Last night’s Scandal ended with the embrace of two men who know what it means to lose their sons, Nina Simone pleading that she shall be released, and tears on the keyboard.
I found myself crying not for Brandon Parker, the 18-year-old black boy whose death at the racist hands of D.C. police stood at the center of last night’s episode. I found myself crying for Michael Brown, for Trayvon Martin, for Tamir Rice. And that’s exactly what Scandal had intended in this ripped-from-the-headlines episode. I’m just not sure there was any way to tackle America’s Black Lives Matter problem in a single episode without it seeming at least a little cheap. At times “The Lawn Chair” was not enough to capture the weight of this real-life epidemic, other times too overblown in the usual Olivia Pope ways (i.e. monologues that inspire preacher-like delivery).
As A.V. Club points out, there was no trigger warning ahead of last night’s Scandal, as there had been when The Good Wife treaded this same territory back in January. We find Olivia en route to a crime scene during the episode’s open, and honestly, given her track record, it could be anything. The D.C. police chief has requested her expertise in, essentially, avoiding a Ferguson situation. The way police personnel refer to the neighborhood protesters who’ve gathered around the body of Parker is supposed to seem low-key racist and thus bother the viewer, but Olivia swooping in with her white hat is intended to say, “There will be justice.” It’s a false premise. No justice can come from that scenario, as America has watched on the news. It especially cannot come from Olivia, whose anti-activist position at the episode’s start bothered me immensely.
Of course, being the fairness-seeking gladiator she is, Olivia comes to the conclusion that the people who’ve hired her to cover up their race-related PR disaster maybe aren’t the greatest (duh). She crosses over to the other side of the picket line. This is not before she insults community activist Marcus, who runs a social justice podcast and an after-school program for at-risk youth. “You want anger, you want outrage, you want retribution…” Olivia tells him with contempt in her voice. “This isn’t a platform, you’re not auditioning to become America’s Next Great Black activist.”
One of the best parts of the episode comes when Marcus calls Olivia out on her hypocrisy: “You’re about getting a white Republican President elected, twice. Excuse if I don’t buy you’re a real down-ass chick… You wanna put it to bed quietly, tell everyone on the Hill that you came down to the hood and you saved us. No thanks, Olivia. Your black card isn’t getting validated today.” What a ridiculous nugget of dialogue, but I so appreciate someone finally calling Olivia out on habitually trying to do the right thing while cashing checks from the wrong side. I get that she believes in change from the inside as the most effective way, but morally, I’ve always had qualms with the white knight idea Scandal builds up around Olivia.
Furthermore, the show using her recent trauma to make a point about America’s race issues was a bad call. I understand the symmetrical power of Olivia’s monologue to David Rosen — in which she says, “I thought I was going to die for about a week straight. I thought I was a goner. I lived in complete and total fear. Imagine feeling like that every single day of your life” — but it’s neither the time nor the place to reference her PTSD.
Just earlier this week, the Department of Justice announced that Darren Wilson, the Ferguson officer who shot and killed an unarmed Michael Brown, would not be charged with civil rights violations. So forgive me if Scandal‘s presumption that Olivia Pope — fresh off her own violent kidnapping and public auction — can smooth things over, was not convincing in the slightest. I understand the important, highly relevant discussion Scandal was trying to have, but Olivia is not some beacon of hope in a sea of systematic racism.
I am of the belief that television, at its best, has the capability to change people’s minds about the issues of our time. I’m just not sure last night’s Scandal, in its black and white portrayal of right and wrong, accounted for how complicated a situation like this actually is. It’s not the sort of thing that gets wrapped up in a day and ends with Brandon’s single father Clarence, played by the powerful Courtney B. Vance, hugging it out with the President. If a father had marched down to his son’s crime scene with a shotgun, threatened the life of the police officer who had murdered his boy, and sat guard over the body in a lawn chair, he’d be arrested and portrayed as an angry black man. A police officer’s plan to plant a knife on an innocent boy doesn’t usually deteriorate so quickly, ending in a bitterly racist confession about how black neighborhoods teach children to question white police authority.
Even America’s real-life nightmares become fantasies in Scandal land, and it’s difficult to not perceive that as a function of it being high-impact entertainment. Does that cheapen the message? That really depends on the viewer. I was moved by the recent memory of those innocent black boys murdered by authority figures. I was bothered by the idea of a father who’d done everything right, yet still lost his son. “The Lawn Chair” was powerful entertainment that attempted to say something about the world we live in — yet didn’t fully account for real life.