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The Politician has been hiding Bob Balaban from us for a whole episode, what gives?

Photo: Beth Dubber (Netflix)
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The first episode of The Politician was a bit shapeless, trying to set up a big cast of characters and often conflicting emotional threads. But “The Harrington Commode” is far more episodic, and therefore a lot more fun. Broadly speaking, the episode is divided into two plots: Payton’s father Keaton winding up in a coma, and the campaign investigating Infinity’s illness.

Let’s start with Infinity: If it wasn’t obvious before that Dusty is doing a riff on The Act, it is now. She barges into the hospital after Infinity faints, taking great pains to ensure the doctors don’t take any of her granddaughter’s blood. Payton watches her shaving Infinity’s head. And she attempts to extort Payton for a Disney cruise in order to ensure Infinity’s continued presence on the campaign.

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As Dusty, Jessica Lange is definitely turning in a hammed-up Ryan Murphy show performance—but she’s pretty much the only person who is. It feels like she’s been shoehorned in from a different show, one that has a lot of not-great material about class (the bologna cups Dusty makes for dinner, the references to their family traveling “extensively” through Florida). When she moans,“I have not slept for more than 15 minutes at a stretch since she was born,” it feels like she’s about to wink to the camera.

Eventually, McAfee and Payton set up a blood drive as an excuse to test whether Infinity really has cancer. This sequence, which irritates Astrid and Skye (they didn’t think of it themselves) is pretty fun, alongside Payton’s other big event for the episode: a fundraiser in which students take turns using a sledgehammer to smash a Rolls Royce labeled “Patriarchy.” By the end of the episode, the results come back, and Payton is irrevocably tainted—he knows Infinity isn’t sick.

Moving on to someone who is sick: Payton’s father Keaton, played by Bob Balaban. I’m not sure why I’m surprised, but this show is really influenced by Wes Anderson. Georgina and Keaton’s relationship feels in some ways like a mirror of Margot Tenenbaum’s marriage to Raleigh St. Clair in The Royal Tenenbaums—a loveless marriage made for reasons of interpersonal convenience to an older man who frequently stars in the films of Wes Anderson. (In this case, Bob Balaban is subbing in for Bill Murray, though it is also very easy to imagine Bill Murray silently jogging to and jumping out of the window.)

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When Georgina confesses to Keaton that she’s fallen in love with someone else—a horse trainer played by Martina Navratilova who makes eyes at Gwyneth Paltrow in a scene that seems lifted from The Favourite—he jumps off of the titular Harrington Commode, winding up in a coma for the bulk of the episode. (Paltrow steals the episode with her delivery of the line, “This is the fourth time somebody’s jumped out of a window when I tried to break up with them.”)

Eventually, Keaton wakes up, and Payton convinces him to set up the twins. When Payton tells them that Keaton is on the verge of waking up, Martin and Luther attempt to murder their own father in order to prevent Payton and Georgina from being put back into the will. (You’ll note that one of the scenes in the opening credits is a rake being used to pull figurines representing the twins off the field of battle.) This scene is also enjoyable, largely because of the fighting the twins do about who’s going to hold the pillow and whether they’ve both learned the right lessons from the Menendez tapes.

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In theory, this is exciting for Payton. He now has access to the family’s fortune, which he could use to buy his way into Harvard if he wanted to. (Two men from the admissions office attempt to bribe him earlier in the episode.) But we haven’t seen Keaton until now, and we know nothing about his relationship with Payton other than Payton feeling like an outsider in the family. Keaton says he was “wrong” about his son, but how?

“The Harrington Commode” is still a bit scattered, but it’s much cleaner than the pilot, and has enough strong moments to justify its running time: The long shot following Keaton through the house as he jumps off the titular Harrington Commode and out the window, James telling Payton “You not being comfortable makes this an even better photo” when they take Infinity to the hospital, the brief appearance of Infinity’s trashy boyfriend, Ricardo, the shot of a single tear dripping down Bob Balaban’s cheek as the twins debate who will be the one to actually kill him.

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Still, the best moment of the episode, the one that suggests The Politician might be able to pull off some emotional storytelling in spite of itself, comes in Keaton and Georgina’s dinner after his recovery. When he makes her an offer—give up on her relationship and go back to pretending with him in exchange for Payton’s future—we watch her silently contemplate for a moment, then decisively put her hand on her husband’s hand. It’s sad and scary and funny all at the same time. It’s the exact tone The Politician should be going for.

Stray observations:

  • “The Harrington Commode” is written by Ian Brennan, Brad Falchuk, and Ryan Murphy, and directed by Falchuk.
  • This episode also introduces Pierre, the lone Haitian student at Saint Sebastian, who feels catered to by the blood drive.
  • Georgina tells her son, “Your ambition frightens me.”
  • Something is up with James, but we don’t know what. (He was ten minutes late to a meeting.)
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