Payton’s campaign has been all about keeping strategic secrets: the status of his relationship with Alice, the depth of his connection to River, and, of course, Infinity’s illness. Much of the season has asked us to imagine what would happen when those secrets came out, and to buy in to what the characters were willing to do to prevent that level of transparency. In “The Assassination Of Payton Hobart: Part Two,” everyone learns everything, and rather than an epic crash and fall, it feels more like a pathetic lurch.
Most of the episode focuses on the fallout from the events of the season going public. Payton is an outcast at school, and is forced to resign as president. Brigitte has called Keaton to tell him that her affair with Georgina is ongoing, leading Keaton to divorce Georgina and expel her and Payton both from his will. A pretty healthy portion of the cast—Dusty, Astrid’s dad, Skye, probably Ricardo—goes to prison in some capacity. As James tells Payton when he bursts into the room where his friend is starting to recover from sepsis, “Everyone knows everything.”
Oddly, this isn’t nearly as dramatic as it might seem. We don’t see a few of the crucial moments—Payton offhandedly tells his mother his offer of admission has been pulled from Harvard, he learns that the story about Infinity has gone public from James, Georgina just sort of decides to go to an ashram. It feels intentionally anticlimactic, but I’m not sure why. Ryan Murphy has never been one to withhold a delicious, satisfying comeuppance. That’s basically what happens to Skye and Astrid’s dad, both of whom are led off by the cops after having been sold out by the people closest to them. Dusty literally shoots Ricardo. But Payton continues to just kind of drift.
And that’s especially disappointing, because The Politician has definitively come down on Payton’s side: This show has been a character study, not of an ambitious monster, but of someone who just cares too much. In his near-death state, Payton hallucinates or communicates with River, who tells Payton that he killed himself because he felt everything, and lacked the positive counterbalance to the world’s pain. Yes, that’s right, River died because he was an empath. River’s spirit tells Payton he has to “bring balance” to the world, because Payton is some kind of political Jedi.
Charitably, this scene is Payton justifying his own ambition to himself. But he seems to have lost that ambition, finding himself in a depressive void without a purpose. And later, McAfee tells Skye, “That kid spends every waking moment trying to make this world better than it is right now.” Does he? I like The Politician much more when it manages to have some sympathy for Payton while remaining a bit arch in its treatment of him, which is to say one of my favorite lines of the episode comes when Georgina tells the doctor, “Yes, that would have been two poisonings in one week. But he’s a very polarizing figure.”
By the end of the episode, Payton is just totally alone and adrift. His mother is gone. He’s sort of broke (though Keaton buys all of Georgina’s stuff at auction, in a scene that is weirdly tender and loud). And everyone else around him is actually making some real choices. Everything in Infinity’s story comes to a head at Dusty’s house, where everyone confronts each other. Dusty sort of apologizes, and eventually admits that she might have... psychological problems. But when her solution to those problems is to book a spa weekend, Infinity realizes her grandmother is just lost. That’s all before Dusty shoots Ricardo, which just about ruins everyone’s life.
Instead, Astrid increasingly appears to be the more defined, interesting tentpole of the show. Early in the episode, her father insults her for pulling out of the race, telling her to just win and ignore governing, to see the campaign as evidence that she’s either a winner or a loser. Though Payton might argue that he does want to make people’s lives better, it is undeniable that he sees everything in terms of winning and losing. Reacting against that, and against her father, Astrid turns her dad in to the FBI—a move that finally makes him proud of her. (“An uppercut to the jaw,” Dylan McDermott yelps.) This is fun, and leads to the sight of Astrid triumphantly striding out of the house, intent on throwing away all of her money, moving to New York, and working at Bubba Gump’s. She’s choosing the life that Payton has been thrust into, because she doesn’t want to “coast” on the idle pursuit of power. Who would have guessed that the most stereotypically cold, petulant rich girl character would wind up being the one articulating a personal ethic?
Let’s close on the ending scene of the episode, one that sums up much of Murphy’s approach to making TV while remaining totally puzzling: Payton and Georgina, leaving their old lives behind, driving to the airport to Sufjan Stevens’ “Chicago.” The same song that plays over the opening credits. Does this scene do anything to clarify why the themes of “Chicago” are relevant to The Politician, beyond referencing the way Georgina sold her clothes to the state? It does not. Is it still weirdly affecting in some ways, largely because Gwyneth Paltrow and Ben Platt looking forlorn while driving a classic car is pretty much guaranteed to look great? Absolutely. Does any of this mean anything? Maybe the finale will change something, but for now the answer is: “Who cares? It’s nice to look at.”
- “The Assassination Of Payton Hobart: Part Two” is written by Ian Brennan and Brad Falchuk and directed by Gwyneth Horder-Payton.
- Ricardo’s price for giving up the goods on Dusty: two Filet-O-Fishes with fries and a vanilla shake.
- Andrew has a recording of Principal Vaughn ignoring him blowing the whistle on Dusty, sort of. (The audio quality isn’t great.) From the brief moment we hear of the scene, it sounds like he has a relatively easy time getting people on board with demanding her resignation.