Well, that was a lot of backstory.
“Backflash” takes us, via Tom Kane’s unconscious, through a large swath of the establishing narrative behind Boss—the entire series. So many questions were clarified in this episode it’s hard to keep track of them all: Kane’s obsession with Lenox Gardens, why Meredith’s father is in a stupor, and Ian Todd’s origin story are all illustrated. It was nice to see a lot of the missing pieces fit into place. But the essential question of the show still stands: Is Tom Kane a good person?
At least, that’s the question that Kane is asking himself. As his hallucinations have gotten worse, Ezra Stone has morphed from casual apparition to permanent interior monologue, playing the part of better angel and devil’s advocate in Kane’s mind. Ezra’s voice relentlessly drags him through the worst moments in his career. Chief among them is the first wave of riots at Lenox Gardens, 19 years ago, in the first years of his term as mayor. Kane’s fixation on rectifying his legacy stems from guilt over the violence he caused.
But his attempts to improve Lenox Gardens have become a flashpoint. Evicted families are being relocated to middle-class neighborhoods, where they take up residence in foreclosed-upon homes. No one is happy about this, and protests start quickly. A few profiteers take the opportunity to vandalize the Gardens (egged on by Alderman Ross). The residents of Chicago are terrified. A man is murdered. Schools close and people stay home from work. This is rapidly becoming a disaster, but Mayor Kane is nowhere to be seen.
Into the power vacuum steps Meredith Kane, the only person who guessed where he is. All of a sudden she’s the acting mayor of Chicago. She tells everyone that Tom has been called to D.C. to meet with the FBI and efficiently handles the crisis. By the end of the episode she has reconciled with Governor Cullen and called the National Guard.
So yeah. There’s a lot going on. I’m not sure why Boss felt the need to cram so much detail into one episode. To the writers’ credit, “Backflash” balances the details well, especially in the scenes without Kane. The many sides of the Lenox Gardens story are well-portrayed. It’s a complex situation rendered with care.
Kane’s flashbacks are less compelling, though they’re interesting in that they flesh out so much of the story. We have been watching the Lenox Gardens story unfold for six episodes without knowing any of the backstory behind it, after all. His illness has taken a sharp turn for the worse. The producers chose to portray that with echoing voices booming through his head, coupled with the occasional visual hallucination. It could be more compelling if we hadn’t been subjected to every kind of ridiculous camera trick for a mentally-ill character already. (The list includes: hallucinations of the dead groping the living; fantasies of a loving wife and daughter; desert scenes starring meaningful glances from the Gecko of Rehabilitated Sin.)
By the end of the episode, Kane is doing much better. Chicago might be burning, but if Kane’s restored to top form, he is probably going to have the city under control in short order. At least, that’s how things will play out if this season ends up like last season. A few commenters last week pointed out that the way this season has been filmed suggests a two-season production, which makes quite a bit of sense. Certainly the plot seems framed for two seasons. Indeed, Kane's lack of control in “Backflash”—of both his sanity and his city—seems to be a prelude to him regaining it all by the time this season wraps up.
The thread I found the most interesting about Kane’s time in Toronto is this idea of his own remorse over his actions. Regret is not something we’ve seen from him before. And yet much of the emotional punch of this episode is contingent on the idea that he experiences true remorse for his mistakes. In order to care about his intense hallucinations with Stone and his psychological struggle as his brain goes under, the viewer must believe his torture is a self-inflicted moral inquiry. But the episode also introduces a lot of doubt about whether or not Kane is a moral human being. Stone’s voice in his head keeps telling him that he’s a horrible person whose sins cannot be purged. He’s a monster, even. And every additional revelation about Kane doesn’t change that portrait.
I liked the subtle interplay of these two ideas, but it isn’t as engaging as it could have been. Personally, I know it’s because I’m having a once-burned-twice-shy experience that prevents me from putting any faith in Kane. I’d rather not trust him to be a good person because I tried that already and it went rather badly. I’m aware that not everyone feels this way, and that many viewers appreciate Kane’s unlikeability. But I have to be honest to my own reaction here, which is that I care about Tom Kane not winning over everything else.
In that sense, this episode is a real downer. Many of the other characters explore other arenas of empowerment: Zajac picks up the pieces of his dignity and picketed with middle-class homeowners against the banks; Kitty tries out a different kind of relationship; Emma discovers that her grandfather was essentially murdered by her father; Sam Miller, with Kitty’s help, figures out that “Rosebud” was Ezra Stone. These are all tools of power, if used properly. But that’s a big “if.” We’ve seen this story before and we know how it ended. Once again, as the season draws to a close, we’re looking at a battle of wills between Kane and the people around him. And as this season consists of ten episodes, not eight, it’s possible we could see a lot go down before the finale.
Though the constant riddles and the obscure flashbacks can be frustrating, one of the better things about Boss is that the plot always keeps you guessing. It’s a fun show to try to solve.
- Should we start taking bets on who gets killed this season?
- Why didn’t Meredith Kane run for mayor? She would be a great mayor, wouldn’t she? One of the biggest questions for me throughout the entire series revolves around her motivations. “Backflash” is a big episode for her (after several episodes of Connie Nielsen essentially doing nothing). Still, I’m not sure the audience understands her any better, though it’s fascinating seeing her in action. It’s interesting that her own political ambitions have always been subsumed by Tom’s. I wonder what the story is there, and whether or not we’ll learn any more of it.
- Our theory that Catherine Walsh is a lesbian is looking to be spot-on. The fact that it wasn’t revealed in this episode suggests it could be something that goes down in the season finale.
- Kitty and Sam are pretty cute with their Chinese takeout, but their shift to cute couple seems rushed. (Even to me.)