Never has it been more apparent that the people behind Scandal crave a happy ending than it was last night. “The Lawn Chair” is an unforgettable hour of television—incredibly powerful, incredibly bold, and very disappointing, at least from where I’m sitting.
Courtney B. Vance, Cornelius Smith, Jr., and Michael Welch guest star in what will forever be remembered as the Ferguson episode. Instead of Mike Brown dead in the street, we have Brandon Parker, a young black man who was murdered by a Washington D.C. police officer. At first, Scandal plays like an apologist message for cops—Olivia Pope is working with the police chief (who swears he “runs a clean force,” obviously) and she begins “handling” Mr. Parker when he shows up to the crime scene with a shotgun, shouting, “Bring me the head of John the Baptist!” Just kidding, he demands to see the cop who killed his son. Of course, that’s impossible, and Olivia begins dropping names to try to get him out of there.
Anyone who educated themselves during the Ferguson decision watched the first 15 minutes of this with some heavy side-eye. Olivia is clearly working with the police and trying to diffuse the situation. She has the Gladiators look into Marcus Walker, the pesky neighborhood activist whose totally going to start a riot because that’s what pesky neighborhood activists do. He boldly attacks Olivia Pope and points out to Mr. Parker that she can’t be trusted because she’s actually working for—and being paid handsomely—by the police. Pesky Neighborhood Activist: 1, Olivia Pope and her Prada bag: 0.
Walker’s character might be one of my favorite guest spots, so far on Scandal. There’s plenty of talk about white privilege in our country (well, probably not enough in the right places, but still…), but privilege is also related to class, so Olivia Pope is ridiculously privileged. Papa Pope worked hard to send her to school with Kings (as he once fumed at President Fitz), and even though her privilege might have been hard-earned, it’s still very real. Marcus is right—we’ve never seen Liv in the hood, and she looks out of place. She is out of place, and she soon realizes that, indeed, she’s fighting for the wrong side.
Now, if you’re going to pull a story out of the headlines—especially one like this—I say pull it. Don’t give me the Ferguson episode, and then show me a bunch of cops not using tear gas on the protestors. This was a bold episode, no doubt. It turns out (surprise, surprise) that the young man was not reaching for a knife (there was no knife), he was reaching for a receipt to show that he didn’t steal the phone. Like the young boys and men who have been murdered by cops (Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant) he was unarmed and not actually committing a crime. Like Amadou Diallo, the mere act of reaching in his pocket cost him his life.
I’m going to say that Scandal copped out. A show that has given us countless bloody scenes and horrifying, violent acts (I mean, didn’t we just see Huck in a room full of blood and corpses in the last episode?) should not have shied away this week, of all weeks. Show the cops attacking protestors, show the terrifying truth—that Officer Newton would not have ever, in a million years been arrested. The most laughable line of the episode had to be Olivia telling Mr. Parker, “The cop who shot your son is behind bars,” followed by her also telling him that after days of waving a shotgun at cops and citizens, he would not be arrested. Instead, he’d get to meet the President of the United States. Adorable.
Still, multiple scenes saved this episode from being a complete fairy tale, magical world of dragons, and cops getting arrested, and justice for young black men. Vance delivers a strong performance as the angry, mourning father many of us have always wanted to see in these scenarios. He sits on a lawn chair over his son’s corpse, quietly describing the careful steps he took to keep his son alive in a city where that is increasingly difficult. Oscar-nominated Selma director Ava DuVernay tweeted one of his most powerful lines, “Just get him to 18,” was his primary goal. Having failed, and having been failed, he finds himself in the middle of a nightmare. Another brilliant moment was the discovery of the knife, where Vance points his gun towards both Olivia and Marcus—blind with rage—and spewing, “He doesn’t carry a knife!”
Of all the strong scenes last night, the final rant of the killer cop was most compelling—and, perhaps, most accurate. If you read the documents pertaining to the Ferguson case, including Darren Wilson’s Grand Jury testimony, you know that this was practically verbatim the language he and other officers used to explain their “plight” in Ferguson. Without ever using the word “nigger,” without donning a white robe and hood, he managed to spew pure hatred and racist diatribe. Welch is fantastic here—his reddening face, spitting at Olivia Pope in an attempt to vindicate himself. It’s a haunting, perfect moment. If only they’d shown that, then shown the officer retiring and spending the millions of dollars his supporters raised, this could have been a perfect episode, in my opinion.
So why the insistence on the happy ending? Especially one coming from Shonda Rhimes, who has showed us through many seasons of Grey’s Anatomy that she has no problem breaking our hearts? Why not go all the way? The answer is, in short, because that’s not what Scandal is about. As much as the show attempts to show us this sort of underground world of American politics—the B613 side of things—it ultimately waves the flag and is a hopeful show. So it must be said that, although the conclusion of this episode was disappointing to me, it was true to the nature of Scandal.
The B-plot? Pshhh. Might as well have made this episode a special and dedicated the whole hour to Brandon Parker and his father.
That said, it was nice to see Fitz doing right by Mellie, for once. Scandal is not supposed to last for many more seasons, but is it possible that we might see Mellie actually run for the Presidency? I’d love it.
“Brandon Parker is dead because he didn’t have respect. Because those people out there crying over his body… didn’t teach him respect. He didn’t respect me, he didn’t respect my badge. Questioning my authority?! [inaudible due to hate spilling from his mouth] His blood is not on my hands!” I nearly fell out.
“We don’t want the same thing. You want to put it to bed quietly and tell everyone that you came down to the hood and saved us. No thanks, Olivia. Your black card’s not getting validated today.” (Marcus
“Stand up/Fight back/No more black men under attack.”
Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor & a film critic at Paste, and a writer for Pink is the New Blog and Heart&Soul. This New York-based freelancer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes all follows (and un-follows) on Twitter.