At one point during this installment of USA’s limited six-episode miniseries, I had to stop and ask myself what idealized alternate universe the Hammond family exists in. Sure, from the very beginning, Political Animals was meant to exist in a vacuum of its own creation, its own world with its own rules that occasionally nodded to those of us on the other side of the television with some reference to some real event or figure that we can use to get our bearings in this strange new world with such over-the-top people in it.
Political Animals does a lot of telling and not a lot of showing. We were told that Elaine’s approval rating skyrocketed after she divorced Bud, but no one has stopped to consider why. This week, in flashbacks to her first presidential race, we learned that Elaine indeed faced the very real “woman problem” in her professional appearance: If she sat on her hands, she was “timid,” and if she fought back, she was a “bitch.” How, then, did divorcing a (we’re told) beloved ex-president not catapult her into permanent bitch-dom, even with all of the guy's affairs? After all, even over a decade after the fact, Hilary Clinton’s decision not to divorce Bill and whether or not that was the right decision is still the occasional subject of debate, with opinionated camps coming down on both sides of the fence. I assume that the fictional Elaine faced the same issue in her fictional world, but it’s a fictional world based on a real one, so, honestly, I’m curious—in the context of the alternate universe United States that Political Animals takes place in, how did her divorce magically turn her into a hero?
We had a similar problem with Supreme Court Justice Diane Nash (portrayed by Vanessa Redgrave), the highly respected and first openly gay Justice to serve. We were told that her nomination was a hard win, but by golly, she won it. Well... how? Frankly, that story sounds a lot more interesting than our Hilary Clinton stand-in and her “working mom” appeal. I’m sure Diane’s private life would be a harder sell than Elaine’ s. Why can’t we have that story? And if Team Elaine can get Diane Nash on the Supreme Court, then why can’t it get its namesake in the White House?
Now, my issues with being told everything and then being expected to just accept this alternate universe aside, Political Animals is still an enjoyable watch... as long as you don’t think too hard about the details.
Elaine called Doug the “only person she could trust” to run her campaign and meanwhile, Susan Berg put her job at the Globe on the line to let Elaine know that President Garcetti planned to ask her to replace Nash on the Supreme Court as a way of blocking her efforts to run against him. Uh-oh. With those two conspiring two episodes in a row now in a dark parking lot, I think things are going to get messy soon.
At a private family dinner, Elaine announced to her family her intention to run against Democratic incumbent Garcetti (who is portrayed as more useless and more evil every week, I can’t wait for the floor of the Oval Office to open up and reveal his tank full of sharks—with lasers on their heads!), much to her family’s ambivalence. Elaine appears to be one of those moms where, if she’s unhappy, the rest of the family gets to be unhappy too, and being told that her family would totally appreciate it if she would NOT run for president would make her very unhappy. Saucy Grandma swept in with an appropriate summation of the family’s feelings, “Is this the part where you ask us our opinion and then ignore it and do whatever you want?”
TJ and Doug were quick to whip up some vaguely supportive statements. Saucy Grandma continued, “Fine. You’re adults. Go ahead. Ruin your lives. I don’t care.”
Spoken like my own saucy grandma. Maybe that’s why I adore this lady. Later, however, we found out how Doug really felt and saw what initially appeared to be subtle attempts to sabotage Elaine’s efforts. To be fair to Doug, he had some valid concerns:
1. The family REALLY had no interest in being turned into a sideshow again.
2. Historically, no one who has ever run against an incumbent president from his own party has ever won.
3. An attempt to run against Garcetti, a man Elaine campaigned for in the past and who is currently her boss, would look like pure ambition and turn the public against her. Like Doug said, “Garcetti may be a bastard, but he let you do your thing.”
He reluctantly let Bud drag him off to “redneck savant” Jubal Jenkins, to crunch poll numbers and see if Elaine had an actual chance to beat Garcetti in a presidential race. Through flashbacks, we learned that after Bud’s numerous interview gaffes in the closing days of Elaine’s first race, Doug had been tasked with reigning in his father and making sure he didn’t refer to any male or female anatomy while the cameras rolled. Bud was, of course, dismissive of Doug’s attempts and one night, Doug did some E and asked Anne to marry him and overslept only to wake up to the sight of his father talking about penises on TV. He’s spent the past two years feeling guilty about failing to control Bud and finally, when Jenkins revealed that Elaine DOES have a real chance at beating her incumbent (of course she does), blew up at dear old dad and let him know that it was ALLLLLL his fault that Elaine lost the first time around.
Actually, it was. Sort of. Bud’s previous interview flubs were an intentional move meant to make him look like an oaf so that went Elaine inevitably lost the nomination (the numbers just weren’t there and Elaine didn’t win anyone over with her debates), Bud looked like a liability and Elaine looked brilliant by comparison. He essentially saved her career. And they say chivalry is dead.
This really doesn’t help Elaine look any less ambitious, though. And like Doug pointed out, Garcetti sucks, but he generally leaves Elaine alone to do whatever she wants to do. Diane Nash, after reluctantly agreeing to stay on the bench for another two years and save Elaine from having to make the decision whether to accept a nomination or reject it and run for president, voiced the hope that “this isn’t one more contest” that Elaine didn’t get first in.
Ding ding ding. It looks like we might have a winner.
How do we feel about Elaine lying to Susan’s face about whether or not she’s running after Susan essentially saved her campaign? Do you think this will hurt their fledgling relationship and, ultimately, Elaine’s campaign?
– “The former president of the United States just said ‘vagina.’” The one flaw in our idealized alternate universe, I think, was the flabbergasted panic of Team Elaine during flashbacks to her first presidential run. Vagina is not a dirty word, no matter what the Michigan State Senate’s Speaker of the House thinks and here in the real world, James Bolger’s decision to silence the representative who used the term was met with quite a bit of resistance while Representative Lisa Brown was largely supported. You could make the argument that Bud Hammond saying “vagina” was different because he was a dude, and that would have been a fair point if Political Animals had chosen to go that route, but instead, the bad part about Bud saying “vagina” on television was presented as the word itself and even here in the real world, most of us understand that vagina is not a dirty word.
– Oh hey, Anne has a personality! Sort of! When she’s on ecstasy! (At least we got to see her have fun for, like, half a minute.)
– “Ambition looks better on a man.” Dear USA Network, we need to talk about your heavy-handed “feminist” dialogue. Have you actually met any feminists or are you just constructing your characters based on muddled memories of that one professor you had in college who you assumed was a feminist because she didn’t shave her armpits and had a copy of the SCUM Manifesto on the bookshelf in her office?