I dreamed about Kitty O’Neill a few nights ago. She didn’t do much, just stood there, hanging out on the periphery, mutely understanding and compassionate. She had an aura of gravitas around her, a capability that transcended words. The bizarre nature of my dreams aside, I was struck by this vision of Kitty as I watched tonight’s season finale of Boss, because it was in stark contrast to the Kitty on-screen. As the first two seasons of Boss have unfolded, I have been more intrigued by Kitty than any other character—a clearly skilled political operative whose conscience is pricked by desperate women and philandering men.
So it was disappointing to see her succumb once more to the mystique of Tom Kane, allying with him against her one-time lovers, Sam Miller and Ben Zajac, as well as the state’s attorney, who threatened to indict her as a co-defendant if she didn’t help bring Kane down. But oddly, the mystique is gone for her—she knows exactly what Kane is capable of. He had Ezra Stone killed, and then more recently, the white-haired man who was his primary operative. He ruined Sam and the Chicago Sentinel, and Catherine Walsh, and Mona Fredricks, and, needless to say, his daughter. He threatens his wife’s life on a regular basis. He lies and cheats in the service of doing good, but good is more and more difficult to define.
With all that in mind, why would Kitty—or anyone—choose to be on his side? Maybe it’s a kind of self-preservation. If you’re not on Kane’s side, you’re dead. That certainly seems to be the case for Meredith, who has time and again tried to break free from him, only to have Kane ruthlessly snap her back into his grip. But Kitty was free, and has no illusions about what Kane is, unlike Mona. It seems instead that she is drawn to power. As she says herself, when Kane asks her why she wants to come back: “It’s where I belong.”
How totally demoralizing, that Kitty, an intelligent and (I think) good person, would find her only niche in the middle of Macbeth’s court.
But perhaps that’s the whole point: Kitty isn’t a good person. She’s bought votes, she’s created a scandal. She’s ruthless, too. If anything, all of her actions have suggested that though she has moments of true compassion, she is trying to eradicate as much of that as possible. She seeks power more than anything, and any other feeling is a weakness on the way to power.
If I felt like I knew why, I think Boss would be a better television show. It’s unclear whether Kitty wants power herself, or merely wants to be power’s right hand. Either way, she has chosen it again and again, frustrated only when she loses the game. There’s a story there about how this character has been drawn to power but seems unable to wield it in her own name; a story about playing a dangerous game with high stakes, but we don’t know it. Boss has not chosen to tell that story.
Which would be fine under certain circumstances. But I’m not sure that I know if Boss has definitively chosen to tell any kind of story. This episode seemed to me to be a retelling of the story from season one: Don’t mess with Tom Kane. Even when he’s dying. It’s not the worst story, but I question the merit of telling it over again in its entirety, with new characters and extra details serving only to provide variations on a theme. We know: Power is rotten to the core. It’s a Shakespearean tragedy.
If there is a lesson in Boss, it is that in Chicago, the tragedy never ends. Season after season, year after year, the story plays itself out in the same way. Cheaters always prosper. The same story plays out in the same way, and only the details change.
I’m not disputing the quality of Boss, necessarily, though I do have quibbles with some of its stylistic choices. But when a season finale ends with a whimper, not a bang, saying the same old things the first season finale did, and sets up a third season that very well may never exist, I cannot help but feel disappointed. Most characters ended up exactly where they started. Sam, on the edge of journalistic obscurity; Meredith, unfaithful again, in the clutches of her mad husband. Darius took a darker turn to drugs, and Emma’s in another nightmare scenario. Zajac is back to being the clutches of his ambitious wife. The only person who really changed is Kitty, and well, you already read what I had to say about Kitty.
Technically, the season finale is on par with previous episodes. Moments of strange production choices are juxtaposed with surprisingly eloquent speeches. What stood out to me most was Kane’s bedside final monologue to Meredith after he nearly kills her. It demonstrates that bleak desperation of shared lust for power that binds them together. Another moment was Jackie’s brief, heartfelt apology to Sam in the bar, when the 7 p.m. news broadcast doesn’t include any information about Kane’s disease. But “True Enough” didn’t stand out to me as saying or doing anything interesting. The story arc weighed down an otherwise fine episode.
Boss’ game appears to be making the audience think that there is a chance Tom Kane could be toppled by the supporting cast, and then showing Kane mercilessly destroy his enemies. Kane is, I grant you, an interesting character, but there is not much fun in watching the same thing over and over again. Kane always wins. There’s never any doubt, never any suspense. Why root for a character you know will fail? Why engage with a plotline you know will come to nothing?
All of the time we spent this season watching Sam investigate Kane’s disease, or Emma investigate her grandfather’s stroke, for example, have lead to essentially dead ends. And most of us guessed that either Mona or Sam (or, as it turned out, both) would end up ruined by the end of the season.
So what’s the point? I’m drawing a blank. Maybe it works as a kind of intellectual argument for the crushing despair inspired by political corruption. But even an argument has faith that change will produce something good, and Boss has no faith at all, in anything, except in Tom Kane’s continued evil. As much as I enjoy the show as a vehicle for Kelsey Grammer’s range of acting abilities, the plot doesn’t get anywhere. Hope rises and falls with each season, falling flat in front of Kane’s feet, dead, each time. If Boss is going to become better television, it needs to find a reason for its audience to care.
Finale grade: D+
Season grade: C
- The oddest interchange in my mind is Mona’s conversation with her husband on the steps outside their house, when they realize they need to move away from Chicago entirely in order to recover. If this show is a parable of Chicago, Mona’s story is the that of the idealistic reformer chased out of town. It’s embarrassing I thought she might be the hero this show so badly needed. Instead it seems like the show had indeed shown its hand in season one.
- It was said already, but once again, and with feeling: Poor, poor Darius.
- I think this show would have been a lot more interesting if it had been about Meredith Kane, abused wife, throwing over her overbearing and powerful husband, inch by inch. It would have had the emotional complexity and nuance that the show currently lacks, and it would justify Connie Nielsen in that role. As it is, she is absolutely wasted. Just watch her accept the city alderman’s position: She’s giddy and girlish in a way Meredith never is in private. She’s acting a woman who acts; it’s brilliant.
- This season would have been better if Ian and Emma were cut entirely.