Last night, a friend texted me in the middle of Scandal, saying, "This episode is making me uncomfortable for the wrong reasons." But how are you supposed to feel when your favorite campy show takes on a serious issue?
When a young African-American man named Brandon Parker is shot in the streets of Washington, D.C., professional fixer Olivia Pope is called in to help keep a lid on things until the coroner arrives. Moments later his father, Clarence Parker (played by Courtney B. Vance), comes into the scene and fires a shotgun into the air, demanding to know who killed his son. When community activist Marcus Walker shows up with a lawn chair for his father figure, it's placed over Brandon's body, and Clarence sits with a shotgun staring down police officers for most of the episode. It was a powerful moment that is completely incongruous with what we know of Scandal, like someone took a brush laden with paint and wrote VERY SPECIAL EPISODE all over it.
It's obvious that the show runners wanted to address the events in Ferguson, Missouri over the summer of 2014. The problem with this episode is that it was plopped into the center of a very absurd Scandal universe that we already know and love. Olivia is literally on her way back from her own hostage situation when she stops to handle the Parker case; the vice president, hot on the heels of his attempt to overthrow the government, was seduced by the first lady and given a medically induced stroke as payback. This, after three seasons of espionage, dead sons, hypersexual teen daughters, kidnapped babies, anything Hollis Doyle had his fingers in, and Cyrus' rage-induced heart attack. This is a show fueled by the drama of absurdity, and "The Lawn Chair," though really well written, felt decidedly out of place.
Olivia is never going back to that neighborhood. She's not going to stand in the way of the countless black men who get shot in that city day after day. She's never going to take on a case like this again, and she barely took on this case — it was only after she realized that the chief was intentionally blocking press that she got heated, and switched sides by ducking under the police tape to do a Black Lives Matter-style chant. The weirdness here isn't that someone outside of the community was showing support, but that it was so out of place for the generally calculating, practical Olivia to show such emotion about a racial incident. I found myself asking, "Aside from her father and her former fiancé, does she even talk to any black men?" Olivia might not ever go to this part of D.C., but Scandal never goes there, either.
Season three of House of Cards has an uncomfortable moment like this, too, when Remy Danton is pulled over for speeding. He doesn't have his license or registration, and when the cops slam him on the trunk of his car he's shocked and angered. Racial profiling clearly exists, but it's pretty safe to say that no one should be able to get out of a speeding ticket by saying "Google me," not even the White House Chief of Staff. House of Cards has always had a tenuous hold on the subject of race — which is clear in the way they treated Freddy as a magical rib-slinging negro for the first season and a half — so to have them try to take a lazy shot at police brutality (Remy is eventually recognized and, after an apology, let go) felt cringe-worthingly weird.
But on Scandal, what really got me was Parker's hug with President Fitzgerald Grant at the end of the episode, and the way Attorney General David Rosen was happy to take all of the credit for a job well done after wanting nothing to do with the situation when Olivia first brought it to him. Fitz literally could not give a shit about issues of race, and spent most of the episode plotting to bring in a new, non-threatening candidate for vice president so that he could ultimately give the title to Mellie; he actually turned away from the screen when Cyrus showed him Senator Mendez' video about the Parker incident. Olivia promised Parker she could get him to the Attorney General, but when she called, David scoffed at her, hung up, and went about his business. Fitz only came around when he realized that Parker was now in the Fraternity of Dead Sons, and David crawled out from under his rock to glad-hand the chief and say there would be a federal investigation of the police force after Officer Newton gave a very public admission of guilt that conveyed his racism loud and clear. These men care about the government more than they care about governing.
The ending was neat in a world where racist crimes are never that cut and dry. I think the show was trying to tell us they should be, but you shouldn't have to have a direct line to the White House to fix our broken criminal justice system.
Danielle Henderson is a lapsed academic, heavy metal karaoke machine, and culture editor at Fusion. She enjoys thinking about how race, gender, and sexuality shape our cultural narratives, but not in a boring way.