Toward the end of Mike Nichols’s adaptation of “Primary Colors,” Henry Burton (Adrian Lester), a top political strategist for Jack and Susan Stanton (John Travolta and Emma Thompson), is devastated when he finds out how they intend to smear a rival politician who poses a challenge to Jack’s campaign for the presidency. “They can’t get away with this,” he says in dismay. “This cannot be a world that lets them get away with it.” His fellow staffer Libby Holden (Kathy Bates), who has known the Stantons for decades, is amused and a little sad at Henry’s naivete. “Imagine a black boy saying that,” she tells him. “What a privileged life you’ve had.”
That line always reminds me of Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), the crisis-fixer at the center of Shonda Rhimes’s fevered Washington drama “Scandal.” Olivia is a power fantasy, a woman who grew up riding horses, who has the president at her beck and call, who never, ever spills red wine on her impeccable cream and gray outfits. Her power is real off-screen, too: “Scandal” gave broadcast television its first black female main character since 1974, and the show’s success helped make possible similar fevered shows with powerful black women at their centers, like “How To Get Away With Murder” and this spring’s smash hit, “Empire.”
For all that “Scandal” both delights and shocks, capable of communicating truths about torture and a metastasizing intelligence bureaucracy that a more sober show couldn’t carry off, the very things that make Olivia appealing also limit what “Scandal” can say about race. If Olivia were bowed under the weight of constant slights, she wouldn’t be nearly so swashbuckling or so enviable a figure. And in sending her gladiatorial skills up against institutional racism, as “Scandal” did last week in “The Lawn Chair,” an episode that echoed the killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice, the show risks making racism seem like an easier foe than it actually is.
There’s some reason for Olivia to be optimistic about the extent to which racism inflects her life. She doesn’t live in our world. She resides in a fantasy-land where black men run major government agencies without getting tangled up in Fast and Furious-style investigations, where people of color are well represented in Congress, where Republicans can get their act together on immigration policy, where she and her white lover can actually imagine that coming out as a public couple will shake up American racial attitudes.
“Scandal” does break from this almost-post-racial fantasy from time to time. When the show talks about structural inequality, though, both Olivia’s establishment father and her terrorist mother tend to argue that it is their daughter’s responsibility to transcend any barriers that might block her path.
When her father, Rowan (Joe Morton), who runs a totally unaccountable intelligence agency that can command even the presidency, lectures Olivia in the show’s third season about the need for her to be twice as good as white people to get half as much, his real disgust is reserved for her choices, which seems to be leading her, at best, to be first lady rather than secretary of state. The implication — and the premise of “Scandal” — is that Olivia is more than capable of being not just twice as good, but four or eight times as good, in a way that lets her be the girl with the most cake, no matter her color. Olivia’s mother, Maya (Khandi Alexander), has an analysis essentially identical to Rowan’s, calling Olivia “nothing but the help, and you don’t even know it.”
“The Lawn Chair” is one of “Scandal’s” — and Olivia’s — first confrontations with the idea that she can’t transcend everything.
The episode began with what seems like a setup for another Olivia Pope superheroine operation. She’s so gifted that she decides to take an impossible job: helping the District of Columbia police department manage its response to an officer’s killing of an unarmed black man. For a substantial part of the episode, Olivia seems to believe that her talent can transcend even this dreadful situation, that she alone can get more by working with the police than the crowds who gather around the crime scene, led in chants by an activist named Marcus Walker (Cornelius Smith Jr.).
“You know why you’re here, right? You know why they chose you?” Marcus asks Olivia, telling her that she’s giving the department cover less with anything she does than with the color of her skin.
“This isn’t a platform. You’re not auditioning to become America’s Next Great Black Activist,” Olivia snaps back, dismissing Marcus as a race hustler. “You have no idea what I’m about.”
But Marcus has a response at the ready, one that acknowledges that President Fitzgerald Grant’s (Tony Goldwyn) record — which we don’t see much of on-screen — might be something less than a delightful fantasy. “You’re about getting a white Republican president elected,” he reminds her. “Twice.”
There’s something fascinating about how utterly naive Olivia appears in “The Lawn Chair.” She seems to believe that the police department genuinely wants to do right by the dead boy and his father, Clarence (Courtney B. Vance), who guards his son’s body with a shotgun, insisting to talk to the officer who killed his boy. She’s surprised when the police chief cordons off the press so they can’t see crowd-clearing efforts up close. And she’s shocked when David Rosen (Joshua Malina), the attorney general, doesn’t just show up to the scene of the shooting when she demands that he come.
“I can’t just go marching into every sensitive situation trying to rush the justice process. There are laws, okay? Ones I’m paid to uphold,” David tells her, exasperated.
“To protect people who look like you,” Olivia tells him, raw from the shock of a situation she can’t handle, from a scene where no one wants the sort of slick comfort she’s used to selling. “You talk about fairness and justice like it’s available to everyone. It’s not. … I can’t fix this, David. There’s nothing left. There are no more tricks in my bag.” At the moment, maybe it seems that way.
But this is “Scandal.” Olivia gets her groove back, telling the cops to give Clarence space when he gets upset and it looks like the result might be gunfire. When she goes to the police station, her presence prompts the cop who tried to cover up a bad shooting not only to confess but to confess in terms that are so blatantly racist that his fellow cops (a number of whom are black) turn against him. Once again, she’s a superheroine who can keep fingers off triggers, who can shoulder through the thin blue line. This is a fantasy less of just and timely government intervention to punish racist violence than of a world where respectability politics actually works.