Scandal Tackles Race Relations With A Ripped-From-The-Headlines Episode

Photo: Courtesy of ABC.
Last night on Scandal, Shonda Rhimes gave us the fairy tale ending so many of us have been longing for. In an episode that was ripped from the headlines, a young unarmed Black man was shot by a white police officer. Olivia Pope was called in by the cops to handle optics. And, over the course of 60 minutes, justice is served, in true gladiator style.

It wasn't an easy journey to that happy ending, though, and not just because it was a gripping episode from Rhimes, who is a master at throwing twists and turns into all of her shows. This episode  — "The Lawn Chair" — hit close to home. Pope is back to work, even though everyone is worried about her well-being following the kidnapping situation that dominated the storyline for the first five episodes since the mid-winter break. She's been hired by the D.C. police to help them handle things after a white officer shoots a Black kid. An easy gig to slip back into business as usual, right?

Of course, it's not as simple as just telling the young cop what to say. The father of the dead teen has a rifle and refuses to move from his post by his son's dead body, which is splayed out in the streets of the poor neighborhood where he resides. As cops circle the scene, hundreds of people show up to watch, protest, and support the heartbroken father. Their rallying cry is not "We Can't Breathe" or "Hands Up" but "Stand up. Fight back. No more Black men under attack!" 

Advertisement


Leading the protest  — and bringing the father, Clarence Parker (played beautifully by Courtney B. Vance), a lawn chair to sit on — is a young activist who questions Pope vehemently, giving her a hard time for her Prada bag and her privileged background. At first she tries to defend her choice to represent the cops. But, in the end she quits when she doesn't agree with the chief's decision to try to shut down the protests (which are peaceful) with tear gas and cops in riot gear.

"The fact that they stand in the street and say things you do not like does not make them a mob. It makes them Americans," she declares before stepping behind the caution tape and joining the crowd. 

This being network TV — pure fiction in other words — things never get that out of hand. Somehow the tension between police and the crowd never turns violent. The cops slink around, but never attack Mr. Parker as he stands watch over his son. And, Pope has direct access to the U.S. Attorney General. Naturally, David Rosen is moved by Pope's passionate speech and once again gives in to her requests. But, what a moving moment it is:

"You talk about fairness and justice like it's available to everybody. It's not. That man standing over his son's body thinks — he knows that he's going to end up in one of two places: a jail cell or a drawer in the morgue. And, to hell that I can't look him in the eye and tell him he's wrong. I can't fix this, David. I have nothing left. No more tricks in my bag. It's too much."

Rosen tries to convince Pope that she's just overtired, the case is the last thing she should be dealing with. But, this is Olivia Pope we're talking about. She's a gladiator. If she can't fix race relations in the U.S., who will? But, more than that, this issue is not something that can just be ignored because Pope's tired. It's a problem that's not going away. Pope knows it, and she manages to convince Rosen of it. 

"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."

The beauty of scripted televsion is that the writers and showrunners get to decide the endings. They can make a plot be complicated, full of conflicting ideas, and shades of gray. But, at the end of the day, they can serve up justice in a way that, lately, has seemed impossible in real life. In the end, the cop admits he shot the unarmed youth, and he's arrested.

As usual, following the live-tweeting of the episode was almost as compelling as watching it. Shonda Rhimes and Kerry Washington were along for the ride, adding their thoughts to the conversation. 
Advertisement
And Kerry Washington retweeted:

What does it say about our country that we think justice and safety for all people is a fairy tale? And, how can fix that? Continuing the conversation on network TV is probably a start — more than 9 million people tune into Scandal each week. Rhimes is cognizant of her power, and she uses it well. And, while not everyone wants to talk about these delicate issues (see here), we can't ignore our reality. Rhimes won't let us. Michael Brown's family won't let us either, as news broke yesterday that they will be filing a wrongful death suit. And, with this weekend marking 50 years since the historic march from Selma to Montgomery, even the President of the United States won't let us forget, as he's scheduled to give a speech on the issue of race tomorrow to celebrate the event.

Pop culture has long been a medium for promoting change. Right now, race relations in our country are fraught, to say the least. Each week seems to bring another story that makes us question how we treat one another. Hopefully, episodes like "The Lawn Chair" will help further our conversation, so one day this ending won't feel like make-believe. As Rosen says in the press conference at the end, we need to understand why these laws keep failing our citizens. The time for change is now.
Advertisement