When Rick Eid took over as Chicago P.D. showrunner ahead of Season 5, he told TV Guide he wanted to infuse the Dick Wolf drama with the "interesting and complex social, cultural and political issues" happening today in the Windy City. Wednesday's episode, titled "Night in Chicago," is the latest result of this tonal shift and the series' second attempt at tackling the real-world issue of unarmed black men being shot and killed by police officers.
The episode finds Atwater (LaRoyce Hawkins) in a moral dilemma after witnessing Doyle, a racist cop, shoot his unarmed companion, Daryl, the drug dealer he'd befriended while investigating undercover. Grappling with his identities as both a police officer and a black man, Atwater is placed in the difficult position of having to choose between supporting his brothers in blue and siding with his marginalized community. The tense hour, which was written by screenwriter Ike Smith, who is black, and directed by ER alum Eriq La Salle, aims to present multiple sides of the issue, but merely scratches the surface of the nuanced subject.
"I remember talking with [Smith] and him saying that he wanted it to feel like more than a police brutality story that happened to a black man by a white racist. He wanted it to really envelop all of the vibes and vices that create this conundrum in the city of Chicago," Hawkins told TV Guide.
In trying to explore all those different perspectives, the episode squanders an opportunity to take a meaningful stance on such an important issue. The most frustrating aspect of the hour is that Atwater's feelings are continually dismissed by his non-black co-workers. Voight, who goes to bat for the detective against an angry official seeking to blame Atwater for the scandal, ultimately fails as a true ally. Ignoring Atwater's testimony of Doyle's racism, Voight opts to "wait until all the facts are in before making a judgment" because he's not ready to accuse a fellow officer. Not only does this undermine Atwater's credibility as an actual eyewitness, it falsely presents Voight as the unbiased, level-headed figure merely seeking the truth rather than exploring what's really at play here: an unwillingness to examine a broken system that enables racists to continue murdering the very people they swore to protect and serve.
The episode does offer up one decent ally in Ruzek, who, in a touching scene, actually checks in with Atwater and admits he can't fully grasp what his buddy is going through because he's not black.
Still, that doesn't erase the episode's glaring failure to adequately call out the racial bias which plagues the police force, both fictionally and in the real world. In the end, Doyle is cleared of any wrongdoing thanks to ambiguous footage from the scene. (Darryl is seen reaching forward either for Doyle's gun or to protect himself from being shot, depending on how you interpret the video.)
It's even more enraging because of Alderman Rice (Wendell Pierce), the show's other prominent black character, who is painted as an opportunist rather than a much-needed sympathetic voice. Despite leading a Black Lives Matter rally, he attempts to coerce Atwater into fudging facts so he can use Daryl's shooting to advance his political career. If it were any other episode, that characterization would have been interesting. But in the one which finds Atwater's voice silenced by the overwhelming complicity of his cohorts in blue, it's just an added blow to an episode that stops short of any accountability for a racist police officer.
The episode's only form of justice comes in the final moments when Atwater, unable to hold Doyle accountable legally, takes matters into his own hands and beats him to a bloody pulp while off the clock. "Cop culture and black culture — they're two different brotherhoods, and that's the best kind of justice that Atwater was gonna get for himself in that moment," Hawkins said.
It's a realistic ending for a disappointing episode that meant well — but left a bitter aftertaste.
Chicago P.D. airs Wednesdays at 10/9c on NBC.