Two years after losing the Democratic nomination for president, former first lady Elaine Barrish Hammond was free of her philandering ex-president husband and loved by the American public as an upstanding Secretary of State. Plus her oldest son, Doug, was a successful politician in his own right and engaged to be married.
And then that repulsive journalist who built her Pulitzer Prize-winning career on publicly eviscerating the Hammond family when Bud was president got her hands on some sensitive information and elbowed her way back into Elaine’s life. Meet Susan Berg, who by episode’s end proved herself to be much more than a glorified gossip columnist.
But initially, Elaine wanted nothing to do with the woman who had stepped on her marriage to advance her own career. The parallel between Elaine and Susan, the different paths they took to success in their respective fields and their occasionally conflicting philosophies of those paths, provided the backbone for Political Animals’ pilot. Susan once referred to Elaine as “the death of feminism” but in a lot of ways, Elaine is the Obi-Wan Kenobi to Susan’s Luke Skywalker. Susan idolized Elaine as a college student but later found herself disillusioned by the decisions that Elaine made as the wife of a popular U.S. president and the mother of two children accustomed to growing up under public scrutiny. She saw her former feminist ideal seemingly return to the traditional patriarchy, and she saw her refusal to divorce Bud after his affairs became public as either a calculated political move, or the desperate actions of a woman hopelessly tethered to a bad husband.
Elaine, however, saw Susan as a cold, opportunistic sort of monster. She certainly didn’t fault Susan for being driven in her want for a successful career, but Susan crossed a line in Elaine’s mind. She took private family matters and turned them into public cannon fodder, justified it as news. Elaine’s only concern was her family.
Just last month, The Atlantic featured an article called “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” highlighting the ongoing struggles that working women face. While great strides have certainly been made since Betty Friedan and The Feminine Mystique, there is still a careful balance that has to be maintained. Being a mother is a full-time position, one that takes precedent over professional jobs, yet there is still a stigma attached to leaving the workforce to stay at home and raise children, as though the woman who chooses that life has failed to meet her fullest potential. Conversely, the woman who chooses to focus fully on her professional life, sacrificing the traditional husband and 2.5 kids, can also find herself alternately pitied and vilified for abandoning what many see as an essential part of being a woman.
The woman who tries to do both certainly has her job cut out for her and Sigourney Weaver’s Elaine Hammond is very much that woman. One of the most delightful things about Political Animals is that it refuses to pick a side on the working mom spectrum. Elaine Hammond makes it work, but it’s not a cakewalk. The difficulty endured by regular working women is amplified by her public job and high-profile family.
Two years after her presidential loss, Elaine found herself in Susan’s crosshairs yet again. One of Susan’s informants at a D.C. hospital let slip that Hammond’s youngest son, TJ, had been treated after a suicide attempt a few months earlier. She threatened to leak the story to the public unless Elaine agreed to an in-depth interview, which is how Susan got to join Elaine’s entourage, despite Elaine kind of hating her a lot. Classy.
I instantly loved TJ. He was charming and darkly comedic. However, he was also the first openly gay child to grow up in the White House during his father’s presidency, an experience that deeply affected him. He claimed to have entered rehab for his substance abuse issues in the aftermath of his suicide attempt, but later excused himself from the dinner table at big bro Doug’s engagement party to snort a line of coke in the restroom. Like his mother, TJ is a character defined by his struggles. Disgusted by the political circus, TJ has rejected the Hammond family birthright and sought a life away from public scrutiny—which is, of course, easier said than done. When a male prostitute delightedly explained that TJ was his first celebrity crush, TJ was more irritated than touched. It’s hard enough to be a gay teen. To be a gay teen in a family as famous as the Hammonds must have been horrific, and while TJ came out of it seemingly rewarded with iconic status, it was a reward he never wanted.
The worst part about running for president, Elaine stated, was the campaigning itself. She hated lying to potential voters, promising that she could make things better for them if they cast their ballot for her. She referred to campaigning as an “Olympic sport in hypocrisy”—but for all of his apparently sliminess, Elaine conceded that if nothing else, her ex-husband, Bud, didn’t have to lie when he campaigned for his own presidency. He believed in the lie and he believed that he really could change Americans’ lives while in office.
This inner honesty is what manages to keep Bud Hammond likeable, despite the fact that he’s a good ol’ boy of sorts who's never refused a beautiful woman who offered to sleep with him. Bud was a celebrated president who once wielded considerable influence even after he left office. However, after his divorce from Elaine and her rise to Secretary of State, Bud became largely irrelevant. He was lampooned by the late-night comedians as a washed-up joke of an ex-president with a shiny new trophy girlfriend. His ex, who wasn’t exactly as well-loved as he was when they were in the White House, seemed to have gotten the last laugh.
However, Bud isn’t without his experience and when the current president (and Elaine’s boss) Garcetti refused to rescue three American journalists wrongly accused of being spies from probable execution in the Middle East, Elaine asked her ex-husband to use what remaining influence he had to intervene. Oh, and they slept together because, well, their relationship is complicated, and it probably always has been, adding a further insulting angle to Susan’s old columns in their dogmatic insistence that Elaine was a bad feminist for standing by her cheating husband. I loved the two secret service agents exchanging knowing looks at the no-tell motel those two crazy kids hooked up at.
Finally, there’s Doug, the oldest Hammond son—clean-cut, PR-savvy, and loyal to is family as well as his career, just like his mother. I was actually expecting to see more of a sibling rivalry between Doug and TJ, but I’m thrilled that there isn’t one. It would have been so easy to write Doug as the functional favorite son and TJ as the dysfunctional black sheep, and while both men encompass those personae to an extent, they don’t let their polar opposite roles in the family define their brotherly relationship. Doug was quick to call TJ and make sure he was all right when news of his suicide attempt broke, despite Susan’s insistence that she would never have ok'd a story like that (and she didn’t, her douchebag ex-boyfriend/editor did). When Elaine asked him to keep an eye on his younger brother, he did it without question or eye-rolling. Doug doesn’t treat his brother like a political liability, though the story certainly has the potential to make his mother and himself—her assistant—look bad. Rather he, like Elaine, dreaded the release of the story for the infringement of TJ’s privacy that it was and their first thoughts were of his welfare.
The other parallel in Political Animals runs between two of the people closest to Doug, his fiancée Anne and his brother TJ. Both are disgusted by the political spotlight, but endure the scrutiny for the sake of the family... and both characters harbor destructive secrets. I was braced for further restroom revelations after TJ and Anne both made use of the brief privacy to indulge in their respective illnesses—TJ’s continued drug addiction and Anne’s bulimia. It’s certainly a sad commentary on the magnifying glass that these characters live under that literally the ONLY time they have complete privacy is in the bathroom, and even that privacy is tentative at best.
When we left the Hammonds at the end of Political Animals’ first installment, Elaine was in hot water with President Garcetti over her decision to send Bud abroad to negotiate for the journalists’ safe return... and then to leak news of the trip to her new unlikely ally, Susan, revealing further that in she planned to run for president once again—and this time, she plans to win.
– “It’s always important to look your best when you feel your worst.” Between the sage advice and the Jack Daniels-infused margaritas, TJ Hammond is my spirit animal.
– I love that Elaine named her dogs after the Kennedy brothers. I LOLed for real.
– You know, on some level, I think Doug’s comment, “There’s a tsunami of bullshit that comes with being in my family. Don’t you love me more than you hate it?” can apply to any family, not just the famous political ones.
– Okay, okay, so Susan is actually awesome and we like her, but wasn’t Grandma Barrish’s dressing down of her at the engagement party epic?
– Political Animals is ambitious and awesome (awesomely ambitious?), but at its core, it's really just a story about a family. Admittedly, the Barrishes are an insanely complicated family, but aren’t most families? People are complicated and nobody is ever just one thing. That’s why we humans tend to frown on labeling.
– In the introduction, Elaine was referred to as both a “feminist icon” and a “closet conservative” and in practice, she is both a loving mother, and a fierce political force—a self-described “bitch.” I’m hooked. How about you?
UPDATE: The full premiere is now available to watch online: