Scandal, Shonda Rhimes’ ABC drama about a professional Washington "fixer," is unique in many ways, one of which is the fact that its main character, Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) is African American, and her race is a nonissue. In almost four seasons, Olivia has been involved in a rigged election; she’s found out that her father, the head of a shadowy intelligence agency, has held her mother, an international terrorist, in a maximum security prison for two decades; and she’s been kidnapped as a device to force the president to go to war with an African country to guarantee her safety—all while she's participated in a messy on/off affair with the commander in chief. Race has been overtly mentioned just twice: When Olivia told the president she was feeling kind of “Sally Hemmings/Thomas Jefferson” about their affair, and when Olivia’s father delivered a ferocious lecture to his child, telling her, “You have to be twice as good as them to get half of what they have.”
Thursday’s episode, “The Lawn Chair,” was different. Airing the same week that the Justice Department released its scathing report on the Ferguson Police Department, it presented a story that seemed directly inspired by the killing of Michael Brown, and that was a lesson in how to thoughtfully model fiction around real-life tragedy. Olivia was called out by the Washington Metropolitan Police Department to help minimize the backlash (the "optics," as the chief put it) after a black 17-year-old was shot and killed by a white cop four blocks from the Capitol. “I run a clean force,” the police chief told her. “The last thing I want is a riot that sets my city on fire.” But within minutes of her arrival, the dead teenager’s father appeared by his son’s body, fired a shotgun in the air, and demanded the police bring out “the cop who shot my son.” Trying to intervene, Olivia found herself in conflict both with the client who’d hired her, and a neighborhood activist, Marcus, who condemned her for being on the wrong side. “Helping … and cashing a check from the Washington Metro Police?” he said. “Impressive. What’s the going rate for playing both sides?”
Scandal is a melodrama, and its various storylines have ranged from sublimely absurd to profoundly ridiculous (season three’s visually gruesome torture scenes and insane conspiracies exemplifying the latter), but “The Lawn Chair” was possibly its best episode to date, a tightly controlled and very deliberate exploration of race, identity, bigotry, and conscience. Brandon Parker, the slain teenager, was walking home when he was stopped by Officer Newton (Michael Welch), who thought he matched the description of a suspect accused of stealing a cellphone. Brandon reached in his pocket, the officer fired his weapon, and suddenly a body lay dead on the street. The officer was, he told Olivia, completely devastated by the incident. “I can’t stop thinking about my own kids,” he said. “About how I would be feeling now if I were that boy’s father.” Back at the scene, Olivia and Marcus found a pocket knife hidden underneath Brandon’s body, to his father's ragged disbelief.
That father, played with heartbreaking reticence by Courtney B. Vance, was Clarence Parker, a D.C. resident with a clean record who raised Brandon after his mother died of breast cancer, and who stuck a University of Maryland sticker to his truck so cops who pulled Brandon over wouldn’t think he was “just a thug without a future.” The structure of the episode played like a typical Scandal “case of the week,” in that new information eked out over the course of the hour, revealing how far things were from being simple or tidy. But in the end, there was a straightforward clarity to the plot that allowed the show to underline the simplest of truths—that no one’s child should be shot simply because the color of their skin makes someone else suspicious. The knife had been planted by the officer because he feared the repercussions of shooting an innocent kid; Brandon had been reaching for the receipt to the cellphone he’d just bought. The guilty officer was arrested, but not before delivering an appalling rant about the people who are “taught to question me, to disobey me … and somehow I’m the animal.” Questioning a cop’s authority, Newton said, “was not his right. His blood is not on my hands.”
It was a horrifying statement of privilege, but one echoed in the Ferguson report quoted by my colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates. Several Ferguson officials, the report says, “told us during their investigation that it is a lack of ‘personal responsibility’ among African-American members of the Ferguson community that causes African Americans to experience disproportionate harm under Ferguson’s approach to law enforcement.” Or, in Officer Newton’s words, “They didn’t teach him the right values. They didn’t teach him respect.” Scandal’s case was clear-cut because it needed to be to point out the flagrantly obvious. “You talk about fairness and justice like it’s available to everyone,” Olivia told the attorney general, David Rosen, both exhausted and infuriated by his refusal to get more involved with the case. “That man standing over his son’s body, knows he’s going to end up in one of two places: a jail cell, or a drawer in the morgue … I can’t fix this, David. I have no tricks left in my bag. It’s too much!”
The speech came after Marcus had taunted Olivia for being on the wrong side; for arriving in an impoverished neighborhood with her Prada bag and thinking she could make things right when she was almost as removed from the reality of the situation as the MPD police chief appeared to be. “Your black card’s not getting validated today,” he told her, prompting a crisis of conscience that saw Olivia abandon the job she’d been hired to do and join forces with the protestors behind the barricade. “The fact that they stand in groups and say things you don’t like doesn’t make them a mob,” she told the chief. “It makes them Americans.” Critics who interpret Rhimesian characters as avatars for their co-creator are frequently misguided, but it was hard not to perceive Olivia’s taking a stand as being representative of the show doing the same.
Maybe Scandal wanted to be a show that wasn’t about race—a show that was simply an addictive, outrageous drama about a brilliant career woman with a complicated personal life who just happened to be black. Maybe it hoped never to have to be in this situation. But the events of the past year seem to have merited a response, and it's to the series’s credit that the delivery was so graceful, and so utterly sad. From the music that accompanied two of the episode’s most poignant scenes (Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and Nina Simone’s “I Shall Be Released”) to the way the camera lingered on visual details (Olivia’s shaking hand after a confrontation with Clarence, her obviously conflicted expression on the sidelines, a portrait of John F. Kennedy in the White House, the final shot of a beautiful face in a body bag), it was an extraordinary hour of television. “My son’s name was Brandon,” Clarence Parker told the president, right before he finally broke down. His name mattered. His life mattered.