If you’ve never watched an episode of Ryan Murphy’s The Politician on Netflix, the easiest description I can give you to prepare you is that it’s about a bunch of rich Slytherin kids trying to out-Slytherin each other.
The acclaimed Netflix show centers around Payton Hobart (Ben Platt), the eponymous politician, with each season focusing on a political race he runs: the first for school body president, the second for State Senator, and the third for Vice President of the United States. The series is an easy to spot satire of American politics, making light mocking of how campaigning and voting really works (this one is still a sore topic), painting an equally vilifying image of politicians for the lies they spin as demeaning of voters for how easily swayed they are.
I have to admit, when I started the show I was a bit confused. I was already enamored with most characters after a nanosecond, but I couldn’t understand why there was so much talk of high school. And then I realized Murphy wanted us to believe that the actors – most of them in their late 20s and early 30s – are playing juniors and seniors in high school. It really does not help that they are dressed like 40-year-olds and keep talking like them, but, fine, I told myself. I’ll suspend my disbelief when it comes to age.
The 8 episodes of the first season are very different from one another tonally. If the first batch can be reduced to a popularity contest, the middle of the series becomes a melting pot of psychopaths, sociopaths, and would-be murderers who all attempt to take the life of poor Payton (who is just trying to get into Harvard, after all).
The overt allegory of the current political climate is only the foundation of the show, not a suggestion for where our in-story loyalties should lie. We are still supposed to root for the guy whose only aspiration is to win because he’s made it his life mission. We’re still supposed to root for him after seeing all the machinations and lies that he and his team have put into place during the campaign. Payton and his rivals – all rich, white, conventionally attractive people – attempt to get closer to the mass of voters by choosing running mates from the limited pool of diverse and oppressed students in their fancy Santa Barbara school, as if that could somehow diminish the candidates’ privilege: an outspoken Black gender-non conforming feminist, a differently-abled dude, and a cancer patient who is actually a victim of Munchausen by proxy.
(I was hoping Infinity would turn sociopath and murder her Nana herself but I guess the violence circle had to stop somewhere.)
These teenagers are shown to be united by a vague sense of wolf-like pack loyalty, but it’s not quite explained how they got there: I cannot understand how after all the backstabbing, betrayals, and actual assassination attempts, they still manage to call each other friends. James was in love and sleeping with Alice and then it went away in an instant. Payton continuously mistreated McAfee and James and they still acted like his servants. Skye literally tried to murder Payton by feeding him rat poison… Why did these people believe in Payton so much, even those who claimed to hate him, to the extent where, three years after not seeing each other, they’re willing to hop on a flight and drop their lives to convince him to run for state senate?
Paradoxically, as the stakes get higher in season 2, we witness fewer homicide attempts as the team’s tactics become more refined, resorting instead to threats, negotiation, and blackmailing. The show always does a supreme job with its rationalization of immorality.
The second season undid some things that I didn’t like about the first’s ending. One, that Astrid would suddenly join a crusade for Payton’s run when she and him never had love for one another, and two, that Payton was going to use Dede’s throuple against her in the race.
I have a big problem with the show suggesting that being in a loving, consensual polyamorous relationship is the worst thing a senator could do. I understand Payton’s team wasn’t being judgmental of the act itself but rather was willing to exploit the scandal it would create in the public opinion, but I thought it was gross coming from a bunch of teenagers who have cheated on each other multiple times, only to then also enter a polyamorous relationship themselves. Anyhow, I was glad to see they found a nice way to spin it in the end. Kudos for the way they handled the generational conflict as well as the necessary environmentalist influx.
The other unforgettable protagonist whose subplot stands on its own is Georgina Hobart (Gwyneth Paltrow). The amount of chaotic energy she has is off the charts but is highly entertaining (I am contractually bound to say nice things about her because of the anti-Game of Thrones season 8 references in 2×01). Georgina dotes on Payton more than she does her biological sons — two scheming snakes — and has much more in common with him than meets the eye, not just their ambitious political aspirations. She and Payton share a sense of emotional detachment that I found heart-wrenching, a devoid of feeling where their hearts should be, which is beautifully represented in the show’s intro — whoever is responsible for it is a genius and should be paid more.
I don’t think The Politician necessarily set out to be an eye-opening show shedding light on the state of American politics for all viewers — if that were the actual aim, it’s way too on the nose of Murphy — but I hope it does for some people who need it (especially because it came out before a significant election).
If we untangle the mess of the characters’ lives and their impossible scenarios, the final moral would probably be that politics isn’t dark or light: these politicians are humans, and yes, they scheme and lie and cheat and ridicule, but so do their friends and all their voters; they just have more ambition. The unpacked message could translate into: be savvy, beware of politicians, don’t expect them to be better. The hyperbolic and simply chaotic caliber of every episode ensures that we don’t take the story too seriously, have a few laughs, and retain the message.
Bonus thoughts: Ben Platt should sing in every episode. Also, I cried every time River appeared to offer Payton comfort or advice. Every. single. time.
Unfortunately, not much is yet known about season 3, but we are very much looking forward to finding out what the world will look like after Georgina Hobart became the President of the United States.
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