Boss is nothing if not inconsistent. A week after enduring my least favorite episode of the season, it came back to surprise me with “Clinch,” a strong episode that played to Boss’ strengths and left poor imitation to the wayside. This is as good as this show gets.
Episodes like “Clinch” are the reason Boss has earned the descriptor “Shakespearean.” The power dynamics are subtle and shifting; the monologues absurdly theatrical but still compelling. Not perfectly so, by any means—it still verges on the melodramatic, especially when it comes to Tom Kane and his family—but the emotional content felt earned in this episode. Above all the episode showcases the efficient and ruthless character of Mayor Tom Kane: charlatan, liar, heavyweight.
This comes together in the episode’s climax, when Tom Kane announces that Lenox Gardens is going to be converted into a casino and shopping complex, and then, during the presser, publicly thanks Mona Fredricks for all of her “help” with the project. It’s not merely a stab in the back—it’s also a twist of the knife. The look on her face is pure defeat, disappointment and rage and despair all rolled up together. It mirrors Meredith’s, who is watching from home, hoping for some acknowledgement from her husband of the work she put into the deal. Needless to say, neither woman is satisfied.
After the press conference Mona rages at Kane, questioning his sanity, asking why he’s done what he’s done. Mona’s outburst articulates something that I have been feeling for a long time—namely that Kane’s character is not always well-drawn, though he is consistently well-acted. He contradicts himself repeatedly, and is drawn to erratic behavior that exhausts even Kelsey Grammer’s ability to make Kane an integrated character. “Clinch” serves to close those gaps, creating of it a multifaceted character study. I wasn’t aware of how much those gaps in my understanding had been bothering me until I saw them addressed in this episode. It seems what we are to take away from this is that while Kane is a brutal political animal, he is capable of a level of emotional self-deception that he himself is only occasionally aware of.
For example, in “Clinch,” Kane stirs Alderman Ross’ cooperation and loyalty by fervently preaching to him that if they don’t work together, “outsiders” are going to take over their city. And again when talking to Elizabeth Borden, the emergency agent tasked to fix the city’s finances, he accesses a near-religious fever of outrage, howling like he’s the only man who’s ever cared about Chicago, and he’d never done a thing wrong in his life. He might be manipulating them, but he’s heartfelt. Kane is not bloodless. He’s passionate about his beliefs. But then at the end of the episode, when he sits down with Mona, he tells her, with strange clarity, that he only hired her to bask in the admiration of someone so idealistic. His emotions consume him at the time, and can even carry him away, but eerily he occasionally has a handle on it.
Most of the time, faced with Kane’s slippery character, I throw up my hands, frustrated by his amorality, his hypocrisy, his attempts to appeal to my pity. But in “Clinch,” I felt what many of you have expressed—the fascination for Kane as a character, seen through the lens of Grammer’s rich portrayal of the mayor. For the first time, I understood why the characters around him might feel a sense of awe in his presence, even when he’s yelling at them for imagined incompetence. He’s so powerful, and so confident and sure of that power, that he is magnetic.
The execution of his master plan, in which Meredith is his trusted ally, is worth watching. Much like the Bensonville toxic waste story last season, Kane manipulates the city’s financial crisis with an adept hand. In a few strokes he gets Chicago out of debt, takes revenge on the state’s attorney, takes credit for a $2.6 billion construction project, ruins Mona Fredricks, destroys McGantry, wins back the loyalty of Alderman Ross, and takes Catherine Walsh out of the election. He has not done good. But he has done masterfully.
We knew Walsh’s sexuality was going to be a reveal, but the how still surprised me. At first I thought Kane’s operative had spiked the wrong drink. Given the strength of other aspects of this episode, I’m willing to see the poison-plot as part of the Shakespearean machinations that defined “Clinch.” But killing someone just to prove a point? That’s a little overboard, even for Tom Kane. Would hidden-camera photos not have sufficed?
This leads me to the other character who also experienced, I think, a welcome rounding-out of character: Kitty O’Neill. In “Clinch,” Kitty expresses facets of her personality that we have seen her struggle with. She’s far more intuitive and compassionate—and she isn’t trying to hide it or ignore it. Rather, it’s a softness that seemed to be stabilizing or even empowering for her. Kitty’s empathy for Zajac’s throwaway blowjob intern is touching, as is her sudden tears of defeat when Walsh faces press questions about whether or not she’s a lesbian. All of a sudden she is rudderless, without a more powerful politician to serve. As she says when she meets Zajac: “I don’t know what I am anymore.”
Last season, the rising action turned on Kitty’s relationship with Kane—she cracks and tells him everything, and loses almost everything as a result. Given the parallels in their stories, I wonder if this season will climax on a similar note. Kitty knows about the brain disease and Ezra’s murder now (as well as Sam’s plan to run the story), even if she is in denial about it. She could torpedo that in exchange for something from Kane. Or she could give that to Zajac. Or she could stand by Sam (though that seems unlikely). Or she could ally with the state’s attorney, who coerces her into his car at the end of the episode. That’s a lot of options for one woman against the man who just reaffirmed his grip on Chicago.
- Emma. Ian. Emma and Ian. Do we care? What is Ian going to do with the information that Kane is sick? And how much did it seem like Ian was about to tell the major that he’s Kane’s son?
- Poor, poor Darius. Hands down, the moment that was the most shocking for me was Darius’ sudden murder of Alderman Ross’ former ward boss. For a show about power politics in Chicago, guns are used sparingly. This is a stunning use case in how to transform a gun from an oversaturated trope to a worthy plot device.
- This episode indicates that Meredith may not be totally happy with being behind-the-scenes while her husband takes all the credit. She’s never seemed fully comfortable with her role, though she slips it on easily enough. In the show’s timeline, though, it’s only been about six weeks (three months, tops?) since she tried to orchestrate the takedown of her own husband. So I’m not sure what conclusions I’m supposed to draw about her character.
- Kane muttering “hard up in a clinch and no knife to cut the seizing” to himself is beautifully poetic.
- Last week I wrote a longer explanation of my issues with the sex scenes in Boss in the comments. If you’re interested, check that out here.