An African-American lies dead, shot by a Caucasian cop. It’s difficult to think of a more authentically hot-button issue than that at the moment, certainly in the American context. Olivia is called in by the Washington police to “handle the optics”, which isn’t easy: the deceased is 17-year-old Brandon Parker; a neighbourhood activist is on the scene, with the intention – quite properly, some might say – of using the incident to inflame tensions; and Brandon’s father Clarence (a remarkable turn by Courtney B. Vance) is standing over his son’s body with a shotgun, demanding to see the officer who killed his son.
The optics aren’t so good, as Olivia realises. Nonetheless, the cop (Michael Welch, also excellent) is a sympathetic character, who claims that Brandon had pulled a knife on him, and he was in fear of his life. Huck and Quinn get to work in the background trying to prove or disprove this allegation. Meantime, though, Olivia’s attempts to calm the situation – including trying to get David Rosen down to the site – are unsuccessful, and she’s confronted by the police chief, who poses a question that she’s evidently been grappling with throughout: “Whose side are you on here?” Not the cops’ side, she decides.
The tone is lightened a little by the B-plot, in which Fitz tries to find a new vice-president, on the basis that Andrew is now “a pumpkin” (Cyrus). There are another couple of nice Fitz/Mellie moments, and eventually it’s the garrulous but good-hearted Susan Ross (played beautifully by Artemis Pebdani. I love Pebdani in this. Actually, I loved her in Masters of Sex as well. Come to think of it, I kind of love her) who is identified; Tony Goldwyn’s droll, wordless reactions to Ross’s chattering are a joy.
But we can’t stay with the B-plot forever. I’m honestly not sure what I made of this episode. (I should at this point acknowledge personal privilege, and the good fortune to live in a country with proper gun control laws and a police force which isn’t routinely armed.) Allowing that a 45 minute long episode of a network drama sometimes needs to paint with broad strokes, I wonder whether the ending could have done with a little more nuance: did the position about the knife need to be so clear-cut? Did the shooter need to deliver a verging-on-racist monologue?
To be clear, though, I’m worrying about this from a dramatic point of view; I’m in no doubt, no doubt at all, that the points the episode was making are points which, tragically, need to be made over and over again. The penultimate scene – soundtracked by Nina Simone singing ‘I Shall Be Released’ – in which Clarence thinks he’s being taken home, but is instead taken into the Oval Office, had me in tears; and the final scene was like a slap in the face. ‘The Lawn Chair’ wasn’t a perfect episode of TV, but it was, I think, an important and worthwhile one.