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Payton hatches a scheme on The Politician while everyone else starts to lose the plot

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If you thought that The Politician was going to be about something even remotely close to a normal high school election — well, I don’t know you made it this far in the season thinking that, but “October Surprise” should absolutely disabuse you of that notion. By the end of the episode, there’s a full-fledged scandal, a a discussion of possible assassination, multiple cons, and a kidnapping.

Somehow, it doesn’t feel like that much has actually happened in “October Surprise,” largely because several plots get set up and disposed of within minutes. Take the guinea worm scam, in which Payton elaborately sets up Astrid to appear petty and ignorant. In order for this to work, we have to get through a few steps. First, Payton walks in on James and Astrid in bed together, leading to a stilted, uncomfortable scene of them negotiating James’ feelings and the implications they might have for the group’s long-term plan. Then, James goes to the twins, now living in bunk beds, ostensibly offering them dirt on Payton as payback. The twins trade that information to Astrid, who walks into the trap by hastily organizing a campaign pivot to guinea worm.

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Independently, all of these pieces should be fun—they’re part of the setup for a solid mini-heist, and put a bunch of characters together who haven’t interacted before. (The scene with Astrid and the twins is especially good.) But they just sort of run together without coming together in a zippy, engaging whole. Partly, that’s because of the editing, which turns each piece into a standalone caper without making them feel connected. Partly, it’s because the payoff for this whole thing, in which Payton announces his support for legislation increasing the distance gun stores would need to be from a school, didn’t need to be a secret. But mostly, it’s because none of the characters feel like they’re even trying to be compelling except for Payton.

Even the revelation of James and Alice’s affair is rendered entirely instrumental as a way to give James plausible motivation to betray Payton. If Alice loves Payton so much, why is she involved with his campaign manager? How did the affair get started? When Payton describes James as merely “a planet in my solar system,” it doesn’t just feel like an indication of how self-centered Payton is—it’s also how the show actually sees James, which makes it a lot harder for us to take him seriously as a character.

Instead, “October Surprise” spends a chunk of its time on very specific things happening in Payton’s life. There’s a temporary resolution to Payton’s Harvard travails, when he confronts the administrators with the certainty that he will be president, leading them to bet on his future by offering him admission. One of them tells Payton, “We are arguably the most prestigious institution in the world.” Maybe going to Harvard will help Payton achieve his future dreams. But, as one of the best world leaders in another show about dramatically spinning a globe once said, “To an American, Harvard means only one thing: decline.”

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Payton knows exactly where he wants to put his presidential library, but what else does he want, and why do we care? The opening titles depict him being built as a statue, a mannequin covered in flesh holding in all of the things that motivate him. The bookshelves include Rules For Radicals, Unmasking The Face, Huckleberry Finn, and books about the lives of every president since Reagan. (The book representing President Trump is called Idiot’s Guide To Clowning, which would be funny if it didn’t also represent a big, blank space in the middle of the show’s conception of politics.)

Beyond his use of River’s death as a way to motivate his policy platform, we get one brief suggestion of the kind of good things Payton wants to do: He wrote an op ed in the school paper that got healthier food options (like sliced kiwi) introduced to the lunchroom. It’s unclear to me whether this is supposed to be satire—even the stuff that Payton gets done is functionally insignificant, extremely minor improvements—or if it’s supposed to indicate that this is, in fact, the work of politics and Payton is well suited to it.

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What the show does know is absolutely nightmarish family dynamics, which take over the parts of the episode dedicated to Astrid and Infinity. This is the first appearance of Dylan McDermott as Astrid’s father, whose first line of dialogue is, “Put a few pounds on since your boyfriend blew his brains out.”Astrid’s father describes Payton as “a true politician,” which is helpful if you forgot the name of the show—but his presence does help make Astrid more sympathetic. (Her interactions with Ricardo are also very funny.) Eventually, Astrid pulls off the real October surprise: a tape showing Infinity using the word “buttmunch,” a “slur” deployed to refer to an “obviously gay reporter.”

The idea that we could get through the season with no one caring about Infinity’s fake cancer seems appealing, and darkly funny. (What if the thing that brings down Payton’s campaign is a teen outburst at Busch Gardens?) The outburst Payton has at Dusty and Infinity is delightful, one of the funniest things that’s happened on The Politician so far. But then things get serious all over again when Ricardo shows up at Astrid’s house, his hand bloodied. Her parents return home later—including her mother, played by January Jones—to discover the room trashed, and Astrid gone. Time for a dark turn.

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Stray observations:

  • “October Surprise” is written by Ian Brennan, Brad Falchuk, and Ryan Murphy, and directed by Janet Mock.
  • This episode really ramps up the class-based material on the show. At one point, Astrid’s housekeeper is described as a “servant person.” Later on, Payton and the rest of his campaign are unbelievably rude to a waitress at the diner.
  • Also, does anyone think the Santa Barbara police are actually going to melt down all of the guns Payton bought? They’re definitely going to hold on to them.
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