Last night’s episode of Scandal was widely promoted as the most powerful episode of the season, and Olivia and the gang definitely delivered on that promise in a big departure from the international intrigue to which we’ve become accustomed.

Scandal doesn’t do a great deal of ripped-from-the-headlines, Law & Order-style stuff, mostly because that would cut into the time available for Olivia and Fitz to yell at each other about jam and Jake to take his shirt off, but last night’s episode clearly used Michael Brown’s shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, as a jumping off point for last night’s plot, but thankfully, it did so with more care than your average L&O. (No disrespect to L&O.)

The previous thinly veiled current events that the show tackled (Edward Snowden, Chandra Levy) were relatively few, and they all spun off into wild, unrelated plots that didn’t reflect the true stories because, well, this is Scandal. Olivia got abducted by terrorists and thought she was in the Middle East but was actually in New Jersey, remember? Everything that happens on this show happens on a different plane or reality than where the rest of us live.

And, in a way, this did, too. Olivia’s a week out from getting sold on Evil eBay and there she was, kneeling in front of a teenager’s body in the street, trying to find a way to reassure his father that he wouldn’t end up in jail or dead when she knew those were the only imaginable options. She was wearing black, which is a sure sign of distress from the closet of Olivia Pope, and David Rosen wouldn’t even roll up out of his office to help her.

Elsewhere, Rosen was trying to figure out what to do with our vegetative vice president. The Constitution, you see, does not account for succession in the event of permanent incapacitation, but the optics of impeaching someone so profoundly disabled are not great. Plus, the public doesn’t know that he made a genuine go at overthrowing the US government, and it’d probably be best if they all continued not to know that; there are some questions there that the president doesn’t want to answer. (Not that he has ever, in the history of this show, had a good answer for anyone about anything.)

Ultimately, though, the decision was made to get rid of the current vice president in favor of a new one, and although Mellie made a little speech about how it was her turn, ultimately, it was not–even Hillary had to cycle through an elected office and a cabinet appointment first. Instead, Shonda brought back around that freshman congressman Olivia got elected a while back, and she had a lot of opinions on vaccines.

Mostly, though, the episode was an out-of-narrative departure to comment on an issue that so many Americans have spent debating and discussing among themselves, which was a first for the show, as far as I can remember. In that way, it was a bit of a strange decision; the episode ran the risk of feeling like a cynical drop-in to attract attention or an overly manipulative Very Special Episode, but mostly, it stayed on the right side of the line. I kept waiting for things to tread into the territory of bad taste, but instead, it was one of the most careful episodes of the series. To work, it needed to be.

Relative to almost all other episodes of Scandal, the plot was simple: Liv’s cronies did some investigating and found video footage that indicated the knife that the cop said had been pulled on him had actually been planted at the scene, and after David Rosen swooped into the local precinct with his entourage of law people, the officer was arrested and would, presumably, go to trial and have a jury decide his fate. The boy’s father, instead of getting arrested, was comforted by the president. (Personally, I would have skipped the part where they hugged. Fitz is gross.)

The episode seemed to purposefully lack the kind of kooky, over-the-top antics that usually characterize Scandal, although it did slip into melodrama here and there. (If you’re opposed to that, though, you probably parted ways with Shonda a long time ago.) The inclusion of the daffy-but-sincere congresswoman and her potential promotion functioned as a promise to watchers that the theatrics will return soon; we are, after all, looking down the barrel of the third vice president in barely 1.5 presidential terms.

If anything (or at least anything that we can get into here), the episode made me wish Scandal would simplify itself more often. The episode had a lot going for it: it was topical, sincere, cautiously hopeful and dramatic without resorting to the cheap tricks that Shonda’s been using to move the plot along recently. No one had to whip out a sudden and extremely convenient knowledge of conversational Farsi. No characters from three seasons ago had to save the day out of nowhere. It was Liv doing what we were promised Liv would do way back at the beginning of the series: solve high-level problems by being smart, resourceful and well-connected.

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