Over the past few weeks, as Boss has shown modest improvement and reined in some, if not all, of its more absurd tendencies, one glaring problem has persisted. Appropriately enough, it’s the very same issue that has dogged many a real-life political candidate over the years, from Richard Nixon all the way to Newt Gingrich: likability. It's a difficult task getting viewers to invest in a show with a protagonist who is, from the very beginning, thoroughly unlikable. We like to see good people go bad, and bad people go good, but watching bad people get even worse? Where's the fun in that?
“Stasis” was easily the most gripping episode of Boss to date, but in the end it feels like a wash, because the excitement generated by Kane’s last-minute triumph only threw the show’s fundamental problems into sharper relief. Yes, we got the momentary thrill of a few unexpected plot twists and some heart-pounding confrontations, but at the end of the day, Kane is a huge, irredeemable asshole. We don't know enough about the guy to overlook these flaws, or even to understand what's driving his obsessive need for power. Without so much as a scrap of sympathy for Kane, there's not much us to do except root for Kane to lose and/or die—and that's a weird way to spend a Friday night.
As “Stasis” begins, things are looking pretty grim for Tom “Charles Foster” Kane. Last week, he got Reyes to recant, but the public isn’t buying it. In their eyes, he’s responsible for giving cancer to a bunch of innocent kids. Doesn’t get much worse than that, does it? Actually, maybe it does: on top of that, Kane’s various allies, including Kitty his once-loyal Sexbot, are conspiring against him, city government is at a standstill, Rutledge’s nurse is on the run, and kingmaker Meredith has switched her loyalty to Zajac.
At rock bottom, Kane has a heart-to-heart with Kitty. In a moment of apparent vulnerability, he drops hints about the possibility of resigning. Kitty immediately calls Zajac to tell him the news. Hotel-lobby sex aside, Kitty’s usually not one for such immoderate behavior, but hey—can you blame her? She’s feeling a little emotional, having just found out that she’s pregnant (which, for the record, marks the first time Boss has portrayed sex in a realistic way). Kitty’s desperate to get out from under Kane’s control, and here’s her chance. She runs with it. I've had a lot of fun at Kitty's expense, but this is the first episode where I felt a bit of empathy for her character, who's obviously suffering an acute workplace version of Stockholm Syndrome.
Her judgement no doubt blurred by all the hormones, Kitty blabs to Zajac, who blabs to Ross, who blabs to Stone, who blabs to Kane, who goes all “angel of death” once he traces the rumor back to Kitty. To top it all off, the once-again omnipotent Kane has pictures of Zajac in the sack with Ross’s gorgeous wife, which he sends to Mrs. Zajac and Ross. In one fell swoop, Kane has Zajac begging for his forgiveness, and Kane is once again the alpha dog. Of course, this is all done in Boss’s typically understated style, with Kane launching into his 485th quasi-Shakespearean monologue and forcing Zajac to literally get on his knees and beg for forgiveness.
We’re meant to believe that Kane set up a trap for Zajac (as Kitty puts it, “It was just to see who would bite. We bit.”), which begs the following question: really? Kane, who’s in the grips of a rapidly progressing degenerative disorder (or at least he was last week) is still able to outfox every single one of his enemies, each one a seasoned political veteran? I'm skeptical that Kane's still got it in him.
More convincing is Kane’s willingness to sacrifice his own daughter in order to generate a few positive headlines and turn the tide of public opinion. I have to say I didn’t see this twist—a drug raid targeting his daughter's clinic— coming. When Kane called Emma and started blubbering like a baby, I thought he was preparing to resign, but nope—it was more like a preemptive apology for ruining her life. I’ll give the writers credit where it’s due: this was a jaw-dropper.
But for all its unexpectedness and Machiavellian genius, Kane’s latest move also presents major problems. First and most obvious, it hardly makes Kane any more sympathetic. After all, his relationship with Emma was the one thing that made him remotely human, and now he’s squandered it in order to distract the people of Chicago from the fact that he knowingly poisoned a bunch of toddlers. Plus, the medication Emma was illegally procuring was going to her father, a fact which makes his betrayal even more cruel.
Which leads to another issue that I'm guessing will come back to haunt Kane in the very neat future: Emma’s one of maybe three people who know about Kane’s illness, and she’s now got plenty of reason to squeal on him. I mean, wouldn’t you? With just one episode left in the season, I think Emma holds Kane's fate in her hands. We shall see…
- I'm not buying Sam's willingness to sell out so quickly. Maybe I was pinning too many hopes in his character, but it just doesn't square with what we know about him.
- Thanks to my colleague Kevin McFarland, who was gracious enough to step in with a terrific recap while I was out of town last week. I probably would have graded the episode a B-. After the very good “Remembered,” “Spit” seemed to me like a bit of a backslide, especially when Mata was buried; I wish this show could shake its obsession with silly comic book violence.
- This week’s Aaron Sorkin Award for Hilariously Overwrought Dialogue goes to Meredith, who was on fire in this episode. When Zajac calls her for advice about his theoretical mayoral campaign, she doles out some conspicuously well-prepared advice. “You do it by sticking to the 3 basic lynchpins of American politics. Money, muscle, and the neutralization of one’s enemies,” she says. All that was missing was an accompanying PowerPoint presentation.
- Another gem from Meredith: “We don’t have time for anything ponderous.” Ha! If only that were true.
- Something that doesn’t really make sense to me: If everything had gone according to Zajac’s plan and he’d withdrawn from the primary the night before the election for “personal reasons,” wouldn’t that have done serious damage to his reputation, too? It's not like that wouldn't have raised a few suspicions.
- It bugs me that Boss seems to think that political wives are all venal, power-hungry women who don’t care at all about their husbands’ indiscretions unless they jeopardize his career. I’m sure that many women are like that, but Mrs. Zajac’s spontaneous transformation from soccer mom into Meredith Jr. strained credulity.
- Every time Emma puts on her vestments, I'm reminded of just how preposterous her character is. Couldn't she just have been a social worker or something? The Jesus stuff just feels totally forced.