A few times an episode — three, maybe four — the show that The Politician could be breaks through the surface. The show as a whole is often entertaining, in a Marie Kondo “I love mess” kind of way. It sometimes manages to throw out scenes that are smart, or affecting. And within those scenes — thematically rich scenes, the emotionally resonant scenes that pop up like oases in a hyper-stylized desert — there are smaller flashes still. Lines or beats that marry something with real weight or substance to the show’s wild tone. “Gone Girl” has a few such flashes, but it is also a titanic mess, and probably had no hope of being otherwise — because the entire hour hinges on the inner lives, such as they are, of Astrid and Infinity.
The episode, written as usual by Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Ian Brennan, starts with a detective (One Day at a Time’s Eric Nenninger) questioning Astrid’s parents (Dylan McDermott and January Jones, naturally) about her disappearance. It quickly dissolves into a really toxic shouting match, though the Ron Paul line is funny. The short version is that, regardless of what really happened, Mr. Sloan wants Payton humiliated, and all it’s going to cost him is that nice watch. If this were a power ranking instead of a recap, the guy we’ll call Sheriff Nenninger would be right at the top. A Succession-style “tells you how rich you are” kind of watch and a time-share? He’s got a great little grift going, the monster.
He’s got company in the monster category, though. Payton’s response to the “buttmunch” video, in the clear light of day, is to ask how they can pivot it into a positive. (Answer: no way possible unless you’re pandering to shop teachers and old white janitorial staffers.) Then, bam, she’s off the ticket. But that’s not the monstrous thing here. It’s that they’re all primarily concerned about what will happen in the future if it comes out that they covered up the fact that Infinity does not have cancer, when what’s actually happening is that a young woman is being poisoned by her caregiver and a corrupt medical professional and it is actually not even a little bit about politics.
This is actually a big question for me, and has been since the first time someone used the term “Munchausen by proxy”: What do they actually believe? It’s been incredibly inconsistent. Sometimes they, together and individually, talk about this like Infinity is faking it. Sometimes they talk about it like she’s being poisoned. It changes, but the idea that it is somehow her fault, and that it makes her a liability, remains the same. First of all, what is wrong with you? Report it to someone who can do something! (Not Sheriff Nenninger, though.) Second, is this a deliberate choice — that they’re just picking whatever narrative feels right to them in the moment — or is this a flaw in the writing? And third, if you think about it from a particularly gross political perspective: Isn’t this actually a perfect political moment? If this is all about telling a story to voters, isn’t the story where the candidate discovers that his running-mate’s cancer is actually child abuse and thus saves her life a really good one? And wouldn’t that absolutely trump “buttmunch”?
There are a number of odd moments like that in this episode, but let’s stick with Payton and Infinity for now. Post-interrogation (more on that below), Payton finally meets up with Infinity to give her the boot, and then drops the bomb that her beloved grandmother is poisoning her. That this scene works at all is a testament to Ben Platt and Zoey Deutch, but one of the more consistent aspects of Payton’s character is that even when he’s running at 130 percent, most of the time, some fragment of empathy and compassion creeps out. He does battle with it, and sometimes the political animal wins, but his buried self is there, seeing the person across from him, and often aching as they ache. Not here. He is right to tell her, but he does it the wrong way, and she may not be a gem of a human (though who knows — she’s also pretty underdeveloped as a character), but she deserves better than that sorry showing.
It leads to one of those scenes mentioned above — a glorious oasis of significance and honesty — and one of those pure Politician moments, when that oasis is married to something ludicrous and over-the-top that somehow increases the sincerity. The scene is the confrontation between Infinity and Dusty in the restaurant, and the moment is Infinity throwing down that pasta. That’s when the show seems clear to me. It is both punchline and roar, a breaking heart and a moment of pure absurdity. It is also the scene that contains the line, “That’s what gays do! Munch butts and celebrate Halloween!” and so I cannot help but like it.
To get to Infinity’s final beat, a call from Ricardo, we have to go back to the beginning, and Payton’s visit with the police. He’s told that Astrid was abducted, probably violently, and then this angelic-voiced, hyper-intelligent numbskull forgoes the alibi he actually has in favor of pretending he was home alone. He’s then asked if he made any calls or sent any texts, which he did, and he says he did not — which I’m sure could be checked, but which again he could just acknowledge. There is no reason not to do that. He was with people, and then later he was home, and that house definitely has cameras. And so does Astrid’s, because the last episode included actual footage of Ricardo climbing the fence. We see the waitress he was rude to at the diner pin suspicion on him, as does Pierre, who also tells us about polling at St. Sebastian! (It’s a lot!) He’s forced to wait a few hours and is then dragged out with a bag over his head and thrown in a trunk, but surprise, the cops are just bringing him home. Enjoy your timeshare, Nenninger.
Then the second oasis scene arrives, as Payton sits and quietly talks to his mother, and Platt and Gwyneth Paltrow both act their butts off. They quote Yeats and sip cocoa and it’s all very simple, but the moment in this one that pops is this: After she asks him if he hurt Astrid and he says no, he was going to beat her in the election, she says, “Could you have?” Nothing there to clarify which question she’s asking. Does she want to know if Payton could have won the election? Or is she asking if Payton could have hurt her?
And then there’s Astrid’s Gone Girl homage, a plot so muddied I don’t even really know what to say. We see her fake her kidnapping. We see her in the cheap New York motel room she’s using to hide, and to bang Ricardo. We see her posing for photos in Times Square (Ricardo, dude, you were so worried about the Russians, why are you taking pictures of the girl who might frame you for kidnapping on a cell phone?) We hear her monologue about hating her life and relishing time spent among the peasants. And we see Ricardo convince her to head home, just as he’s going back to Infinity. She plans an honest return, a chance to spread the word about waitresses and “homeless” who defecate in public. And then it … works? And doesn’t? It’s unclear.
But it does give us that third oasis scene, as January Jones calmly walks to Astrid and tells her that no one will buy her bullshit, that just because she slummed it with the serfs for a few days doesn’t mean she won’t be among the superrich anymore. And a thousand things fly across Lucy Boynton’s face.
What do they mean? No idea. Astrid, like several of the women on this show, remains a sort of jumble of characteristics without a clear arc or identity. But it’s a good scene, and that’s not nothing.
• Was Skye’s vigil supposed to seem so shameless? If so, mission accomplished. She’s a great speaker, though.
• Not much to say about the “I Feel Love” reveal at the end of the episode yet. Are we supposed to believe they’ve been hooking up this whole time? Or is this new? New, right?
• “Hey, you wanna go back to Bubba Gump’s?”
• Costume of the episode: McAfee’s hookup suit is amazing.