In last week’s urgently powerful episode of Scandal, Shonda Rhimes—the showrunner America needs, and the most progressive force in entertainment right now—boldly brought the country’s collective ongoing pain over Michael Brown, and the ever-rising count of unarmed black men killed by police, to prime time.
“It was about lives mattering regardless of who you are,” Kerry Washington said Sunday, taking a solemn pause during a sold-out Scandal panel at PaleyFest.
“I was very moved that Shonda had a lot of feelings about what’s been going on and that her form of protest, her form of expression, her way of contributing, is to write,” she said.
Ripped from the headlines, “The Lawn Chair” opens with the shooting death of Brandon Parker, a 17-year-old African-American teenager, by a white officer just blocks away from the White House. The racially-charged killing threatens to ignite another Ferguson when the boy’s father Clarence (Courtney B. Vance, in an exquisite turn) arrives, shotgun in hand.
He places a lawn chair over his son’s body and demands answers as outraged locals, the media, and tense cops with their guns at the ready swarm the scene. OPA’s top dog is called in to defuse the situation and protect the city.
And in one instant, Scandal lets Olivia Pope lead the way forward.
After playing fixer for D.C.’s white police chief for half the episode, Olivia can no longer ignore the primacy of personal participation, or her own blackness. The post-racial boss lady of Scandal tries every trick in her arsenal, pleading with Attorney General David Rosen (Joshua Malina) to step in, to no avail.
Faced with a righteously angry and grieving Clarence and challenged by neighborhood activist Marcus to examine the privileged white establishment she so often serves, Olivia breaks down. She crosses the picket line and joins the protest, chanting, “Stand up / Fight back / No more black men under attack!”
“It did feel that we had come to a point where the writers were comfortable embracing this part of Olivia’s identity, and I like that it was a journey for Olivia herself,” said Washington. “She had to cross the picket line to validate her black card.”
The table read for “The Lawn Chair” episode was unusually quiet, cast members revealed. “My initial reaction to the script was, ‘Wow—we’re doing this, she’s going there,’ which on one level surprised me and on another level didn’t really, because Shonda has first of all earned the ability to do what she wants, and because creatively she’s very independent and bold and brash,” Joshua Malina told The Daily Beast. “As I read it I thought, this is classic Shonda writing about what moves her.”
The episode, written by Zahir McGhee and directed by Tom Verica, aired to acclaim Thursday night. Less than 24 hours later Tony Robinson, an unarmed black 19-year-old, was shot and killed in Madison, Wisconsin, by a police officer responding to a call about a person jumping in and out of traffic. What’s more, several Ferguson police officers were shown the door—including Darren Wilson’s supervisor—after racist emails surfaced that were sent within the department.
Washington and the cast credit Rhimes’s own political passions for episodes like this one, which pointedly calls for national conversations about race and power even as the deaths of young men Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Tony Robinson, and countless others remain fresh and raw.
Olivia’s abduction just a few episodes ago was a nod to the mass kidnappings of women in Nigeria by Boko Haram, according to Washington. “At a time in this world when we were begging the media to pay attention to the hundreds of black girls that were missing overseas… Shonda wrote the ultimate thing [that] became the epitome of ‘Black Lives Matter,’” she said.
“Rather than ignore the hundreds of black women that were missing, she made a president go to war for this one person. And of course since she’s Shonda, she put that black woman on an auction block. I thought it was a wonderful, poignant choice of hers.”
Elsewhere during PaleyFest, Girls’ Lena Dunham kept mum about her upcoming guest turn on Scandal, which happens to be based on the life of Judy Smith, the real world Olivia Pope-esque fixer Dunham hired this year to help manage her own PR crisis.
Onstage, moderator Jimmy Kimmel said he’d heard Rhimes’s network power is so potent that ABC suits don’t even get to approve episodes before they air.
Washington couldn’t confirm that rumor, but if anyone had that much clout, it’d be the woman responsible for Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How To Get Away With Murder. “It’s not called Shonda Land for nothing,” Washington said.