The threatened destruction of California! A punchy ex-president! Pot-smoking grandma! In its penultimate first season episode, Political Animals has comfortably settled into a half-soapy, half-serious vibe that the show struggled with as it set up its ensemble. To be fair, “16 Hours” tipped to the soapier side of the scale. The stranded Chinese submariners plot had less momentum than the other juicier goings-on, but those elements didn't feel as eye-rollingly ridiculous as it felt earlier in the season.
The title of the episode refers to the time period between the Hammond-Barrishes gathering around a comatose TJ, following last week’s coke overdose, and the rescue of the marooned Chinese submariners. But it’s really about the work-life balance, a problem exacerbated when the fate of the country is at stake. Other episode have toyed with the idea, but “16 Hours” focuses fully on it.
Considering the gender issues often at play within Political Animals, it would be easy to make the show a dramatic version of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s recent, much-ballyhooed Atlantic story about why women can’t have it all. But most of the issues up for debate are gender neutral. As they watch their son in a medically induced coma, Elaine tells Bud that they focused too much time on their political ambitions and not enough on their children. It was both of their failings as parents, not just Elaine’s. Susan, during a mile-high game of Drunk Secrets with Doug, laments focusing too much on her career and not on having a life. It’s not a man per se; it’s the life she’s missing out on. Bud even digs at Garcetti spending time with his son, teaching him how to ski, while VP Collier was getting all CIA-spooky on TJ’s ex. I honestly can’t decide whether the show is simplifying the admittedly nebulous issue of “having it all,” or leveling the playing field by making the problems inherent in the work-life dichotomy a non-gendered issue.
It’s the life storyline that has the most momentum in “16 Hours,” setting in motion Susan and Doug’s dalliance at 50,000 feet, Bud’s continued bonding with TJ, and Ann and Margaret’s smoke sesh. Elaine loses out in this deal as the submarine plotline never has any urgency. The threat, even as we watch Garcetti and his cabinet breathlessly watch the rescue, never feels real. This show may be trashy (i.e. ex-president versus Veep smackdown!), but concocting a nuclear disaster off the coast of California is a tad less realistic than a nasty case of bulimia. Of course everything is going to turn out fine, thus serving as yet another showcase to prove that Elaine is the only morally solvent person in Washington by doing everything she can to make Garcetti look good despite her open intentions to leave his cabinet. Look, we get it.
More fun was had with Susan and Doug, who were headed for sexy times as soon as they constructed their shaky alliance. Despite its inevitability, if only because James Wolk hadn’t been shirtless in an episode or two, the chemistry between Doug and Susan wasn’t established particularly well, unless their attraction was wine-fueled. With only one episode left, I’m interested to see where Doug and Susan end up, if only it means putting Ann out of her misery.
Susan was given the flashback treatment this time, but her looks in the past seemed more unfocused if only because they were more central to the episode’s theme than its action, unlike previous flashbacks. At one point, Susan’s fighting to be the lone female voice on a male-dominated op-ed page. At another, she’s being chastised for how harshly she’s treating then-FLOTUS Elaine. In yet another, Mommy Issues rear their ugly head. So what are we supposed to make of all of this? That Susan hid behind an equal opportunity stance in order to make a name for herself? That Susan was unfair to the saintly Elaine because she didn’t not understand the complexities of keeping a family together? Or that women truly can’t have it all? Women give up their careers for family and must live vicariously through their daughters? As much as I enjoyed this episode, I don’t give Political Animals enough credit to fully pull off the ambiguity.
The beginning of the series set Susan up as Elaine’s foil, but they’ve spent little time together since the pilot episode. It seems like a waste, considering the comparable sparks between Sigourney Weaver and Carla Gugino. I’d like to see another sparring match between the two before the season (and, mostly likely, the show) wraps.
- What 16-year-old boy was into both the Backstreet Boys and vaginas? But if there was any ambiguity over Doug’s sexuality, it’s assuaged by Doug electing to wear tuxedo shorts, which I honestly didn’t even know they made for men, to his own prom.
- I could listen to a stoned Ellen Burstyn say, “Now will you please stop bogarting that thing?” all day. As far as hip, wacky grandmas go, I’m glad she’s more drunk Dowager Countess than Estelle Winslow (she of the skydiving grannies). Sure, the Ann-Margaret pot-smoking scenes accomplished little, but at least it loosened Ann up and finally brought back the bulimia that’s gone unspoken, yet has defined her, since we met her.