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Everybody Gets a Second Chance

Political Animals Episode 2 Review and Recap (Warning: spoilers ahead). 

Watching this week’s second installment in USA’s political miniseries, entitled “Second Time Around,” I was struck by a couple of things. Firstly, by how the series has started to grow and distance itself from its Clintonian source material, and achieve a thematically resounding second episode, and secondly, by what would possess anyone in any universe, real or fictional, to vote for Ciaran Hinds’ pork belly buffet of a President Bud Hammonds.

But seriously, who is this guy? I was so excited for this episode in all aspects except him. We learned a bit more about Elaine, got to see her at her most vulnerable in flashbacks to Bud’s affairs in the White House. Ellen Burstyn’s Margaret got to shine and move past the alcohol swilling cliches her character was weighed down with in the first episode. TJ’s story was fleshed out more. And it would have been so good, if not for a drawling ex-President bringing a pretty journalist to a “top-secret” meeting with the President of Iran because he wanted her to like him. But more on that later.

This episode focused with Elaine making her first true power play versus President Garcetti, in forcing him to send Bud to Iran to deal with the hostage crisis. This all of course led up to Elaine’s confession to her son, and later to Bud, that she was planning on making a primary challenge to Garcetti in the next election. Doug, both her son and chief aide, obviously thinks its crazy. His confrontation of Elaine is a perfect microcosm of the point the entire series is trying to make. First he talks about the political ramifications, dividing the Democratic party, losing, etc. Then he moves to the personal. She barely survived the 18 hours days of the last campaign, with the stress and the medication it required. Then he goes for the sucker punch, the familial. What could possibly possess her to put her family through that again?

When Doug pries out of Elaine that she slept with Bud again, the argument between them is truly heartbreaking. They’re not the first family anymore. They’re just a mother and son, with the son desperately trying to prevent the mother from being hurt again by his cheating father. It’s not a political motivation, it’s one of love. It was a humanizing moment for Doug, who has been exhibiting automaton-like qualities up until this point. I was glad to see the human side of him.

The episode was about the second time around, and not just for Elaine. The full effects of the story about his suicide have finally reached TJ, who dashes shoeless out of the window of a random lover’s apartment in his first appearance in the episode. I was excited to see his character expanding as well, as he displayed behavior that made him more than just an addict and a poor little rich boy. In a scene with Ellen Burstyn’s extremely entertaining Grandma Margaret, the duo resolves to perform at Doug’s party. After he steals a check from her she turns the tables on him, dropping her loving Grandma act to straight talk with a kid in trouble. “I know your story, and I know how it ends.” Ouch. Quite a sentiment to hear from your grandmother. (Also, three cheers for Ellen Burstyn, who was great even when the role was cliched. Note to the writers: More Grandma Margaret please!) Later in the episode he shows up at Doug’s apartment looking for a second chance. He gets it, with the condition that he gets treatment. We’ll see what he does with it.

Bud also got a second chance, in his case to make a difference in the world. His whole trip to Turkey was the most annoying part of the episode, what with his blatant come-on to Susan and then his incredibly unprofessional and unrealistic negotiation with the President of Iran. I suppose it would be hard to make realistic storylines for an unrealistic character, but still, they could try.

The best moment of the episode was at the end when Doug took a step that reversed the family’s relationship with the media. He leaked to Susan that Elaine was planning on running again. He wanted her to publish it to stop his mother from getting anywhere on her plan, to save his engagement and his younger brother. This is an interesting flip on the conceit of the first episode, where the media used the family for its benefit, instead we see members of the family using the media to change their own lives and work their relatives. Somehow it evens the scales between the family and the media, which is an interesting dynamic. We’ll see where it takes us in episode three.

Political Animals Episode 1 Review: The Woman Solution

Secretary of State Elaine Barrish (Sigourney Weaver) and reporter Susan Berg (Carla Gugino) are strong women who help the soapy “Political Animals” shine.

“They only love us when they’re not busy hating us.”

Former first son TJ Hammond (Sebastian Stan) of USA’s new miniseries, Political Animals, pretty much sums up the trouble with politics in this country in that succinct statement. Or perhaps, more specifically, the politics of personality is really what he’s talking about here. You know what I mean. Our obsession with the personal lives, dramas, and (really now) mistakes of the people who run our government and their families. Perhaps it is the fact that we always have such strong feelings about our public figures that makes their lives so intriguing. Love or hate the fictional politicians of Political Animals, you do want to know more about them.

The conceit of the six episode miniseries, created by Everwood and Jack and Bobby alum, Greg Berlanti, is simple enough. Former First Lady and Governor of Illinois Elaine Barrish Hammond (Sigourney Weaver, in a rare television role), complete with a philandering ex-presidential husband, is now Secretary of State after an unsuccessful primary presidential bid. Sound familiar? It should. Despite the denial by Weaver that the show is specifically about the Clintons, the parallels are simply to many to ignore. And perhaps that is good for the show, to link itself so inextricably to people so firmly rooted in our cultural memory. We all share an intimate knowledge of the background of the characters that we are inclined to watch them in this new setting. And indeed, the Hammonds seem to be more than the Clintons. In a Kennedy-esque way, they are what American royalty would be like. But once you get passed the idea that the show is a dramatization of that famous family, it actually starts to hold its own.

For one thing, a crux on which the show rests is the fact that Barrish actually divorced her husband. The show opens with her concession speech after losing the Democratic primary (with a nod to Secretary Clinton’s famous “glass ceiling” speech), which she immediately follows by demanding a divorce from Bud Hammond (Ciaran Hinds). Fast forward two years and Secretary Barrish is being interviewed by ambitious reporter Susan Berg (Carla Gugino) who wants to know simply, why? Why that night? Why not right when the affairs started? Was it political? In a moment of pure exposition she notes that Barrish’s popularity has soared since the divorce while Hammond’s has plummeted. If she ran for president that moment she would win in a landslide. Did she decide to divorce her husband at her moment of defeat because she was so desperate to win?

The interview questions aside, the idea that Barrish divorcing her husband made her a more popular figure is something I find fascinating. That it showed her to be a strong and independent woman and that the American public loved that, is an intriguing piece of fiction. I cannot say I believe that if Hilary Clinton were to divorce Bill it would increase her popularity. Rather I feel it would tarnish her, leave her open to attacks from conservatives about the sanctity of marriage, and call into question the political intentions of staying together in the first place. I just don’t think that as a group, the American public likes strong independent women at all. I personally have a great love of strong and independent women. I grew up around them, and hope to one day be able to count myself among them. But I am also hyper-aware of the reactions of others to them. And they are usually negative.

And it is not just in politics. In film and television, we are constantly assaulted with a barrage of weak and attractive female characters that are there to serve men rather than their own interests. They flutter around being supported by their stronger male counterparts and usually have very little consequence to the story other than a romantic one. We call it the Woman Problem. And it is a problem. It’s a problem because we’ve been so ingrained with this stereotype by the media that we accept these pathetic female characters without really questioning them. Think about women in Tim Burton films, the female characters in The Newsroom, or the Queen Bee of women waifs, Bella Swan. We are programmed to believe this is how women behave. And so I am happy to see a show that has taken the Woman Problem and made it a concept rather than a consequence.

That is not to say that the show is completely flattering in its portrayal of a powerful woman. Barrish runs into trouble with attacks from the press, her male diplomatic counterparts’ sexual advances, and the vitriol of the men who surround her in the White House (one staffer asks her, ever so viciously,”why don’t you worry about your son’s engagement party and we’ll worry about the situation in Iran”). But it does, in its own very melodramatic way, face those issues head on.

An interesting aspect of the series that helps to propel this theme is the dynamic between Barrish and her tag-along-reporter, Susan Berg. Berg starts off as the villain, extorting an all access pass to Barrish’s life by dangling the threat of publishing an embarrassing story about her son TJ. Instead, Berg turns into a foil for the weak women in other stories: she is a strong woman who is proud and self-aware of her strength, and who hated Barrish for her weakness at first. A great moment occurs at the end of the first hour of the series when these two women recognize the strength in each other.

The show is very self-aware of its own faults and limitations. It is a nighttime soap, completely over-dramatic, and occasionally, very lightweight. But it embraces these aspects, melding melodrama with message. I’m interested to see where they take the idea of women and the Woman Problem, but I’m also interested to see what happens with President Hammond and his TV star girlfriend, how Barrish will beat the President in their power plays, and if the engagement with Hammond son Douglas and the bulimic Anne will make it. And the show is designed to make me interested in both.

“Political Animals” airs Sundays at 10/9c on USA Network.