At the Oscars, Viola Davis in her acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actress in Fences paid tribute to her craft by eloquently saying that the artist community “[is] the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life.” While the internet perhaps took too much from these words in the aftermath of the ceremony, I took her statement at face value. Even still, as I heard the words leave her lips I didn’t quite understand them. I appreciated her insight on why art is important for the artists that create and perform, but as the camera panned to an audience of rich actors and producers, I couldn’t connect to her words as a viewer, a consumer of art. Her statement felt very personal to the acting community, therefore I felt distance from it.
But Thursday night as I sat on my couch watching Scandal, the episode entitled “Extinction,” I had a revelation about the meaning of Viola Davis’ words for lovers of art and media. (SPOILERS AHEAD)
The episode centered around Eli “Rowan” Pope, protagonist Olivia’s father. Originally a main antagonist for the show’s third and fourth seasons, Rowan has gained anti-hero status because of the Emmy award-winning performance given by the actor that plays him, Joe Morton. Fans of the show have grown to root for Rowan because of his brilliance and cunning. Morton’s performance brings depth to the character that makes him difficult to dislike. (His monologues will put the fear of God in you, just watch this one.)
So after three seasons on the show, Rowan was finally given his own episode in season six. And it was a doozy. In it, we find out that he was personally responsible for killing President-Elect Frankie Vargas by firing a gun at Vargas from beneath the stage he was standing on during his victory speech on election night. Under threat by an unknown government power, led by an overly sarcastic white woman and smug white man, Rowan was instructed to ensure a Mellie Grant victory by any means necessary. When rigging the polls in a pivotal California county is discovered by Olivia, Rowan was given no other choice by Sarcastic White Woman than to kill Frankie Vargas himself.
Complicating things, however, was an old flame of Rowan’s suddenly reappearing in his life. For the first time, we saw Rowan weakened, wavering, allowing himself to enjoy the little joys of life, like nerding out over his work at the Smithsonian and kissing Sandra, his rekindled love interest. As insurance that Rowan would hold up his end of the deal by ensuring a Grant victory, Sarcastic White Woman and Smug White Man held Sandra hostage — after Rowan and Sandra had finally made love.
As any attempt to save himself from the clutches of peril is shot down by the women in his life (Olivia having Huck reverse the polls that were rigged and Sandra refusing to runaway with Rowan), we see Rowan struggling to cope with the inevitability of the events that unravel throughout the episode. The episode ends tragically with a showdown of the mystery man, woman, and Rowan. After Rowan returns to the Smithsonian, he is met by his two commanders. Rowan assures them that the job has been done and demands that they free Sandra so they can both be washed clean of their associations with the acts that led them to this point. Holding Sandra’s hand and turning to leave, Smug White Man tells Rowan that because he’s proven himself valuable, he now must continue doing work for him. The man condescendingly reminds him that his weakness is Sandra, and as long as they can use her to manipulate Rowan, they have control of him. In a challenge to that statement, Rowan scolds the both of them as a show of strength and shoots Sandra, killing her. Unfazed, the woman then reminds Rowan of the one weakness he could never kill — Olivia. She shows Rowan a phone with Olivia’s face on a surveillance camera, and says that she has someone that she can call up at any time to assassinate her. She teases him with this, and he takes the phone from her hand. The man and woman then leave, with Rowan left sickened at murdering two people in (almost) cold blood.
The episode ends with part of a scene we saw in the season opener — Olivia storming her dad’s office on election night asking her father if he killed Frankie Vargas. We as the viewer now know that he was lying to her, but we now also have the additional backstory that he had no other choice but to do so. In a little under an hour, we saw the turmoil, the heartbreak, and the sheer desperation of a man we previously thought was incapable of such emotions. After Olivia leaves, the episode closes with Rowan walking over to a plastic-wrapped coffin that is revealed by his hands to hold the body of Sandra. He sobs over her body as the camera backs away and the screen cuts to black.
In that moment, seeing Rowan cry so helplessly, so hopelessly — and remembering that this character isn’t real, and only exists in this way because of the beautiful acting of Joe Morton — I felt him. I felt something so profound and real, an empathy that I would extend to a close friend or family member. It was then that I experienced for myself the power of acting and in turn, Viola Davis’ words about art.
I felt tears welling up, and a warm, yet empty sensation in my chest as I watched the last two minutes. When the episode ended, my thoughts lingered with Rowan. I mourned for him and I legitimately panicked about his future. As the minutes went on after the episode finished, I realized that this feeling was familiar. I already knew the power of art, because I embody it whenever I think about a show after I’ve finished watching an episode or a season, whenever I have to remind myself that characters’ lives are fictional and their problems don’t actually exist. When I take to Twitter or Tumblr to commiserate with other fans who care as deeply about the characters and storylines as I do, I’m deepening my emotional connection with the show (and in turn, finding community in fandom).
I had a similar emotional connection recently as well with Jane the Virgin, when Michael Cordero, protagonist Jane’s loving husband, abruptly died just when it seemed the two were closing in on their domestic happily-ever-after. As Jane heard the news over the phone, having unknowingly said goodbye to Michael for the last time hours earlier, she fell to the floor in a fit of screaming terror and denial. Actress Gina Rodriguez in that moment made Jane a three-dimensional character; Jane reacted in a way that anyone in her place would. She wasn’t giving us dignified, movie star tears, she went for the jugular of reacting hysterically like your average twentysomething wife would.
I felt the connection when I watched the winter finale of How to Get Away with Murder, when Wes was revealed to be #UndertheSheet, and again during the season finale when Annalise weeped over his death because she saw him as her surrogate son during his time in her life — another flawless performance by Viola Davis. I should note however that the gutted feeling I had after Wes’ death was for an entirely different reason than Michael’s death on Jane the Virgin.
I got all the feels during these moments because art is powerful. As Viola said, art — in this case, specifically acting — celebrates lives of all shapes and sizes. Through good acting, music, theatre, and the like, we can take a glimpse into a life that often times mirrors our own in some way. We are reminded of shared human experiences of loss, triumph, joy, heartbreak, mourning, recovery and everything else all over again through the work of a great artist. With the banality of everyday life, art reminds us that we are here and we can feel. it’s our rush of dopamine when our existence feels numb, even if you are the rare viewer that can remain emotionally distant from it. The irony of art is that while much of it isn’t real and only represents life as interpreted by an artist, it can make our own lives feel a little more real.
It’s disheartening to consider, then, what the future of art may look like under our country’s new management. I can only hope the next generation of artists isn’t stunted by lack of funding for arts programs. Despite all obstacles, our favorite media objects, whether TV, music, film, or theatre, shine as a beacon to remind us that we’re all human. The capability to be affected by art is the gift that will never stop giving.