Boss brought a delicacy to its characters in this week’s episode, “Ablution.” The audience gets a chance to see these excellent actors play with nuance, rather than belaboring us with the same old themes. The result is, at times, breathtaking. I’m not sure that Boss is ever going to cut out melodrama completely—too many locked-door, racy sex scenes for that—but it works well as a character drama. When it draws back and holds the camera at a distance, leaving aside the overwrought photography and splashy moralizing judgments, the variations in the characters—the inconsistencies and mundane decisions that make up a human being—come into focus.
In fact, this lens works best for Tom Kane, whom Kelsey Grammer plays with outsize force and skill, especially when he’s reprehensible. Too heavy of a hand, and the tone of the show gets moralistic—sometimes nihilistic. Giving us the space to analyze the characters ourselves is not just respectful to our mental faculties—it’s also more enjoyable. And somehow, even though I keep giving up on Kane, his humanity is again on trial in “Ablution,” but in a way that feels new and interesting.
I don’t often find much significance in the arty titles for each week’s episode, but I was strangely drawn to this one: “Ablution” is a super-retro word, meaning to wash yourself—but more exactly, to ceremonially or ritualistically wash yourself, in an attempt to purify. It’s a good theme for Kane. One of the more surprising things about the character is that he keeps trying to make amends, in weird, increasingly erratic ways. The titular cleansing is a motif that recurs in the episode—in one instance, he tries to clean a stain off of his cuff, and fails. But the sin won’t come out, no matter how much he “Out, damned spot!”s it.
Along the same lines, he welcomes Emma back into their house—under house arrest, of course. He is under the delusion that he will somehow be able to win her back, which is very, very strange. He has betrayed her countless times, presumably (much of their history is vague, but it doesn’t sound good). He would be lucky if she didn’t try to murder him in his sleep. But somehow, his attempt to make amends is touching, if pathetic. It’s no more and no less than the regular response an awkward dad has to a grown-up daughter. But nothing is going to erase the past.
I’m convinced Kane is a monster, but now it’s hard to decide whether he’s a monster due to his illness or due to his own twisted nature. It’s almost as if he lets his worst impulses take over when he feels vulnerable about someone or something. He succumbs to an overwhelming need to destroy whatever is in his path. Perhaps that’s a naïve reading: Kane showed us last season that he’s perfectly able to seem repentant or humane, but then reveals a horrible, terrifying side that’s been in control all along. The thing is, you never know what you’re going to get. That brings me back to the delicate direction that works so well for me in this episode. If Kane’s going to be horrible, I’d prefer to come to my own conclusions.
The soft touch works well for Kitty, too. Up until now we have been watching Kitty with heavy foreboding, wondering how she’s going to choose to move forward. Kitty has not, in this show, said very much with words. Almost all of her communication is nonverbal—the actress who plays her, Kathleen Roberts, is great at pulling off that tight, constrained emotionality. We get a chance to watch her make a set of small decisions in this episode; small decisions that snowball into bigger and bigger decisions. By the end she’s an unrecognizable character—laughing with Sam Miller, possibly even flirting, while discussing a casual sort of moral philosophy with him. It’s a well-edited scene, Kitty’s dialogue layered over scenes of the abortion of her unborn child with Ben Zajac. All of a sudden, it’s clear she’s back in the game, contradicting what she says in the opening.
It seems like her motivations aren’t so much political as they are… gender-based? Kane was a kind of her surrogate father-master; Zajac the lover-fool. When she meets with Ben at the beginning of the episode, he’s surprisingly tender toward her, but she seems repulsed that he’s interested in her at all. I’m not sure what conclusion to draw from all this—there’s a lot of things that could mean—but the writing and direction suggest that her choice to terminate the pregnancy and to join Walsh’s campaign were directly related both to each other and to her disappointment with Zajac for flirting with her. Regardless of what it means, “Ablution” is a breakthrough episode for the character. You could make the (uncomfortable) argument that her D&C is itself a form of cleansing, an emptying of earlier sins. In that alone, she may be more successful than Kane.
This episode also explores the growing dynamic in city hall between Mona, Ian, and Kane—and a very strange dynamic it’s turning out to be. Mona and Ian don’t get along; they’re jockeying for power in a way Kitty and Ezra never did. Right now we think we know what both Mona and Ian want—good works and power, respectively—but the wildcard, as usual, is what Kane wants. Kane seems to like Mona, and sort of positions her in charge over Ian, but freakily, it turns out he’s watching them talk to each other using his hidden cameras, and using that information to manipulate them in person. This is the first time the cameras are for anything other than watching himself, which is quite a departure. The big twist at the end is that not only is he watching Mona in her office… he’s also watching her in her house, having dinner with her husband and kids. That’s messed up. And it just goes to show that you can’t trust Kane’s atonement too much, because he is always plotting. Always. Mona is proving to be a complex character with heart, and I hope that Kane doesn’t totally destroy her with his machinations—which is a fragile, faint hope, indeed.
- I’m a little confused as to why Dr. Ella Harris is back on Kane’s side. Any theories on this? Did he just pay her a lot of money? I was also surprised to see Meredith and Tom all moony at each other after Meredith accused Tom of trying to kill her last week. But the Kanes’ marriage is obviously something quite beyond me.
- I am convinced that if the Zajacs are the Kanes 2.0, Maggie is Tom Kane. She’s going to be a very good campaign manager, but she’s also a terrible person—willing, just like Tom, to use her children for political capital. Her shapeshifting from role to role depending on whom she’s talking to is masterful, frightening, and a whole commentary on feminism in and of itself. Ben is cute, but especially now, pretty bad at everything. The blowjob from the Facebook intern is a PR nightmare waiting to happen.
- According to my screener, this episode was both written and directed by women. I think this is the first time I’ve seen that with this show, and I wonder if that’s why it feels substantially different to me. Of course, all of this material has to go through producers, but the tone of this episode seems very far removed from the outlandish desert hallucinations of the last episode. In “Ablution,” even the hallucinations were more restrained.
- If Kitty and Sam are flirting they might become my crazy fangirl OTP for this show, just because all I want is for Kitty to be happy.
- Gratuitous sex alert: Completely unnecessary sex scene between Ian and his former employer; far less character-establishing, far more “oh man we need something seamy to keep people watching this show about a public housing development!” The soft-porn cheeseball music in the background doesn’t help. Boss needs a separate grade just for unnecessary nudity and egregious sexual encounters. As the Zajac encounter was kind of character-establishing, I’ll give it a pass. That brings the sex in this episode to a D. (It’s not even that hot. And would Facebook intern really go straight for the pants? I don’t believe it for a second.)