What would Ferguson have looked like if there had been an Olivia Pope there?
That’s the question tonight’s episode of Scandal asks us to contemplate. A 17-year-old black man is shot by a white cop. The claim is that the man, Brandon, was going for a knife. His body has sat on the street in view of his neighbors for an hour. It all sounds eerily familiar, until Olivia is called in by the cops to help them handle the optics. And until Brandon’s father comes out, shotgun in hand, and stands vigil over his son’s body until the cops answer for what they’ve done.
He’s joined by a local activist, Marcus Walker, a Georgetown-educated young man who’s come back to his community to strengthen it and protect it. He’s aggressive, he’s spiky, he’s absolutely right, and he has Liv’s number. “You don’t want justice. You want anger. You want outrage. You want retribution,” she accuses him. “You’re right. I do. So should you,” he tells her. Walker offers Liv a foil at the start of this episode, deflating the trademark Pope rant before it can gain steam. He challenges her on her relationship to Brandon’s death as a black woman. Liv has spent most of this show, that we’ve seen, moving in circles where the power and money dynamics were far more consequential than a racial dynamic. “For about a week straight, i thought I was a goner. I lived in complete and total fear,” she tells David Rosen. “Imagine feeling like that every single day of your life.”
Olivia is also deeply dedicated to doing the right thing, so when she sees the police gearing up to obstruct the press and prep a riot squad to disperse the protest, she crosses the picket line. “The fact that they stand in groups and say things you do not like does not make them a mob,” she tells the police chief. “It makes them Americans.” Once it’s clear the cops care more about protecting their image than protecting the law, Liv is over it.
A knife is discovered on Brandon’s body, seeming to validate the cop’s story. The magic of Pope and Associate’s spy-team discovers proof that the knife was planted. This moment, as all Pope and Associates investigations, is a bit of idealized work—the perfect evidence, the missing piece. It’s a fantasy for what we want in reality—the video camera that shows us exactly what was going on, who did what, an objective eye by which we can judge events. In this case, it exonerates Brandon, and gives closure to his dad.
In the end the question is answered, because this is TV, much more neatly than in real life. Officer Newton, when confronted by Olivia and the full weight of the Justice Department as represented by David Rosen, goes on a deeply incriminating rant. He uses the phrase “those people,” bemoans black on black crime, and makes claims about not getting respect. His colleagues in the DC police look on aghast. The Justice Department opens an investigation. Officer Newton is charged with a slew of crimes (but none of them murder—let’s not strain the suspension of disbelief too much).
In our reality, this week the DOJ released its report on the findings in the investigation into the shooting death of Michael Brown. In the report they detail their reasons for clearing Officer Darren Wilson of civil rights violations in his actions. In a second report, the DOJ broadly condemned policing practice in the city of Ferguson, citing systemic issues in both the local court system and the police department that led to blatant disregard of the law and of the constitutional rights of the area’s residents, and racial bias in law enforcement.
The Ferguson reports are essentially a mirror opposite of Scandal‘s denouement. On TV it’s easier to have a singular villain, to have the cop responsible be a closet bigot. There’s only so much you can do in an hour of time, and addressing the ingrained biases and racism of our legal system isn’t easily one of them. (Heck, five seasons isn’t necessarily enough—just ask The Wire.) It’s also not as neatly solved. There’s no answer, no neat wrap-up to systemic injustice, no satisfying resolution. There’s just the daily questioning of why this is the way things are, how they can be better.
Scandal tonight did about as fulfilling a treatment of this issue as you could hope for from an hour of TV. Even the trademark monologues are graceful, balanced, and frankly, more than usually touching. Officer Newton’s rant is at once a dog-whistle for a raging bigot without being a caricature of a racist cop. Clarence Parker’s speech about his son touches heartbreakingly on so many things the parents of young black men worry about. Does this storyline wrap up neatly, and in a way that seems like an aspirational fantasy—and is it sad that I’ve tagged a just arrest as “aspirational fantasy”? Yes. But Rimes is better able to express her feelings about it, as she tweeted tonight about this conclusion: “We had a great deal of debate about this ending. Whether to be hopeful or not. It was really hard. In the end we went with what fulfilling the dream SHOULD mean. The idea of possibility. And the despair we feel now.”