Warning: spoilers ahead for the eighth episode of Chicago P.D. Season 8, called "Protect and Serve."
Chicago P.D.'s "Protect and Serve" was a powerful hour of television and forced Atwater and Ruzek to risk their lives to protect a cop who shot and killed a young Black man at a routine traffic stop. For Atwater, he had to deal with Officer Whelan maintaining that he'd done nothing wrong in pulling the trigger and Ruzek trying time and time again to tell him to keep calm about Whelan rather than start something. The result was Atwater asking Ruzek how he could be so calm when they had both seen the same footage, and actor LaRoyce Hawkins has opened up about the sense of "responsibility" he feels in playing Atwater.
"Protect and Serve" was a complicated episode that presented unique challenges, as it didn't come to an easy or convenient ending with closure, even if the bad guys of the hour ended up either dead or captured. They solved the case, but obviously not the racial bias inherent in the system that left yet another young Black man dead for no reason, and Atwater asked some hard questions of Ruzek. LaRoyce Hawkins talked to TVLine about his responsibility in this kind of Chicago P.D. episode:
When Chicago P.D. does an episode like this, it’s very important for us to tell the most authentic story possible because we want everybody to learn and unlearn, at a high level, the right thing. I know that my responsibility isn’t just to make Black people proud. It’s also to make Black people look good because we have a white audience that is very invested in our show. The things that they see Atwater do and the way they see Atwater react or respond is essentially going to have a reflection on how they react and respond to things. I think that’s how Chicago P.D. becomes one of those shows that helps us bridge gaps and start conversations that leads to progress and change. I’m grateful to have the opportunity to do that.
On top of the regular challenges of playing his character on Chicago P.D., with episodes such as "Protect and Serve" LaRoyce Hawkins feels a responsibility to "make Black people look good" for white audience members who respond to how Atwater conducts himself, as well as his responsibility to "make Black people proud." It's not every week that Chicago P.D. airs an Atwater-centric episode, let alone an Atwater-centric episode with such a focus on character and real-life issues with implications that the story isn't done just because the case of the week was closed.
All of Chicago P.D.'s Atwater-centric episodes of Season 8 have touched on racial injustice within the Chicago Police Department, with Atwater himself the target of racist cops after taking a stand at the end of Season 7. Atwater found a way out of that situation with his hands clean and the possibility of still moving up at CPD (and hopefully making detective), but he's still facing an uphill battle, and as he said during his evaluation in "Protect and Serve," the cops in his unit are the only ones he considers family.
That unit is about to get bigger with the addition of Cleveland Berto as Officer Andre Cooper, and while I'm still holding out for Chicago P.D. to explain what happened to Rojas, I'm hoping that we get to see Atwater take Cooper under his wing in some ways. Cooper is fresh out of the academy, after all. Find out with the next new episode of Chicago P.D. on Wednesday, March 17 at 10 p.m. ET on NBC. The One Chicago block of primetime (including Chicago Fire and Chicago Med as well as P.D.) is going strong on NBC, and another Dick Wolf show is only weeks away from premiering to expand the shared TV universe even more.