What's worse: stealing an election or cheating on the first lady?

By Nate Jones
Updated December 13, 2013 02:00 PM
Credit: ABC/Richard Cartwright

Besides Monday Night Football, no show on TV is as good at giving us exactly what it says on the tin than Scandal. In two and a half seasons, the ABC drama has seen scores of extramarital affairs, at least five politically motivated killings and enough dirty tricks to put Dick Nixon to shame.

But of all the scandals dreamed up in Shonda Rhymes‘ fevered imagination, which has been the most outrageous? We decided to find out. Below, the 40 scandals visited upon the fictional world of Scandal, ranked from least to most scandalous. (Major spoilers below!)

40. An unmarried congressman was recorded having sex in his office! ("White Hat’s Off")

Even Olivia Pope in her big Eureka moment realized this one wasn’t actually a big deal.

39. A U.S. senator was killed in a plane crash – but it was because of an overworked airline employee, not a drunk pilot! ("Crash and Burn")

Scandal‘s first season hadn’t figured out quite how to calibrate its cases of the week yet, as evidenced by this oddly uncompelling crash story. The show was still painting in grays, instead of the darkest blacks.

38. The Senate Majority Leader had an affair with an intern! ("Defiance")

This was a throwaway scandal to set up a job change for Edison, a throwaway character.

37. An ambassador’s child was kidnapped by Russian terrorists! ("Sweet Baby")

The first scandal we ever saw Olivia Pope solve was a handy demonstration of her powers more than a plot that could stand on its own.

36. The first lady insults a female Democrat running for office on a hot-mic gaffe ("Say Hello to My Little Friend")

This happens dozens of times in every election cycle. Points for realism, but demerits for the lack of that trademark Scandal insanity.

35. The wife of a Latin American dictator defected to the United States, but he wanted to keep the children! ("Enemy of the State")

A delightfully soapy plotline marred by the fact that we were told, not shown, how evil the general was.

34. A billionaire CEO tried to crash his company’s imminent IPO by acting like a college frat boy! ("Defiance")

In the midst of Season 2’s Defiance arc, this standalone case was a breezy bit of fun that was just slightly too silly to earn its emotional ending.

33. A CEO’s son was falsely accused of rape, by the best friend of a dead girl whom he really did rape! ("Hell Hath No Fury")

The deft plotting in this case-of-the-week made up for its cast of predictable stock characters.

32. One of the president’s prospective Supreme Court justices had a long-term affair with a prominent CEO, and may have fathered her child! ("Top of the Hour")

Two of Scandal‘s favorite character archetypes, the powerful businesswoman and the Supreme Court nominee with a secret, collide! It’s a fine opportunity for speechifying, but even the universe of the show understands this is only a case-of-week. By the end of the episode, the media’s moved on to the next new thing.

31. The president’s Supreme Court nominee is revealed to have slept with a prostitute – his wife, who was putting him through law school ("Dirty Little Secrets")

Fitz is worse than Reagan when it comes to getting Supreme Court nominees confirmed. This is the sort of scandal everyone forgets about until they see it on Wikipedia. Then they have a good chuckle.

30. The fianceé of a closeted conservative war hero was murdered – and his only alibi was his gay lover! ("Sweet Baby")

The first case-of-the-week ever introduced the show’s major themes: sex, politics and the lengths powerful people will go to keep their images intact. But it punted on the issue of who the real murderer was; later Scandal episodes would have pinned it on the Secret Service, or brought the victim back from the dead.

29. The sister/daughter of a Democratic candidate for president framed a competitor for the theft of a laptop! ("Vermont Is for Lovers, Too")

We are approaching the level of scandalousness of the Watergate break-in. There are still dozens left.

28. A US Attorney was framed for the murder of a woman he met at a bar ("Whiskey Tango Foxtrot")

When a politician wakes up covered in blood, that’s a scandal. When a former prosecutor does, that’s a local news story.

27. The wife of an unfaithful senator murdered a woman her husband was sexting! ("Say Hello to My Little Friend")

Likewise here. When a politician kills someone, that’s new. When his wife does well, do you know the criminal records of all your first ladies?

26. One of the gladiators was falsely accused of blowing up her boyfriend, until Olivia pulled some strings to get her off! ("White Hat’s Off")

As long as Quinn’s story didn’t get picked up by Nancy Grace, she would have been fine.

25. An anonymous Beltway sex blogger was murdered by a diplomat from Kyrgistan, whose airspace the U.S. needed for war! ("Beltway Unbuckled")

Clearly inspired by the real-life Washingtonienne scandal, this case followed the Law & Order template almost to the letter.

24. A prominent DC reverend died while having sex with his longtime mistress, who immediately entered negotiations to get her love-child taken care of financially! ("The Other Woman")

Sex, betrayal and deliberations: This case-of-the-week from early Season 2 hits the Scandal sweet spot. But it’s a bit slight to be a true scandal – when Fitz finds out about it, he laughs.

23. A former member of a shadowy CIA assassin squad planned to leak the team’s identities, but which former member was it? ("Spies Like Us")

As far as we can tell, this case was the first mention of the all-powerful CIA organization B613, which would later take over Scandal‘s third season. Here, though, it’s played for a surprising amount of laughs.

22. The vice president broke from the president and announced a plan to run against him as a third-party candidate! ("YOLO")

Sally Langston’s evil plan would be evil-er if our nation had any history of third-party candidates succeeding.

21. The NSA developed a secret program that could spy on anyone through their electronic devices! ("Hunting Season")

Terrifying: This plotline basically came true a few months after the episode aired. Sad (in retrospect): All the scenes where Olivia argues that America would rise up in protest if the project was revealed.

20. The president of the United States had a torrid affair with his top adviser! ("Sweet Baby")

Olitz, for better or for worse, is the bread and butter of Scandal, and the forbidden-fruit aspect of the relationship is the main reason the two will never truly be able to be together. But there’s a possibility it’s not as scandalous at everyone thinks. Other presidents have survived affairs, and Mark Sanford showed voters could forgive a cheater who truly loved his mistress.

19. Three CIA agents were held hostage by terrorists in Afghanistan after a mole leaked their identities! ("Whiskey Tango Foxtrot")

A terrorist mole in the federal government is like something out of a Tom Clancy novel, which helps explain why season two’s second-half arc felt less Scandal-y than the ones that came before.

18. The CIA doctored genocide photos to draw the U.S. into war with East Sudan! ("The Other Woman")

This is the rare Scandal scandal that worked out better than its real-life analogue; Cyrus caught the fakery early and the U.S. wasn’t drawn into war.

17. The daughter of a oil lobbyist faked her own kidnapping to extort her family for money! ("Snake in the Garden")

This plot line let us see a softer side of unambiguously evil Hollis Doyle, and its ending served up delicious Patty Hearst realness.

16. The president got his old Navy buddy to perform round-the-clock surveillance of his ex-girlfriend – and then they fell in love! ("Boom Goes the Dynamite")

Is spying on a woman more scandalous than sleeping with her? We think so, though in the world of Scandal, opinion seems to differ.

15. The governor of Maryland shot his wife’s lover, but got a lucky break after she cried rape! ("All Roads Lead to Fitz")

Any time a politician murders someone it’s going to be scandalous (as the rest of this list will prove) but this was a former Democratic candidate for president, who had lost the White House after an attack ad said he was soft on crime – dramatic irony!

14. A Supreme Court Justice hid her terminal cancer from the nation! ("Blown Away")

Even when Supreme Court justices are confirmed on this show, they still cause trouble. Verna Thorton’s revelation that she was keeping her cancer secret pointed that she was more than she seemed, but her physical frailty obscured her nefarious nature.

13. A sister of a Democratic candidate for president is actually her daughter, whom she gave birth to as a teenager ("More Cattle, Less Bull")

Chinatown on the Potomac! In true Scandal form, the show borrowed a classic controversy (in this case, the Bristol Palin pregnancy) and then injected it with steroids.

12. The president’s chief of staff used his own husband as bait to expose the vice president’s closeted husband! ("Vermont Is for Lovers, Too")

This was Cyrus at his most Cyrus: Heartless, manipulative, and utterly unaware of how quickly all his scheming could blow up in his face.

11. The first lady went on TV to tell the nation that her husband had been unfaithful to her throughout his presidency – but didn’t say whom he slept with! ("A Woman Scorned")

Mellie’s interview with James provoked a flurry of activity both before and after it aired – poor Jeannine – but what really stuck with us was the calm at the center of the storm, as Fitz and Liv shared a quiet moment on the couch, awaiting a end to the lie that never came.

10. The former chief of staff for the vice president teamed up with a rogue assassin to leak America’s secrets to terrorists! ("White Hat’s Back on")

The least scandalous of all of Scandal‘s long-term arcs, in part because the threat of the leaks never really seemed as dangerous as the domestic threats to the Grant presidency had. Its reveal of the Big Bad at the end was pretty great, though.

9. The mother of a dead CIA agent strapped a bomb to her chest and held a Congressman hostage, before blowing herself up! ("Mrs. Smith Goes to Washington")

The show has generally pretended like this never happened, but it did, and it was completely insane.

8. The vice president’s chief of staff and a White House intern teamed up to snare the president of the United States in a honeypot scheme! ("Grant: For the People")

Season one of Scandal gets a bad rap sometimes, but there’s no denying the scuzzy appeal of its central arc. Sure, there were sex tapes and bribes, but the Amanda Tanner plot had an undercurrent of darkness that felt lived-in from day one. When two people – one innocent, one not-so-much – ended up dead, it felt entirely expected, yet entirely earned.

7. The future first lady was raped by her husband’s father! ("Everything’s Coming Up Mellie")

As hard as the actual assault was to watch, what came after was almost worse: A brilliant, wounded woman sacrificing one more part of herself on the altar of her husband’s ambitions.

6. Everything to do with B613! ("A Door Marked Exit")

To be honest, we don’t fully understand this system of moves and countermoves, and who’s trying to have whom killed at any given moment. But we do know that a league of shadowy assassins who operate outside the control of even the president, is a bad thing to have around.

5. The vice president murdered her husband after discovering his gay affair! ("YOLO")

Credit to Sally Langston, for remaining true to her values to the very end.

4. While in the Navy, the future president of the United States shot down a civilian aircraft the government had been fooled into believing was carrying a bomb! ("A Door Marked Exit")

You could, with some scrubbing, maybe transform this into a PT-109 story of heroism on Fitz’s part. But killing hundreds of people is a hard thing for voters to stomach, even if you thought you were doing it for a good cause.

3. The president was shot by a remote-controlled sniper rifle, on the orders of a Supreme Court justice! ("Happy Birthday, Mr. President")

More presidents than you think have been the targets of unsuccessful assassination attempts. But as far as know, very few of them saw the vice president attempt to stage a bloodless coup, even fewer had the first lady stage a fake recovery, and none of them were ordered by one of the president’s own political allies. Also, try to say the phrase “remote-controlled sniper rifle” without a silly grin forming on your face.

2. The president killed the dying Supreme Court justice who tried to have him assassinated! ("Nobody Likes Babies")

Likewise, Fitz is not the first president to kill someone in cold blood – Andrew Jackson, with the pistol, in a duel probably counts – but he is probably the first sitting president to kill a member of the judicial branch. When the Founders talked about checks and balances, this is probably not what they meant.

1. A presidential candidate’s team of advisors – including his wife, his mistress, and his campaign manager – all conspired to rig an election on his behalf! ("A Criminal, a Whore, an Idiot and a Liar")

The big one. Scandal‘s Defiance arc was the finest thing it’s ever done, a pitch-perfect blend of back-room plotting, emotional betrayal and violent repercussions. Other scandals on this list faded as soon as their episode was over, but the stain of this stolen election has lingered on the fingers of its conspirators ever since. When you need to explain to strangers why this show is so great, explain to them Defiance.

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