Say Hello to the Bad Guy: Joe Morton, Scandal and the Future of TV Villains

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I’m no lame and you gonna know my name
Before I go, the world gon’ feel my pain
Saying, I’m a bad guy—why’s that?
—Jay Z, “Say Hello”

If Shonda Rhimes and Scandal music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas weren’t so in love with traditional ‘70s soul music, they might have chosen one of Jay Z’s American Gangster songs as Elijah (or Rowan, depending on who’s asking) Pope’s theme music. As it stands, “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” which played in one of many memorable scenes from the Season Three finale, remains one of the greatest soundtracks to Papa Pope’s unique, villainous style. But every time I hear Jay Z’s “Say Hello” (which samples Tom Brock’s 1974 track “The Love We Share…”), I hear the culmination of every monologue Joe Morton has delivered over the years. Scandal is midway through Season Five and you still “can’t take Command.” The beloved bad guy is out of prison, and the Scandal audience knows that, regardless of the state of the series, or Olivia Pope’s love life, Joe Morton is almost physically incapable of disappointing when he’s on the screen. Watching the world fall in love with his character over the years has been sort of like bearing witness to Jay Z’s takeover. A self-proclaimed, unapologetic bad guy makes his way into popular culture, but he’s so self-aware and brilliant (and incredibly militant, when you peel back the layers), you can’t help but root for him.

“[Eli Pope] is so dedicated to both his country and his family—his family being Olivia—that’s who he is. Is he a good guy or a bad guy?” Morton asks, before taking a moment to consider. “He’s all of the above. He is a good guy, and sometimes he has to do things that are not so nice.”

Scandal was always going to be a show with dark undertones, but the introduction of Eli Pope—a character who remained unnamed for the entire second half of the second season in which he first appeared—raised the stakes. His infamous speeches elevated the series from this soapy and addictive, romantic procedural, to a theatrical production that required viewers to hang on to every word—his every word, especially. Indeed, Morton’s Broadway and theater background serves him well, and those of us watching have been lucky enough to reap the benefits of a seasoned actor working alongside the likes of Kerry Washington, Guillermo Diaz and Jeff Perry. Perhaps the reason his character stands apart from almost everyone else on the series, and on TV in general, is because Morton looks to Greek tragedy and Shakespeare for inspiration.

“I played Oedipus with the BAM Theatre, and I also draw on Caliban from Tempest,” Morton says, acknowledging that the younger members of the Scandal audience may not see the influences, but they’re definitely there. He is indeed a tortured soul, but his issues manifest themselves very differently from the other characters on the show. Everyone on Scandal does bad things—sometimes for the greater good, and sometimes for personal gain. It is, after all, as much a show about the oft-scandalous highs and lows of American politics as anything else. But Morton’s Eli Pope is no Olivia Pope, and he’s certainly not one of the Gladiators. Although the lines are blurred sometimes, there are many moments when he is, simply, a villain.

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Only God can judge him, only he without sin
Tell me if my means, justify my ends.

He’s not a bigot like one Hollis Doyle (played by the incredible Gregg Henry), but he’s a villain nonetheless.

Pope also represents one of the few voices on the show that is almost always, in some way or another, aware of race and class, and how those distinctions position him and his daughter in the grand scheme of things. In another one of his famous speeches—the first time we see father and daughter face off against each other—he reminds Olivia of a simple math lesson many women of color (and men) receive early on in their careers or educational pursuits: “You have to be twice as good as them to get half of what they have.” It’s a roaring statement that rings in our ears again, many episodes later when he goes up against the President of the United States (played by his former Oedipus co-star, Tony Goldwyn) in one of the most memorable TV scenes of this Golden Age.

“Tom [Verica, episode director] and I didn’t talk until it was time to shoot it,” Morton recalls. “We had the rehearsal, and before showing up at work I brought up the image of what was gonna be happening that night: a black man, in a t-shirt, chained to a chair—and talking to a Southern, Republican, President of the United States.”

Scandal would go on to address race in more obvious ways, particularly with Season Four’s “The Lawn Chair,” but it’s safe to say that nothing will ever compare to “A Door Marked Exit” in Season Three. There might not be another actor who could have repeatedly delivered the word “boy” to a TV president, with so much venom that it was all too clear what he was saying, and which American history he was invoking.

Joe Morton explains that part of his approach involved taking Goldwyn’s performance in, as much as he could.

“[I was] letting what Fitz tries to do to me sort of work on me,” he explains. “He says, ‘I make love to your daughter, and I love the way she tastes,’ and all that kind of stuff. I think that’s where I decided [Eli] doesn’t get angry, he decides to get honest. He decides to let Fitz know what he really thinks of him, and puts him in his place. I had a couple of days to rehearse it on my own, and literally would rehearse it sitting in a chair so I couldn’t get up—so, physically, I knew what would be happening to me.”

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Say hello, to the bad guy
They say I’m a bad guy
I come from the bottom but now I’m mad fly
They say I’m a menace
That’s the picture they paint
They say a lot about me
Let me tell you what I ain’t…

As a villain on Scandal—a show where, like so many others, the characters are all pretty well off and lean more towards the one percent than anything else—Eli Pope also represents the difference between what happens when your success is partly inherited, and what happens when you have to work for it—really work for it. He looks down on the privileged and their unique, sometimes faux brand of morality—Olivia and Fitz are included in this, though of course Olivia’s privilege was at least attained by her hard-working father, and she still has to be twice as good as someone like Fitzgerald, or First Lady Mellie Grant (Bellamy Young). This is another layer that makes Papa Pope so much more than “the bad guy.” Morton’s character represents an all-American grind that (like hip-hop, in a way) isn’t always a reflection of the inspirational, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps sermon we’ve heard (usually from folks who had to do very little pulling) throughout the years. Papa Pope may not hail from Marcy or Queensbridge Projects, but his journey is still one fraught with violence, murder and illegal dealings. And if he’s going to achieve what he wants—which is, to bring in another rap reference, money power and respect—he’s going to have to do some “bad” things.

It may sound strange, but there’s something refreshing and exciting about seeing a black man, unapologetically performing these bad deeds on a primetime drama. In an industry still fraught with Magical Negroes and Strong Black Women tropes, characters like Morton’s are breaking the mold and changing the world as we know it.

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When people say, “Tell me about India,” I say, “Which India?.... The land of poetry and mad rebellion? The one that produces haunting music and exquisite textiles? The one that invented the caste system and celebrates the genocide of Muslims and Sikhs and the lynching of Dalits? The country of dollar billionaires? Or the one in which 800 million live on less than half-a-dollar a day? Which India?” When people say “America,” which one? Bob Dylan’s or Barack Obama’s? New Orleans or New York?—Arundhati Roy

The call for diversity—which Shonda Rhimes has pointed out is really just a call for normalization—is also a call for variety. Which “America” do we most often see on television? Which “America” have we seen most represented in the Golden Age? When we do see people of color, which types do we often see? There are many reasons Aziz Ansari’s Master of None practically broke the internet when it premiered on Netflix earlier this month, one being because various people of color were presented as characters who were, on the one hand, culturally unique, but also in roles that could have easily been given to white actors (and certainly would have, on another network). Actors like Lena Waithe (the hilarious Denise on Ansari’s series), Viola Davis (How to Get Away With Murder) and Morton are not simply asking for visibility. Visibility alone does not signify variety in the America presented on TV.

“I have lots of hopes for black actors in general, whether they be on TV, or on stage, or in movies, and that is that we move beyond the tokenism of what it means to be black in a particular set of circumstances,” says Morton. For his work as Eli Pope, Morton earned his first Emmy Award in 2014, but he acknowledges, along with Viola Davis (who did so in a stirring Emmy speech earlier this year), that the prestigious awards and acknowledgements are not in the reach of the many black actors who are still being handed token roles.

“I think that’s what Viola was talking about,” he adds. “You don’t have the opportunity to win an Emmy, unless you’re given the opportunity to play certain kinds of roles.” Morton goes on to share an all-too common story (variations of which can be seen in Master of None’s brilliant “Indians on TV” episode) about the very real and somehow acceptable limitations against actors of color in Hollywood:

“Without mentioning any names, there was a film that was being done and I ran into the producer on the plane. It was a book that I really really loved and I said, ‘I’d love to be a part of this.’ And they made it clear that that was not going to be possible—for no particular reason other than that there was just no part for a black person.” For Morton, “You’re black, so you can’t play this part,” is a crutch that TV, film and theater productions have relied on for far too long. He admits that these largely systemic issues are “not just gonna go away, but over time they will diminish.”

And, indeed, the birth of Eli Pope (and the other bad guy in Olivia Pope’s family, her mother Maya, played by an incredible Khandi Alexander in seasons past) has worked towards diminishing tokenism, and Joe Morton continues to deliver powerhouse performances in every Scandal scene he snags. This season, Olivia Pope does the unthinkable and assumes a new position from The White House. Of course, she’s more than the President’s girlfriend (she’s the first non-First Lady of the United States because, hey, this is Scandal), and Morton tells us he’s looking forward to working with Washington as this strange, new storyline progresses.

“She’s kind of running the White House, because she’s stronger than Fitz. Olivia and Eli so far have not had any conversations about that, so I’m looking forward to if and when that would happen—and what they would say to each other.”

It’s exciting to think about what Eli Pope might do, with his daughter having more access to political power (though, make no mistake—she’s always been D.C.’s most bad ass fixer, in or outside of the Oval Office), but it’s even more exciting to see that Scandal isn’t the only show where a black actor is playing a well-written bad guy. This season of Fargo has been incredible for many reasons, one of them definitely being Bokeem Woodbine’s wonderful work. Familiar with the fine art of subverting stereotypes (he played rapper/reparations seeker Massive Genius in a guest spot on The Sopranos), Woodbine is taking things to whole new levels as Mike Milligan. Joining him in this awesome world of anti-token black TV villains are folks like The Leftovers’ Kevin Carroll as John Murphy (who fits the good-guy-who-does-some-really-bad-things mold, like Morton’s Pope), and Steven Williams’ Virgil (who shocked and terrified us all in the most recent episode). Another excellent series, Being Mary Jane, introduced Loretta DeVine in her most unlikely role ever—a slick-talking, somewhat elderly thief and extorter, who runs a political book store and quotes Bible verses (whether they apply or not), as she steals large amounts of money from the main character (Gabrielle Union as Mary Jane Paul). She’s also gay…I think.

This season, Scandal is a very different show from its former self. But one thing that has not changed is the writers’ insistence on boldly addressing familiar political and pop culture narratives. Morton is especially proud of the recent episode “Even the Devil Deserves a Second Chance,” in which a beloved thinker and author, embraced by women the world over, is discovered to be a serial rapist. For Morton, who starred as Byron Douglas III on the Cosby Show spinoff A Different World, the Bill Cosby parallel is clear, but the bigger issue must not be overlooked.

“It was specifically shadowing the Bill Cosby syndrome, but it’s less about Bill Cosby than it is about certain men who believe that—because they’ve empowered other people—that they then have the right to take advantage of that empowerment in ways that are untoward.”

Although there are no concrete plans right now, Morton hopes to get in the director’s chair at some point (preferably on Scandal), a move that could prove lucrative for his ever-growing career and for an industry that—in spite of what the Matt Damons of the world might think—needs as much variety behind the camera as in front. And an actor who’s as unafraid of embracing the darker side as Morton might be more willing take some interesting risks as a director. That he’s played so many fascinating characters in his three decades as a professional actor gives us every reason to get excited about the types of stories (and the kind of “America”) he could bring to our still-starved-for-newness TV landscape.

In the same way that the actor remains in dialogue with Oedipus and Caliban, and even Jay Z (and, for that matter, Frank Lucas, the inspiration for the American Gangster album), Joe Morton’s work on Scandal remains in dialogue with that of those aforementioned actors, and many others as well. His brilliance is what makes this age of television so golden, and as he continues to break down barriers and subvert expectations, he reminds us that it’s okay to root for the bad guy sometimes. And if the actor is doing his job, and the TV writers are too, his badness will always be in context. Indeed, Eli Pope has proven himself to be “all of the above”—a killer, a savior, father, husband, politician, anti-politician and a man whose own experience as an American gangster-type means that he doesn’t answer to the little boys of the world. From where we’re sitting, ever in awe of “Command,” the future of TV villains looks bright—and, a lot more interesting.

Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor & a film critic at Paste, and a writer for Salon and Heart&Soul. This New York-based freelancer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter.