When I saw Kelsey Grammer walking around the streets of Chicago last spring and summer, I got really excited that he was filming a new TV show called Boss – the infamous title of one of the best books on the politics of a major American city ever written. Shortly thereafter, my expectations took a hit when I found out the show wasn’t based on the landmark, unauthorized biography of Richard J. Daley by Mike Royko, but instead an original pseudo-history of the city. Boss has been mixing up some very skilled drama of Shakespearean proportions, and last week’s episode was the most satisfying thriller yet. This isn’t Richard III or anything, but more like one of Shakespeare’s histories with a huge array of characters and too much time devoted to the minor ones, like the two parts of Henry IV. Unfortunately, tonight was a bit of a letdown, with too many twists that marred some very well executed scenes that had clear ramifications through the linked plot lines.
I noticed a lot of resonance tonight, Kane’s actions serving as parallel commentary on others. The best example of this was Kane’s monologue to a former police detective, now a bartender, who is also probably Meredith’s brother. On a walk through a park, he all-too-easily recounts a story that quickly moves into sinister territory, with Kane describing how he burned down another corrupt official’s house and his future brother-in-law looked the other way in the investigation. That was Kane’s first “necessary act of evil,” but now after many years in office, he can’t tell whether his acts of corruption are necessary or merely “expedient.” It’s a nice moment of clarity for Kane, but one that doesn’t prevent him from asking his brother-in-law for a favor – shaking down Dr. Reyes, the woman who redacted the names of hazardous chemicals in the report that made things worse for Kane last week, and using her mentally ill criminal brother as a bargaining chip to get her to recant her previous statement. She did what she had to do to protect her brother, but lets Kane know what she really feels behind the scenes, with the action that lends the episode its title.
Kane’s worry about acts of necessary evil signaled exactly what went on between Aldermen Ross and Mata in the back half of the episode. Ross is trying to unite a group to take down Kane in the next election, using Zajac as their hero candidate who says all the right things and injects new blood into the system, but Mata is getting scared. He’s received benefits from Kane by the way of contracts, even if it means being entirely submissive to the mayor’s violent outbursts. But Ross isn’t willing to wait, and meets with our contractor friend from the pilot who got his ears cut off by Mata’s henchmen. When Ross lets slip that he doesn’t think Mata will be around much longer, the contractor and his men take Mata out to the O’Hare construction site, where he’s stabbed, seasoned with lye, and buried alive before the foundation gets poured in the morning. I’m not entirely sure if Ross meant for this to happen. It’s certainly left ambiguous enough, but coming in the same episode as Kane’s speech on necessary evil, and his brother-in-law’s assertion that you must “do something bad to do something good,” it had to be more than just coincidental revenge.
As for other things that worked, the show is trying to turn Kitty the Sex Robot into a real woman with real feelings. First, she deals with a class action lawsuit from all the victims of the toxic waste Kane dumped that leeched into Bensonville’s drinking water. The hotshot lawyer leaves a packet of victim photos on her desk, which becomes the Chekhov gun for the episode. Next, Ben Zajac calls her to meet him in an alley – but before your mind goes to the gutter, they don’t actually have sex! It’s a miracle! Instead, Ben just comes right out and tells Kitty about the Aldermen and Governor conspiring against Kane who want him to drop out of the gubernatorial race and run for mayor in a year instead. Until now, Kitty has been nothing but an emotionally distant and loyal servant to Kane, but right after this meeting shakes her allegiances, Kane reams her out in front of the entire staff for questioning him about a settlement for the lawsuit. Though I like the way Grammer delivers the speech, it really just announced itself in an off-putting way. OUT OF MY WAY, HERE IS A KELSEY GRAMMER MONOLOGUE! The whole “fuck the spectators” thing was another attempt to embed vulgar Shakespearean catchphrases that will never catch on.
By the end of Saturday, as Ezra keeps dialing Alderman Mata’s cell phone, Kitty has broken down and opened the packet of pictures. She can’t take her eyes off the kids, unleashes a stream of tears, and even vomits into her trashcan. The microchip has been compromised, everyone! I liked this progression, a very nice build from Ben offering Kitty a place with his staff just as it Kane breaks her down, and then she sees the consequences from the actions she’s trying to cover up. It’s nice to see the show trying to round out Kitty as a character, but motivation behind it doesn’t add up. Does she have feelings for Zajac this quickly, or does she feel that Kane has done something so morally reprehensible that she questions working for him? I suspect it’s just a pileup of multiple factors on one really bad day, but this wasn’t as high of a mark as the Kane/Alderman Ross parallel.
For me, a lot of those misgivings trace back to Ben Zajac, who seems like the show’s weakest character. The guy is a smooth operator, but seems to have to all-too-easy character flaw of being a womanizer. His wife is focused on the primary, but she’s very vanilla. She doesn’t excite Ben in a carnal way, so it makes little sense that the two of them would be together at all. Zajac is a merciless hound dog apparently, shown in spades by the way he leers at Alderman Ross’ wife as she passes him at the elevator. Maybe he’s just a sex addict, but this is where the entire cynical mess starts to be too much. Now that Alderman Ross’s plans have inspired a political killing – perhaps unintentionally, but I doubt it – there isn’t a single character here that has any real moral standing. Yes, some of the politicians have the self awareness to see that they’re bad people, but Boss is a huge spiral of darkness with no innocence at all. Meredith has referenced Breaking Bad at a few oblique points so far this season, and what makes the characters on that show so compelling is the balance between their likeable qualities and the darkness. The high drama keeps improving, but I don’t feel attached to any of these characters in a way that I care about their fate one way or the other.
It didn’t help that the whole plot with Emma and Darius took a huge turn for the worse this week, even in very limited screen time. First, Tom shows up at the clinic and sees the two of them together, and then starts asking Emma questions like she’s a fifteen-year-old with her first boyfriend. Not exactly a step forward for their interactions. Then Emma shows up unannounced while Darius plays some back-alley one-on-one basketball – because, of course that’s what he plays – and he shakes Emma down about her father seeing him, because he’s a drug dealer illegally supplying a church clinic, and the last thing he needs is for the mayor to see him and start asking questions. That gets swept under the rug pretty quickly when a random car shows up and men jump out and run down the alley looking all threatening. Darius’ friend takes the brunt of the attack, Emma fleeing with her man into a house. They have the argument we all knew was coming – that she doesn’t understand how things work in the streets – and should just go back. Should that be the end of the scene? Probably, but Boss powers through to the completely unnecessary and gratuitous makeup sex right then and there, while Darius’ friend is still getting beaten outside. When this show is on a good roll, I get really into the tense political conversations, but man, when it sinks to predictable, eye-roll inducing melodrama like this, I’m infuriated by how obvious of a misstep an episode is making.
Speaking of missteps, there were just one too many twists for me in the latter half of the episode. Alderman Ross calling in the earless guy, Boss’s version of Mike the Cleaner taking pictures of Ross and Mata together, Kane slapping his wife, which then causes her to meet Zajac at his campaign bus and offer to help him beat her husband in the mayoral election in a year. Last week really turned up the heat, bubbling things up over the course of three days of managing a scandal until a final letdown for Kane’s office, but when confined to one Saturday, there were even more twists and backhanded dealings with no logical progression, so it felt overstuffed. Boss has its moments where it lives up to the incredibly heightened dramatic stakes it creates, but as Meredith has noted on multiple occasions, the emotional underpinnings of the characters haven’t been enough to elevate the show from an above-average status. That streak continues here, and going into the last two episodes, it looks like the back door and underhanded deals will only increase.
- The hotshot class-action lawyer references The Brothers Karamazov – add that to the list of highbrow name-checks for Boss.
- One of the more on-the-nose cinematic techniques here is the shot of Alderman Ross with his two kids. It’s happened in two consecutive episodes. We get it, the guy likes his family, and his kids, just like Ben Zajac does…but it does lend a sense of Richard III-type foreboding to the proceedings with the two children.
- I’ve biked through the park where Kane and his probable brother-in-law have their chat. It’s a beautiful, relatively new park on
- It bears noting that the rather electronic score for the show really ups the tension. I started to pay more attention to it last week, but some more stellar music this week will now have me listening carefully in the last two episodes.
- I attended Northwestern at the same time Rotimi was a student, but I had no idea he was even on this show until I watched the pilot. Nice to see him here, and credited with his full name, but to me his best performance to date was with a backing band that went by the name Rotimi and the Rainmakers when they performed at Northwestern’s Dance Marathon charity event in 2009.
- Mario Van Peebles directed his second episode of the series tonight. Best directorial moment for me was the lingering shot of Alderman Mata holding a coffee cup after Stone tells him to forget about it. Mata clearly had pride in his coffee, and the continual disrespect at the hands of the mayor’s office was the main way Ross tried to get through to him, to no avail.
- Thanks to Meredith for letting me sub in this week. I’m a big Chicago politics buff, and I got way too attached to The Chicago Code last winter, so another show in that vein was great to drop-in on. She’ll be back for the home stretch next week.