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The Politician ends its first season by finally setting up a race worth running

Judith Light (left), Bette Midler
Photo: Netflix
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Where has this show been all season?

On one hand, The Politician has been ridiculously fast-paced: Plot developments just sort of happen, and then we move along acting like everyone has fully internalized and understood the things that happened. On the other hand, it feels like the entire first season of the show has been extended pilot for a much, much more fun and interesting story about these same characters running an upstart campaign for state senate. Why are they doing it? Because they can.

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The beginning of this episode jumps three years ahead, to Payton singing Billy Joel’s “Vienna” in a bar. This is a very funny song choice for this 20-year-old character, but let’s go with it: Payton has decided, in the spirit of many other high-profile sociopaths, to go to NYU. He lives with James, who has gotten sadly used to his friend and roommate’s alcoholism. He doesn’t seem to care much about class. And his idea of being a New Yorker is wearing turtlenecks and getting really into Billy Joel, which honestly is a pretty good summary.

Over the course of the episode, we get a sense of where the Saint Sebastian kids are now. Skye got six months of house arrest and anger management classes. Infinity is living off of her book advance and public largesse (seeing Zoey Deutch look like a more typically-styled actor in this show is extremely weird, as is hearing her act like an adult). Alice is preparing to marry some dude named Thad at Harvard. And McAfee—well, McAfee is the one who brings them all back together, by discovering a vulnerable opponent.

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This part of “Vienna” is some really, really good stuff, introducing Payton’s opponent for the next season: New York State Senate Majority Leader Dede Standish. Played by Judith Light, Standish is everything Astrid wasn’t. She’s an excellent politician, who manages to show up for small businesses, toss off quasi-Sorkin dialogue, and who admits right up front that for her, politics is about being horny. She has a powerful ally in the ruthless, hyper-competent chief of staff, Hadassah Gold, played by Bette Midler. She’s been tapped to, apparently, become Vice President Of The United States by a senator-elect from Texas who comes off as a sort of fantasy Beto O’Rourke figure. Oh, also, she’s in a throuple.

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Everything about Dede is just a ton of fun here. She’s the establishment, but she’s local establishment, a state senator who has accomplished a lot but is largely content to keep her head down and govern until something bigger comes along. Her baggage is perfect, because there are no victims—just stigma and the oddness of the three people all engaged in a healthy relationship, meaning Payton will have to exploit some unsavory cultural forces to win. And putting aside the insanity of this bland dude picking a vice presidential candidate this early to prove he can win New York and California—seriously, what is with this show and tons of other pop culture about politics thinking that vice presidential picks are so important?—it’s also much more compelling than most of the election maneuvering from the rest of the season.

McAfee starts working at Standish’s campaign office, only to discover that the campaign is being run entirely on computers that run on Windows 99. Worse still, Hadassah is rude to her. She notes, correctly, that McAfee is obviously using her state senate job as a stepping stone to Washington, and that Dede is successful as a politician partly because she puts most of her effort into governing, rather than campaigning. Bette Midler just tears into this season, and it makes me sad that we haven’t been able to see any of the other characters hold down a room like this. Still, it seems like we’ll be getting a lot more of her, because McAfee has an idea: run Payton for the seat.

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The back half of the finale is a somewhat tragic “getting the team back together” sequence. Alice has, correctly, diagnosed her relationship with Payton as unhealthy—but leaves her fiancee Thad at the altar when she learns about the race. James is just happy to have Payton sober again. Skye gets called out of her boring class at Vassar, while Astrid up and quits her job at Bubba Gump. And finally, Payton talks to River, and is told that being president is his destiny.

Really, the cast is in top form here, from Julia Schlaepfer’s dead-eyed half-smile as Alice either wakes up or makes a terrible decision to leave her own wedding, depending on who you ask, to Lucy Boynton dramatically emerging from the bathroom pulling on a vape. Astrid is aware of Dede’s secret, which, combined with the campaign’s focus on the MTA—a nightmare capable of bringing down any politician—might just win them the election.

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Just when I think I’m out, they pull me right back in.

What is The Politician? Is it a shapeless, stereotypical Ryan Murphy show, complete with endless plot zigs and shaggy, stylistic zags? Is it an astute study of the venality and sociopathy required to seek and feel entitled to political office? Is it just really enjoyable to watch as a dark comedy? It’s all three, really, but the ending of the show’s first season gets at what I’ve taken away from spending some time with this show. After a few minutes of strategizing and convincing Payton to run for the seat, we get the triumphant, snappy final shot of the scene: Payton smirks, finally convinced to run the race. It’s important. He’s important. He’s ready.

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By all rights, this should be the final shot of the season. The arc of the entire thing was about breaking Payton down, then building him back up to be an even better and scarier politician. But then there’s more. We get a brief scene of Payton, flanked by Alice and the rest of the crew, announcing the candidacy, complete with cuts to a confused Dede and Hadassah. By the time the episode finally cuts to credits, the momentum of feeling excited about this new campaign has already started to dissipate—we know Payton is running, and all this extra scene does is drag out that beat. The Politician has always known what it could do, and how to be the most effective version of itself. But then, like a politician who doesn’t know when to quit, it just keeps on going.

Stray observations:

  • “Vienna” is written and directed by Brad Falchuk.
  • Alice, trying to navigate her rediscovered feelings for Payton while salvaging her marriage: “Maybe we can have an affair or something.”
  • I laughed a lot at McAfee’s line, “The MTA is the laughingstock of the free world.” If next season is about New York state politics and who actually controls the subways (the answer is Governor Cuomo!), I will be delighted.
  • And that’s it for the season! I liked a lot of stuff here, but it really could have used a hard edit. I’m optimistic about the setting of the next season, but that edit? It’s not coming.
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