"The Lawn Chair," the 14th episode of the fourth season of Scandal, is at once a powerful experience and a strange one. It's powerful because it places the current Scandal plots on hold to address issues of police brutality against young black men as forthrightly as any show on television has. (When The Good Wife tried to tackle a similar topic, it mostly fumbled the ball.)
It's a strange experience because, well, this is still Scandal, and Kerry Washington is still playing Olivia Pope. Though the series has always been, on some level, about racial minorities trying to navigate the halls of power, traditionally ruled by white men, that's all buried in the subtext of what is typically a fast-paced ride through some of TV's most melodramatic storylines.
The episode, which you can watch here, begins with Olivia being asked by the Washington, DC, police to help out with a case in which an officer shot and killed Brandon Parker, a young black man set to graduate from high school in June. As Olivia attempts to manage the situation, the boy's father, Clarence (a hugely effective Courtney B. Vance), appears with a gun, telling the police they're not allowed to approach his son's body until he's certain the investigation into his death will be handled well. Olivia attempts to make just this happen by calling the Attorney General of the United States, whom she has on speed dial. (Remember, this is still Scandal.)
The titular lawn chair is brought to Clarence by a young activist, and the grieving father uses it as a kind of flimsy shield for his son's body — both to keep off rain and to give him somewhere to sit as he literally acts as a shield for his child. It's a powerful image, one episode director Tom Verica and credited writer Zahir McGhee return to again and again.
Olivia eventually grows disillusioned with the police's excuses when they clearly try to curb press coverage of the events. She joins the protests, pointedly locking eyes with the officer she was just working for. The message is clear — if even Olivia Pope (who spends so much of her time propping up the existing power structures) is over it, then everybody else should be too.
The episode ends a little conveniently. Olivia manages to somewhat improbably prove that the knife found on Brandon's body was not actually his. The officer who shot Brandon launches into a racist rant, only digging his own grave all the deeper.
Notice how Verica chooses to focus on the faces of the shooter's black fellow officers in this scene.
It all ends with the officer going to jail, Clarence being comforted by President Fitz, and Olivia having solved another crisis, this one with more real-world resonances than usual.
Let's not talk about the First Lady's B-plot
Also, because this is Scandal, the B-plot focused on one of the season's ongoing storylines, namely First Lady Mellie's desire to run for president once her husband's second term is over. Since Fitz needs to replace the vice president (who is currently incapacitated — and also pretty much evil), he needs to find someone who won't pose a threat to his wife's burgeoning candidacy.
To say this was significantly less riveting than the main storyline would be a massive understatement. Let us not speak of it again.
Scandal's stunning final scene
When The Good Wife airlifted in a Ferguson-inspired plotline, it wasn't entirely sure how to tell a story mostly about black Americans in its largely white universe.
Scandal doesn't really have this problem. Olivia, after all, is a black woman, and the notion of her race is central to both the show's major conflicts and its central themes. Thus, the show doesn't have to work hard to explain why Olivia is so quickly drawn to this case, why the other black characters she speaks to about it suspect her of selling out her own community, and why she ultimately turns against the people who were initially paying her.
What it does have to do, however, is figure out a way to make ripped-from-the-headlines storytelling work within the Scandal universe, and that's where things fell apart slightly. Scandal takes place in a universe of extreme, heightened emotion, and that mixes somewhat tempestuously with the very raw, very real emotions that surround stories like this.
Or, put another way, Scandal is usually about giddy highs followed by crushing lows. It's not a show that deals well in sobering realities. So maybe the fact that it was able to do an episode about this particular topic and maintain both its individual voice and its credibility marks this as a huge success. Is it slightly cheesy when Clarence weeps in the president's arms? Yes. But it's also beautiful, a deeply felt wish for how these stories could end but never will.
And the final image of the episode is a stunner — Verica finally shows us Brandon's face, revealing the dead boy at the center of this tragedy. And then the body bag closes, removing him from us and the world forever.
The key here is Shonda Rhimes
It's impossible to talk about "The Lawn Chair" without also mentioning Scandal's creator and the most powerful woman in television, Shonda Rhimes. As a black woman, Rhimes can talk about these issues in a way no one else on television can. Rhimes is not someone who is naturally drawn to stories that comment on immediate, current events like, say, The Jeffersons' Norman Lear was. But she's clearly engaged with the culture of her country, and when she wants to — or feels she simply has to — she'll unleash something like "The Lawn Chair."
Or, put another way, when you allow a diverse number of voices onto television, then those voices will offer diverse perspectives on important topics, creating stories and perspectives we haven't always seen before. Whatever clumsiness "The Lawn Chair" carried with it in places was largely wiped away by the sheer audacity of its very existence.
When "The Lawn Chair" closes with hope for a better future, that hope feels at least somewhat earned — but it also feels tinged with a kind of regret that Olivia Pope doesn't exist in our world to bring forth a better one. And seeing Olivia join the protests feels sort of seismic in a way. TV characters rarely get this forthrightly political. TV characters rarely advocate.
How does "The Lawn Chair" fit into Shonda Rhimes' overall body of work?
It's not really like anything else on any of Rhimes' series (which include the currently running Grey's Anatomy and How to Get Away with Murder). She's had episodes (particularly of Scandal) that sidle up to important issues of the day, but she's never had one that is inspired this directly. And the episode's standalone nature also suggests that Scandal will be right back to its wacky shenanigans next week.
But "The Lawn Chair" also marks how Scandal is trying new, nervier things in its fourth season. The show will probably never be back to the place it was in season two, where it felt like a major twist unfolded every five minutes or so. But in season four, it's been more willing to play around with its storytelling format and to ditch serialization in favor of standalone episodes that feel like nothing else the show has tried before. (See also: midseason premiere "Run.")
"The Lawn Chair" feels less like a new direction for Scandal and more like the show and Rhimes talking about something they felt desperately needed to be addressed. If you didn't like it, you probably gave the show points for trying something different, and if it spoke to you, it probably provoked an enormously emotional response.
If nothing else, "The Lawn Chair" stood as acknowledgement by Scandal that even in its deliberately heightened world, there are wounds that won't heal and problems that aren't so easily solved. In the end, "The Lawn Chair" offers a dash of hope, but only that. The real work falls not to Olivia, but to us.
Scandal airs on ABC Thursdays at 9 pm Eastern. You can watch "The Lawn Chair" on Hulu.