters insofar as it impacts him. When Huck is water-boarded and, later, beaten and trapped in a trunk, we’re supposed to be horrified on his behalf. We understand the lasting trauma of torture as Huck slips under the tides of post-traumatic stress. But when Huck is on the other side of the power drill, he remains the sole figure of empathy. The people he tortures are as disposable and interchangeable in the show’s eyes as they are in his.

This point was driven home by a recent episode, “Seven Fifty Two,” which fleshes out more of Huck’s back story. We find out that Huck was conscripted into the CIA torture squad, but soon found himself enjoying his work. “There’s no feeling like it in the world,” his co-worker says after Huck’s first kill, “it’s like being a god.” “It was freakin’ amazing,” Huck agrees with a grin. A montage set to jaunty funk music showcases Huck’s salad torture days: blood splattered on the walls, muffled screams, and then deathly-still hands from which Huck removes watches as keepsakes. We catch glimpses of the sadistic speeches Huck makes to his victims. “Are you a screamer?” he asks one man. “Let’s find out.”

On the day his girlfriend tells him she’s pregnant, he goes to work on a man who’s bound and gagged, begging for mercy. Huck’s practically whistling. “I’m in a good mood,” he says, before taunting him about his manicure and going to snip off his toes.

But none of this is supposed to turn us against Huck. Indeed, “Seven Fifty Two” is unabashedly sentimental about his story. When he becomes a father, he can’t bring himself to torture people like he used to. He breaks down, and we’re supposed to feel sorry for him—but never for the man who’s shaking his head, pleading with Huck to put down his weapons and leave him alone. Later, Huck gets thrown into solitary confinement, left at the bottom of a dark hole until he agrees to forget his wife and child. At the end of the episode, we find out that he’s only seen them once since then: at a subway station, at precisely 7:52 am—the number Huck can’t stop mumbling as his PTSD sets in.

The episode set off waves of Huck-sympathy across the internet. Danielle Henderson of Vulture—a terrific recapper, I should add—declared it “a sucker punch right to the cry bones.” But the near-sighted morality of Scandal leaves me cold. The show takes torture—one of the most important human rights issues in the post-9/11 U.S.—and reduces it to Huck’s personal tragedy.

In the show’s worldview, violence and suffering only have meaning when they happen to people we know and care about. It’s that kind of attitude that lets governments get away with torturing prisoners and launching drone strikes against civilians. It produces a cultural apathy that makes us shrug when we see someone not like us who’s in pain. If they’re in trouble, we try to tell ourselves, it’s probably their own fault.

Scandal didn’t create this problem. But it is a symptom of it. Which is why I can’t bring myself to muster up too many tears for Huck. I can have sympathy for the devil, sure. But I’m wary of a show so desperate to insist that I put his feelings first.

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  1. Well said. Lost did something similar with Sayid (although it sounds like less graphically–yeesh.) Lost and Scandal have overt ties to the “War on Terror,” etc. but Dexter makes similar, if less overtly political, moves. Thoughts?

  2. I just finished watching Season 2, and I struggled with a very similar reaction. On the one hand, I love Huck and did get a punch in the feels from “Seven Fifty Two,” which made Huck appear to be the victim of an impossibly powerful military conspiracy. On the other hand, the show’s recurringly glib treatment of torture (the funk montages are so creepy) really bothers me. It raised some interesting and weird questions for me about representations of violence. Really violent, intense depictions of torture trouble me, too; if we choose to watch them and undergo a more visceral participation in violence, what does THAT say about our ethical compassion? Is it more voyeuristic then?

    I also thought the use of addiction as a model to think about violence was interesting, though, as you said, it shifted the empathetic attention from the victims of torture to the torturer him or herself. For me, one of the most interesting scenes of the season occurred (spoiler alert!) as Huck continued to unravel and finally become incapable of torturing people…but then Quinn stepped in, just as Huck had feared and had tried to prevent from happening. We are clearly supposed to be troubled that Quinn has begun descending into sadistic hell, but since she begins her own venture into torture on Billy – easily one of the most dislikeable characters in the show – our empathy is again focused on the torturer, not the victim. I have a really hard time watching torture scenes, but even I found myself wanting Billy to be taken care of once and for all, and that made me empathetic with Quinn’s impossible position. It was eerie to feel that way.

    Great thoughts on this! Thanks!

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