Political Animals finishes its six episodes with the best entry of the entire run, complete with even tone, a shocking twist to kick off the second half, and an open-ended conclusion that clears a path for a potential second season that could prove to be more exciting than the first.
After the pilot, this is the only the second episode not mired in the past lives of the Barrish-Hammond family as told via saturated flashbacks. The flashbacks were a necessary evil to create a sense of character in a relatively short period of time, but they led to an overall sluggishness. Finally free from the constraints of the past, Political Animals is able to look to its future and fulfill the promise of the series, making a case for why a second season could potentially be everything that the first season wasn’t. “Resignation Day” proves that, given actual stakes, the show can play to the strengths of its cast—especially with a campaign, rather than the tantalizing threat of one, as the centerpiece.
The episode truly kicks off when Garcetti refuses Elaine’s resignation and asks her to be his running mate, rather than his opponent, in the upcoming election. As Bud says, he still believes Elaine could take Garcetti in the primary, but her drive to do so is no longer there. With one son in rehab and the other one betraying her, it’s time for Elaine to take the veep seat. The vice president concession is a significant acknowledgement that Elaine values motherhood above her career, even if her children are now fully grown. She’s said as much, but this is the first time her decision-making is affected by her familial obligations, rather than talked about in hindsight.
Then the Big Wow: Air Force One goes down off the coast of France, killing Garcetti, along with dozens more crew members.
Showing Air Force One with its tail sticking out of the water is the show’s first truly shocking moment. It creates an energy that was missing from Political Animal’s less-than-stellar entries. The president's death also gives Elaine an out. Aside from Bud’s barrage of Italian epithets, there was never any real reason to dislike Garcetti, if only because it didn’t do much other than look concerned and make a final decision that usually came out in Elaine’s favor. Garcetti would have never made for a good enemy, unless there was some third act of evil, but there are few ways to achieve that without coming off as shallow and transparent. But, as Elaine wrote in her resignation letter, “The values that have guided you as of late are not ones I support.” Garcetti’s death defuses his own likeability problem. It also sets up the potential villain in Dylan Baker’s Vice President Collier, who was willing to take the Oval Office before Garcetti’s body was even found and, as the former head of the CIA, could unearth some deliciously scandalous secrets from the Hammond-Barrish family’s past. Collier would not only make an excellent foil to Elaine’s moral superiority, but would surely pave a path through the primaries, as well.
Even before the president took the big sleep, the episode took a surprising path, especially in terms of Doug and Susan, who can retain their sexual chemistry, despite the utter breakdown in their relationship. Doug gives Susan the final piece of her story—Elaine’s resignation letter—only to have it proverbially snatched out of her hands by Georgia, effectively ruining Doug’s interlocked career and family life and Susan’s big story in one fell swoop. This was supposed to be the big break, Georgia whines to justify her actions, despite already being guaranteed a co-byline. This rings wholly untrue, considering the respect Georgia sometimes exhibits for Susan, who is promising her co-authorship on a wide-ranging piece, rather than the quick headline she’s used to getting. Georgia, in the end, remains a problematic, one-dimensional character.
While Georgia remained a fictional construct of this faux force within newsrooms, the Doug-Susan debacle allows James Wolk to realize Doug’s potential, taking him from golden mama’s boy to someone who is considerably more wounded than he’s let on during his confrontation with his mother. Susan was right: Despite betraying his mother and cheating on his fiancee, Doug remains a good guy and Wolk is able to embody those complexities. In the end, Doug does the good-guy thing: He marries his wronged fiancée, dooming himself until they both come to their senses.
Doug is the kind of character that makes for good television with a show like Political Animals. You want to root for him and he means well, but he makes human mistakes and grounds other antic and outlandish plots. He’s real without being boring, complicated without superfluous dramatics. Unfortunately, T.J. is not that type of character, nor is Sebastian Stan the type of actor who can embody that character. T.J. remains a missed opportunity—rather than look at the causes of T.J.’s problems, the show ends once again looking at the effects. When T.J. and Ellen Burstyn’s Margaret tearfully duel about his addiction, Burstyn is acting with all of her being, justifying her histrionics, while Stan looks slightly bored.
All in all, “Resignation Day” is Sigourney Weaver’s episode: The beginning scenes where we see her waking up and getting ready for the day (especially the look on her face when she sees at herself in the mirror truly terrified about what she’s about to do), her heartbreaking conversation with the French president, her breakdown in front of Susan. When Bud asks her to reaffirm her desire to be president at the end, her simple smile proves why we wanted to spend six hours, if not more, with Weaver in the first place.