Tony Goldwyn and Kerry Washington

Rule No. 1 when visiting the Hollywood set of Scandal: Be prepared for anything. Even the sight of hacked-off human body parts.

On a Thursday evening in late February, crisis fixer extraordinaire Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) is taking a meeting in her well-appointed Washington, D.C., office with a client she'd be forgiven for refusing to represent — Hollis Doyle (Gregg Henry). The big-oil schemer not only framed Pope & ­Associates' newest recruit, Quinn (Katie Lowes), for murder, but also embroiled Olivia herself in a conspiracy to rig an election that put Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn), the man she desperately loves, in the White House. Yet here she is, a gladiator in an impeccably tailored Armani suit, agreeing to help Hollis fight a personal battle that will take a grisly turn, if the severed ear in the conference room is any indication. Which, by the way, doesn't even come close to being the most killer twist in this episode.

Hold on to your white hats, Scandal fans: Shonda Rhimes's morally murky political thriller about a crisis manager whose own life is as complicated as any of her power-player clients' is about to get even more audacious. And that's saying something, considering these previous shockers: The president takes a bullet to the head in an assassination attempt! Which was ordered by a cancer-stricken Supreme Court justice! Whom Fitz ultimately murdered!

While most network series reserve their big, bold moves for sweeps, Rhimes serves them up on Scandal nearly every week, which has earned the series a well-deserved reputation as one of the best new dramas on TV. How long can Rhimes sustain the whiplash-inducing pace? Not even she seems sure. "We sit in the writers' room and worry about running out of ideas all the time," she admits. "But that's what makes it fun. We put it all out there. We're gonna tell all our story now, so that it feels like, if you miss an episode, you're missing something big."

The strategy is working. After premiering solidly, if quietly, last April, Scandal has become a buzzed-about hit averaging, since January, more than 8 million weekly viewers. At least one of those — Oprah Winfrey — discovered the show through Twitter, where Scandal has been the topic of more than 2 million tweets this season, fueled by the cast's savvy practice of interacting live with fans during each week's episode. (That goes for when they're filming, too: On the night TV Guide Magazine was on set, Washington and Columbus Short, who plays Olivia's fast-talking right-hand man Harrison, rushed to their iPhones to live-tweet every time the director yelled, "Cut!")

Even when the actors aren't tweeting, they're anticipating their followers' future reactions. "Now, when we read something wild in the scripts," Lowes says, "we're thinking, 'Twitter's gonna explode when this happens!'"

Executive producer Betsy Beers believes fans are responding not only to Scandal's go-for-broke bombshells but also to the show's imperfect characters, led by Olivia and her on-off boyfriend Fitz, who's locked in an unholy union with the Lady Macbethian Mellie (Bellamy Young). "Shonda writes these amazingly complex, flawed characters who, in some cases, do things you cannot believe," Beers says. "Yet you still root for and sympathize with them. And at the center of it is a story of an impossible love. The guy's married and he's the president of the United States. It's super difficult and deliciously torturous."

Rhimes initially had no intention of sweeping up viewers in a juicy Olivia-Fitz Scandal. When, in 2010, longtime producing partner Beers suggested she take a meeting with real-life D.C. crisis manager Judy Smith, Rhimes already had her hands full juggling her long-running hit Grey's Anatomy and its spinoff, Private Practice, which recently ended its six-season run. So Smith, a former White House deputy press secretary, didn't expect to stay long when she arrived at Rhimes's Los Angeles office. "They had me down for that 15-minute, being-polite kind of meeting," remembers Smith, now a Scandal coexecutive producer. "You know, where, after a while, somebody comes in with a note saying, 'Your next meeting's here.'"

If there were any notes passed along, Rhimes didn't heed them for hours. "The minute you meet Judy, you think, 'Oh, my God, there are 4,000 episodes of television here!'" Rhimes says. "There's something about that world that feels so rich, and I'd never really seen it on television before."

Rhimes's original concept for the show, set in D.C. and New York, looked decidedly different. The president was the fierce fixer's dad — an unsexy twist the show's creator can't imagine now. "I'm writing a show about two people who are truly in love, despite all their obstacles," says Rhimes, who has often explored adulterous romances on screen (that's how Mer-Der began on Grey's).

The couple that fans have affectionately dubbed "Olitz" will be confronted with more hurdles when Scandal returns with fresh episodes beginning next week. Still devastated by the revelation that Olivia conspired to commit voter fraud to get him elected, Fitz puts the whiskey aside long enough to get down to the business of replacing the Supreme Court justice he permanently removed from the bench. But his pick's confirmation process is threatened by the emergence of a mistress, played by House's Lisa Edelstein, who is — you guessed it — Olivia's client. While Olivia and Fitz, who last saw each other at a christening for the baby of Fitz's Machiavellian chief of staff Cyrus (Jeff Perry), won't meet up again this week, the two will share an unforgettable phone call, according to the actors. "When I left after filming that call, I was so screwed up!" Washington says while getting touched up in the makeup trailer.

"They are always complicated conversations," Goldwyn says, "but this one was tricky because we're at a really dark place in our relationship."

For more on Scandal, pick up this week's issue of TV Guide Magazine, on newsstands Thursday, March 14!