August 2, 2012 - 9:45am
BY JERUSALIEM GEBREZIABHER AND KAYLA UPADHYAYA
Senior Arts Editor Kayla Upadhyaya and Daily Arts Blogger Jerusaliem Gebreziabher discuss the latest episode of USA’s new political miniseries “Political Animals,” “The Woman Problem.”
Kayla: This week’s episode begins with a flashback, which drew me right in for two reasons. First of all, I am a sucker for flashbacks. I believe that when they are done well, they add to a show’s narrative and character development. I think it’s silly to label all flashbacks as a cheap storytelling ploy, especially when there are shows that truly use flashbacks in compelling ways (“Veronica Mars,” “Revenge,” “The Vampire Diaries,” etc). Secondly, Ciarán Hinds said vagina. That alone was enough to make the episode entertaining (especially with the later “You heard me right. I said penis” thrown on top). But Bud’s word vomit was hardly the best part of an episode that I thought had a whole lot going for it, so let’s get down to business. In terms of these flashbacks, I thought they were very well done. I wasn’t a huge fan of the flashbacks in last week’s episode, because I felt like something was missing. The Elaine we saw in those flashbacks was sooooo different from the Elaine we know. She was timid, scared, hesitant, basically everything she isn’t these days. I totally buy that something like multiple cheating scandals (especially when they are so publically broadcast and scrutinized) can change a woman, but we haven’t really seen that transformation. It’s not like Elaine was in her husband’s shadow one day and then an asskicking lady hero the next. It just didn’t quite click with me. This week, however, most of the flashbacks have to do with Doug, and though we’re shown a Doug that kicks back and let’s go for a second, he’s still more or less the same person and it wasn’t quite as jolting. Same goes for Bud. He was the same Bud we’re used to, but there was a little more depth added to the character by those flashbacks.
Jerusaliem: Bud was a forefront character for me during this episode. He really caught me off-guard with the sudden turnaround of his character, the revelations about him that are revealed towards the end. The flashback to TJ’s party was particularly interesting. I already have some reservations about Douglas and how strong he really is. He seems to have this front that he can handle anything that’s thrown at him, but every now and then I see breaks in his character that show a very vulnerable side. For example: Douglas storms into the party and at first is outraged, his irresponsible little brother threw a rager in their home without even consulting him, a total blow at his authority. But then he allows himself to be persuaded with a few gentle coo’s from his brother’s smooth mouth and a sexual gesture from his girlfriend. For God’s sake he was persuaded to take DRUGS in less than five minutes time. I think that’s a sign right there.
Kayla: He doesn’t really have much of a backbone. I usually find him weak and naïve, but this plot (which took up a good chunk of this episode) finally showed me that he is very dedicated to his mother’s career and his family. Through a series of flashbacks, we’re shown that Doug thinks he’s the reason his mother lost her first campaign … well, actually, he thinks that’s what his father thinks. In an admittedly soapy breakdown (though James Wolk sells it), he yells at Bud that he’s not the reason she failed. Bud admits that it was his fault in a rare moment of tenderness. Doug kind of reminds me of Daniel on “Revenge” — he’s easily manipulated by both of his parents and you kind of just want to yell SRSLY, DUDE? at him. Especially since he gave a loan to his less-than-stable brother.
Jerusaliem: The LOAN. Ugh. WHY WHY WHY WHY.
Kayla: Very, very foolish of Doug. Back to his relationship with his father: The pollster points out to Doug that Bud purposefully threw himself under the bus when the real reason for Elaine’s failure ultimately came down to the fact that she was a woman. But if Bud took the blame for her campaign’s decline, there was a chance that Elaine could run again and win (an outcome that the pollster friend deems quite possible). So as despicable as Bud is, he’s still a master politician (the way he negotiated with the Iranian leader last week was nothing short of artful), and he still cares about his family — though he has a shitty way of showing it. All around, I was impressed by how this particular plot gave us a lot of different perspectives of each of the characters.
Jerusaliem: Yeah! God that was pretty mind-blowing, being a serious Bud-hater myself. The entire show, so far, sets the audience up to have a love-hate relationship with Bud. In one instance, he’s scum for how quickly he can deliver crude and demeaning statements. But in the next instant Bud is revealed as a sort of visionary — he knows the ins and outs of presidency better than people give him credit for, particularly his family. We’re set up to think he’s some sort of drooling, southern idiot, but he knows what he’s doing. He laughs at life and takes punches pretty gracefully, because he sees a bigger picture. We see this when the boys go to visit his backcountry pollster friend Jubal. We find out that as we were seething during the flashback when Bud talks about the “Woman Problem” in California, he really was helping shelter Elaine from the campaign train wreck that was to come. California was already lost due to the state’s reaction to her during the debates. Bah! That man … Now I feel like the drooling idiot.
Kayla: “Animals” is really good at making us see the other side of a story. Just look at Susan’s breakup sex subplot. She hooks up with her asshole ex, who … kind of drops some major truth bombs all over the place? He’s still an asshole (see: the way he treats Georgia), but his little speech about how Susan only remembers the politics, while he remembers how beautiful she was that night was honest and poignant. It didn’t make me love him, but it did make me understand him a whole lot better. Tricky, tricky show!
Jerusaliem: Absolutely. This episode seemed to be a lot about dissecting the characters that made us pull out our hair in the last few episodes. We get more intimate views into the characters Bud, Georgia, Susan’s boss and a little punch from Garcetti. Garcetti is being revealed as a more manipulative politician with agendas of his own (like shutting Elaine out of the primary through another honorary prospect).
Kayla: Yes, Garcetti is a tricky little bastard. Vanessa Redgrave is a superb actress, and it was great to see her in the role of Justice Diane Nash, former mentor of Elaine’s and the first openly gay SCOTUS justice (!!!). I thought that she, and the script, brought some depth to an otherwise not-too-important character. What did you think about the Supreme Court nomination subplot?
Jerusaliem: Although I was a little ticked off because I want Elaine to be president, I felt it was thoughtful on Garcetti’s end because he wasn’t completely throwing her in the dumps. Being Justice Dash’s successor is a huge honor and a great place for Elaine to be. Like Dash explains later in the episode, Garcetti is giving her a position in which she gets to tell presidents what they can and can’t do. It seems perfect for someone with as many strong convictions as Elaine does. But I was still PISSED. I want Elaine to have it all, as much as I adore Diane Nash. By the way, “Diane Nash” was an African-American female leader and strategist of the student wing of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.
Kayla: I’ve seen a few people calling these parts of the episode pointless and dramatic filler, but I think that they might be missing something. The point of this plot was not to reinforce Elaine’s intent to run for president (she has made that abundantly clear), nor was it intended to merely throw a wrench in her plans. My takeaway from this subplot was that the U.S.A. of “Animals” — though seemingly more progressive than the real U.S.A. — still has a “woman problem.” Even super awesome Diane Nash doesn't think Elaine can successfully make a bid for the presidency. “Ambition looks better on a man.” Her words sank in, and it was downright depressing! Garcetti wants to shut Elaine down, her family isn't even wholly supportive, Nash has good intentions, but ultimately wants Elaine to settle (accepting a SCOTUS nomination wouldn't be settling for most, but this is Queen Shit of the United States of Elaineland we're talking about).
She wants what she wants, and she wants it for honorable reasons. This episode confirmed that for me.
Jerusaliem: Same. I loved her monologue when she laid it out for Nash, who wasn’t exactly convinced as to why she wanted to run for president. To Nash, Elaine was still this competitive student that was fuming about failing to achieve the grand prize the first time around. Thankfully, Barrish was eloquent enough to convince Nash, as well as the rest of us. What did you think of Elaine’s mother Margaret in this episode? I felt she was overly hostile, especially in that scene in the kitchen. We have her general disapproval for Elaine to run for President again, but then we have the argument that ensues later in the episode. She seems to just be spitting fire at Elaine for never thanking her for anything (although Elaine says she did). It’s a bit passive aggressive at times as well … like when Margaret ends the fight with “All I was trying to do was get a refill of my drink!”
Kayla: Well, I still love grandma and not only because she gets the best lines. I love how we were given a glimpse into the relationship between Margaret and Elaine. Even someone as high profile and powerful as Elaine still has problems with her mother, and I bought the way she is still bitter over her mother's harsh criticism and neglectfulness in her childhood. But I also understand Margaret's POV. I believe her when she says that Elaine doesn't thank her enough. I agree ... she's pretty emotionally detached, but Elaine isn’t without her flaws, especially when it comes to the way she treats her mother. Margaret has the family's best interests in mind when she asks Elaine not to run. I hope their mother/daughter relationship is explored even more because I think that could make Grandma more than just a one-liner machine, and also mother/daughter dynamics are so underexplored (and sometimes unrealistically depicted) on television.
Jerusaliem: I agree. They’re both such powerful presences, very headstrong females. I really loved getting to look at their personal dynamics with each other. It’s not something we get very often on television, usually just the petty mother-daughter fights that you see on any sitcom or soap. It gets old. But this is fresh, it’s raw, and it’s painful, because even as they argue about seemingly surface things like Margaret's choice of dress when Elaine was being sworn in, we get these insider glimpses at more hurtful underlying issues they share.
Kayla: The show is trying to show the very normal problems that people in high positions of power have (problems that are amplified by being in the public spotlight), and I think they’re doing a great job of it. Perhaps because they share Sunday nights and both incorporate real-life events (or thinly veiled fictionalizations of real-life events, in the case of “Political Animals”), but the miniseries has been receiving a lot of comparisons to “The Newsroom.” Ultimately, they serve entirely different purposes, but I can’t help but think that “Animals” is beating “The Newsroom” in a lot of aspects. For one, “The Newsroom” takes a very angry, preachy, borderline-berating tone in regards to the recent past. “Political Animals” might be a little TOO optimistic, but its tone is easier to swallow. The show is even portraying a modern-day newsroom with a touch more true-to-lifeness than Sorkin’s brainchild (sure, it’s not perfect … some of Susan’s ex/boss’s actions aren’t very realistic, but hey at least the internet isn’t basically nonexistent and people know how to use email). Plus, as I briefly mentioned in our last recap, “Animals” is certainly beating “Newsroom” in the female department.
Jerusaliem: I haven’t had the chance to catch “Newsroom” yet (partially because I’ve been avoiding it due to what I’ve heard thus far), but I will definitely say that “Animals” is a female powerhouse all around. Even with some great characters like Bud, I think the men are constantly left in the dust.
Kayla: That being said, unfortunately, this episode does highlight that “Animals” still isn’t free from its own woman problem. Elaine and Susan are great, fully realized characters, but some of the show’s more peripheral females are too broadly written. I’m not really sure if the show wants me to hate or sympathize with blogger Georgia, and she also seems inconsistently written. She basically stole a story from a superior in the first episode, but now she leaves a meeting teary eyed because her dickhole editor shuts down her pitch? And then there’s Douglas’ fiancé Ann, who we only see mid-sex, tripping on ecstasy, or throwing up in a toilet. It seems like her character largely exists so USA can throw in some more sex and nakedness (when, let’s be real, Susan’s steamy encounter with Daniel Meade on that airplane last week was plenty hot to keep premium-cable lovers satisfied, amirite?). Make Ann more of a character, please! Susan and Elaine can’t have ALL the strong female character mojo.
Jerusaliem: What’d you think of the fellowship, then abrupt backstabbing going on near the end? I love the female camaraderie at the end — Barrish getting Susan some lemonade, “join me on a walk tomorrow,” Susan giving a hand to Georgia ... But of course this wouldn’t be a soapy if there wasn’t any drama now would it? A part of my feminist heart died when I saw the betrayal unfold — Susan manipulating Elaine’s son Douglas to give her information in return for her sitting on the story! She must realize that this would ruin Elaine. Susan’s clever enough to figure that out. So very dog-eat-dog, really just reinforces the whole “Bitch” factor too, that you can only look after yourself. It’s a sickening end but just the type of griphook to keep you anxious for the next episode. I really hope this plays out OK for Elaine, that her campaign can still have some success. Maybe it will be sort of like the Justice Nash-Garcetti controversy where we are led to think this is a disastrous trap, but Elaine somehow prevails. Really pulling for my main Bitch right now.
Kayla: Though I do think Susan and Elaine are using each other, I can tell that they both have a lot of respect for each other. And a part of me hopes that that means, if push comes to shove, they might help each other out? Well, it’d probably be for self-serving reasons, but alas. I want to believe that these two could be a superheroine A-team or something.
Jerusaliem: This was one of my favorite lines of the episode: “First rule of being a female journalist: If you shit where you eat, don’t cry about it. Don’t let anyone take away your story, especially if you’re blowing them.”
Kayla: Ahh, Susan Berg. To be honest, I'm surprised these recaps aren't just me gushing about Susan/Carla Gugino. There’s always next week.