For the first time in its now four-episode run, Political Animals shows its constraints as a limited series (we’re in the home stretch now, people). But those limitations are an effect of a strong episode with a consistent tone that finally strikes the perfect balance between the show’s serious beltway exterior and its delicious, melodramatic center. As astute commenter The Traveling Lansburys pointed out in the review of “The Woman Problem,” series creator Greg Berlanti told TV Line that the cast was contracted for multiple seasons and that some storylines established in these six episodes would be continued in a possible series pick-up. This certainly isn’t unprecedented for USA. The Blue Skies network ordered the Debra Messing-led The Starter Wife to series after a strong initial run. Apparently not a lot of people wanted to watch Messing as a gay dicorcée (uh oh, second season of Smash), and The Starter Wife faltered when it went long-form, ultimately getting the axe after a season. The ratings on Political Animals are considerably softer than The Starter Wife’s numbers, but “Lost Boys” was the first episode that made a case for spending more time with the Hammond-Barrish clan.
“Lost Boys” is now the third episode in a row to establish its plot via flashback. Elaine and Doug had their episodes, so now it’s TJ’s turn. My distaste for the TJ plotline—cheesy without the wink and a nod—should have made “Lost Boys” a slog, but giving TJ depth makes his character that much more bearable. TJ should be one of the show’s great strengths: What’s it like to be forced into revealing a part of himself as a teenager to a country that does not fully accept him? But those discussions have largely been overshadowed by TJ’s drug use or are short-shifted as chiseled ab-ed men tell TJ he was spank-bank fodder for them as teenagers. In “Lost Boys” he goes beyond family screw-up, and Sebastian Stan is game to handle the extra work.
The catalyst behind TJ’s suicide attempt is traced back to Republican Congressman Sean Reeves (David Monahan), a married House freshman with a wife and two kids back home in Akron, who happens to also enjoy sleeping with TJ (with a body like that, Congressman Reeves should be Scott Brown-ing it all over Washington). The increasingly evil Veep Fred Collier (Dylan Baker) finds out and uses the knowledge of their six month affair to get Reeves to flip flop on a bill.
The gambit eventually works, but not before Elaine pleads with her son to break it off it with the congressman. It’s the best example so far of Elaine’s motherhood coming into direct conflict with her job. Doug’s engagement setbacks were minor scheduling issues, but this is the first time her occupation affects how she parents. More importantly, it’s the first time we see how the family’s political prestige screwed up TJ, rather than other characters just telling us that’s the case. TJ’s sexuality was scrutinized before, Elaine warns her son, but the revelation he’s been sleeping with a married man (and a Republican at that) would make him a pariah. The truncated season means that meaningful character development is often the first thing cut for time, but this episode was the first time TJ didn’t seem like a whiny brat. Allowing characters to breathe in a full series would benefit TJ the most, although Bud could probably use a little explaining, as well. (The TJ storyline wasn’t without its problems: The coke-coated peer pressure campaign was a bit much.)
The pilot posited Collier as some sort of idiot sinecure, but as I said before, no one hires Dylan Baker to simply play dumb. Dylan Baker is one of film and television’s most perfect scumbags, hiding creepiness behind that hangdog face of his. Collier is proving himself to be the devil on President Garcetti’s shoulder to Elaine’s angel. A Chinese nuclear submarine meant for espionage has an accident off the coast of California. Barrish advocates alerting the Chinese embassy, while Collier argues the information they could potentially get from the sub is worth more than the lives of the 100 men slowly dying from radiation poisoning onboard. Garcetti sides with Elaine, but the Chinese ambassador rebuffs Elaine, telling her the Chinese government won’t rescue their own men because it would mean admitting failure on the part of their Navy. Again, Elaine appeals to the president in one of those speeches that would be so groan-worthy coming out of anyone else’s mouth but Sigourney Weaver’s: Help the men, even if their government won’t. In retaliation, Collier spills the beans about Elaine’s presidential run, which she roundly denies. Collier is a fruitful foil for Elaine, with his shiftiness in direct opposition to her innate poise, especially since Susan has proven herself more of a frenemy to Elaine as of late.
Susan does most of her sparring with Doug. They need each other, Doug continuously reiterates. If Susan thwarts Elaine, Doug’s chance at the Chief of Staff position is gone, but so is the story and Susan’s shiny new Pulitzer. They have to work together, or neither of them get what they want, even if that means Susan has to share a byline with arch nemesis/blogger Georgia, who tricks poor, stupid Ann in to admitting that Doug and Elaine were gearing up for another campaign. (Every time Ann comes on screen, I’ve started to think, “Her?”)
The initial conversation between Doug and Susan even led to some creative cross-cutting through their conversation catching up the audience on Elaine’s previous three weeks, in exile because of her Supreme Court refusal, and Bud’s attempt to rehab his womanizing image by hiring a hot-to-trot PR flack. It was out of place and so stylistically different from the rest of the series that it was the most energetic Political Animals has felt since it began. It felt lighter, more fun, casting off much of its heavy self-seriousness. I’m not asking for Gossip Girl: Washington, but I hope the final two episodes reflect that aesthetic shift, as well as the tonal balance of drama and soapy frothiness.
“Lost Boys” sets up a path for the last two entries in the series. Clearly, TJ’s overdose won’t help matters, but Elaine’s campaign goes from family fodder to reality. She effectively resigns her position in trying to convince Garcetti to save the Chinese crew. Garcetti threatens Elaine, telling her to prepare for a political war. “Good,” Elaine counters, “I want you at your fighting weight when I thrash you.” Elaine then hits Garcetti with such a withering stare, it’s a wonder she let him in the win in the first place.