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The results are in, but The Politician is already thinking about the next election

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There’s a reason there are far more pop culture depictions of campaigning than there are of governing. A campaign has clearly defined, win or lose stakes— either you’re in office at the end of the race, or you aren’t. It’s like sports, but for people who want political power. The work of governing is, often, less dramatically compelling. It’s full of meetings, difficult decisions, and lots of research, rather than a more explicit, externalized battle of competing visions. So it’s not surprising that The Politician has a decidedly dim view of actually trying to get anything done.

Very early in “The Assassination Of Payton Hobart,” Payton wins the election. Or, rather, he wins the Saint Sebastian presidency—Astrid confronts him with the news that she’s dropped out, turning this entire race into a Pyrrhic victory. Though everyone has invested a ton of time and energy into the campaign, the momentum just falls out of the student body, and Payton and his team are left going to mostly meaningless meetings with the school board.

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Each time we see Payton try to govern, he proposes small-scale environmental plans, the sort of thing that is well-meaning but not especially effective in the long term. For example: In his first meeting, Payton announces a plan to replace plastic straws with paper ones, only to discover that the school already has a contract set through 2025 to put plastic straws in the cafeteria. Besides, one of the board members likes chewing on plastic straws, and is concerned they might be keeping kids from getting into cigarettes or vaping. This is unrelated to his electoral mandate (or lack thereof), but it does clarify how little power he actually has. All of his ideas are expensive, and no one seems motivated to push them through—especially without a “mandate” from the student voters.

Eventually, Payton discovers the truth: Astrid won the election by two votes. This information heavily demoralizes Payton, who decides to just sort of spend the rest of his senior year of high school hanging out and doing the school play with Infinity. The two of them reconcile, and eventually joint the school’s production of the very on the nose musical Assassins. In this version, Infinity plays Manson family member Squeaky Fromme, Payton plays John Hinckley, and Ricardo—back at Saint Sebastian as a “continuing education” student—plays John Wilkes Booth. Their scenes of performing, centered on everyone’s memory of Payton singing Joni Mitchell for River way back in the pilot, seem to be intended to suggest a possible path forward, a way for Payton to find meaning that isn’t dependent on the thrill of the campaign. The problem, as in the rest of the episode, is that that search is far less exciting.

Ricardo is here to make things more exciting, however. His plan is to enact the titular assassination of the episode, having been set on the path by Dusty. Earlier in the episode, Dusty confronts Infinity in her granddaughter’s new apartment—paid for by Ray the terrified technician—and discovers that Infinity is ready to set out on her own. “I only want fancy things in my life,” Infinity tells Dusty, having internalized her grandmother’s love of the con without the need to rely on making other people sick. She regains her appetite. She enjoys the musical. She correctly deduces that Dusty murdered her own mother by feeding her lead paint chips.

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Jessica Lange has chewed a lot of scenery here on The Politician, but she really gets to sink her teeth in during Dusty’s scenes with Ricardo, which transform her into a sort of demented evil genius. When he half-heartedly suggests killing Payton, she responds with a taken aback, feigned gasp of shock, before responding, “Yes, yes I do.” She dances. She plots. She tells Ricardo a version of the Dusty Jackson origin story that involves several degrees of abandonment issues, family trauma, and a recognition that she really just loves getting free stuff. So she has Ricardo go after Payton, in a scheme that involves Ricardo dipping BB pellets into possum guts, then shooting Payton in the ass in an attempt to give him sepsis. It’s also the second attempt on Payton’s life in this episode.

Earlier on, Payton eats a cupcake specially baked by Skye and McAfee—a scene that immediately cuts to Payton throwing up his guts in the bathroom, flanked by Georgina and her spiritual healer. This is very funny, but it also has immediate health consequences for Payton. He has to go the hospital, and eat a lot of jello. Payton immediately figures out what happened, which causes him to drop McAfee—who has just signed a non-disclosure agreement—from his team. McAfee then confronts Skye, who breaks up with her and very harshly implies she might not really be gay. Eventually, McAfee confesses the affair to Payton and attempts to apologize, only for him to permanently burn her.

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None of this matters once Payton is in the early throes of sepsis. Georgina once again has to take him to the hospital, leaving a character with the first hard choice of the show. Georgina has agreed to run off with Brigitte, knowing it would love Payton penniless—but as the episode ends, she’s taking her son to the hospital, while Martina Navratilova is left waiting by her plane. It’s frothy, dramatic, and genuinely sad.

Stray observations:

  • “The Assassination Of Payton Hobart” is written by Ian Brennan and directed by Gwyneth Horder-Payton.
  • Payton loves Dr. Pimple Popper. “I just like that it has a really clear narrative.”
  • There is a lot of Shirley Bassey in this episode. Are there any Bond references I missed?
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