‘Political Animals’ Sticks Its Finger In The Eye Of The President

Sebastian Stan as TJ Hammond on USA’s “Political Animals.”

We’re past the halfway point for this miniseries. Unfortunately, the ratings have been dismal so it doesn’t look like there’s much hope of extending it into a full series or even a second short round of episodes. I say unfortunately because this episode was very good–the best so far–and reflected quality writing, development, and acting to show that whoever is in charge of this show really knows what they’re doing. This episode had a clear direction, which makes me hopeful that the last two episodes will also have that sort of purpose and the ending will be satisfying as opposed to limp and weak. But that’s just hoping.

This episode, through the use of lengthy flashbacks, explores two parallel timelines of TJ (the continuously marvelous Sebastian Stan). The flashback timeline was last December, and we already know that ends in a suicide attempt that tore the family apart. Before that, TJ was clean, happy, and in love with married Republican senator Sean Reeves. Because you know how this ends, your skin prickles uncomfortably at their words of love. The moment in which Sean tells TJ that he fell in love with him at first side is a moment of masterful acting for Stan, whose face runs through eight or nine emotions before the two go in for a convincing kiss.

Flash forward to today, when TJ is buzzing around preparing for the opening of his nightclub The Dome (nice). He’s been clean for three weeks (as opposed to last year’s six months) mainly because the ever tightly wound Douglas has hired him a babysitter. Except this babysitter is an addict too, whose personal poison used to be oxy, so can’t we all see where this is heading? These two storylines of TJ’s life are wound together for a reason, and the happiness he radiates as he prepares for the club opening is ominous rather than reassuring. Like his affair with Sean, we know it won’t last.

But the point Susan brings up while interrogating Doug about personal manners in the middle of her sister’s kitchen is the real theme of this episode. When he protests that she’s angling too close to home, Susan points out that when he first came to her, Doug wanted to stop his mother’s campaign because of the effect it would have on their family. “Someone has to look out for this family,” he said, a slightly crazed look in his eyes. Now, of course, that’s not a pressing concern for him because he’s convinced his mother can win.

But not so fast! Just because Doug has decided his mother can win doesn’t mean the campaign won’t affect the family, and that’s what this episode is really about. On a mission to rehabilitate his image, Bud (via his publicist) decides he won’t go to the opening. Defensively, he lashes out at TJ, claiming he doesn’t want to watch his addict son go down a path he won’t survive, and Elaine somehow jumps on this crazy train when news that Sean Reeves will be there. See? It just takes one tiny suggestion from the campaign trail, concerned with image, to send this whole house of cards shattering to the floor. TJ didn’t snort lines of coke (and overdose in the episode’s final moments) because he was under the pressure of a club opening or because Sean was going to be there. He did it to deal with his ridiculous family.

On the other side of the coin, Anne has to deal with the new “taking herself seriously” Georgia weaseling out an accidental slip about Elaine’s campaign. “I want that to be off the record.” “That’s not how it works. You have to call off the record before you say it.” Is Anne an idiot? I love Doug explaining it to Susan over the phone: “It was a sophisticated line of questioning!” “Georgia can’t even spell sophisticated.” Yeah. That was about the most unsophisticated line of questioning ever. But Anne, too, is buckling under the pressure. Where is her bulimia now? It would have fit into this episode. I don’t understand why they introduced it if it was never going to come up again.

But look at that Georgia go. She’s got potential. Luckily, Susan is forced into recognizing that, or at least dealing with it.

And now, Elaine has made her move for real. She’s resigned and the president knows she’s coming for him. With TJ’s life hanging in the balance, it will be interesting to see what Political Animals values–the family staying together, or the bitch getting ahead.

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