“The Voter” is unlike any other episode of The Politician. It is the “Blink” of this series, a short, even savage story of surprising depth and potency that pushes the leading cast to the periphery for most of its 28 minutes. In spite of that, it is the clearest, sharpest version of The Politician to date, playing a vital role in the show’s larger narrative, yet serving as a layered and blistering metaphor for the world outside the show. It’s about an undecided voter, the mythical “swing vote” spotted in the wild: Elliot Beachman (Russell Posner, perfectly pitched), a compulsive masturbator with a penchant for Fortnite and absolutely no interest in the election, upon whom the members of the two St. Sebastian campaigns hurl themselves like ships onto rocks.
The episode’s structure is simple, almost (but not quite) symmetrical. Home. A school day in which interruptions, punctuated by outbursts, alternate with big plot moments in which Elliot has no interest. Then home again. From his perspective, not much happens. It’s possible that Elliot would never have voted. Almost nothing he experiences this day makes him more likely to vote. Most things make it less likely. The mile-markers in Elliot’s long walks are the interruptions that annoy or enrage him, the things that actually almost reach him, and that final, thunderclap of a conclusion.
It’s probably easiest to chart this episode using those mile markers. Chris (B.K. Cannon) feverishly spews talking points as she chases Elliot across the lawn. James lets flow an avalanche of faux-friendly, patronizing “dudes” until it earns him a punch on the nose. Then there’s the second-most interesting thing that happens to Elliot inside his special masturbation stall: he hears James essentially call him, specifically, a worthless human being, then hears Payton tell him to stop, and that no student should have to feel that way. Don’t talk about the students like that.
It earns a paltry flicker of interest, that second-most interesting thing. Not even a spark, really, just the potential for one. The most interesting thing that happens to him, from his perspective, is the masturbation.
The debate is less interesting still. What holds Elliot’s attention, in descending order: (1) the couple making out (2) the video version of the couple making out (3) a tap-to-shoot game on his phone (4) a vape pen (5) the hot girl who keeps telling him to shut off his damned phone (6) the flavor of the vape pen (7) when Skye gets announced (8) his teacher telling him he’s got detention (9) infinity and the bullhorn (10) Drake, maybe, and (11) everything else.
What’s remarkable about this scene is that Elliot’s disinterest does not make the events boring from a storytelling perspective, but it does somehow render them a weird sideshow at best, and completely inconsequential and stupid at worst. It’s not the plot that gets dull, but the events in the world of the show, to the people in that world. Following Elliot makes us one of them.
The alternate version of this episode — I’m imagining a West Wing-style debate episode, with blow-by-blow and a spin room — is nothing but drama. It would be bonkers even before Pierre drops his ludicrous Drake bomb, and well before Infinity shows up, shouting into a bullhorn that Astrid had sex with her boyfriend and Payton used her for her cancer. It has all the hallmarks of a contemporary political campaign, including the worthless promises, blatant lies, crass manipulations, empty rhetoric, and overly polished talking points. There’s even a chant: “Drake! Drake! Drake!”
Elliot doesn’t care. Interrupted on his way to lunch, he tells his next unwelcome visitor, McAfee, exactly that. I don’t know. I don’t care.
The next little tableau is an interesting one. Let’s call them the Twitter couple. Elliot just wants to eat his lunch, and his friends will not stop yelling at each other about the election, until one actually throws the other’s meal and storms off. So Elliot leaves that table and heads to another, alone. Let’s call that, I don’t know, his email inbox — but really, it’s anything, anywhere. He sits down, alone, and suddenly there’s a pretty girl there: Astrid. This is the second time Elliot shows a flicker of interest. The first time, it was sincerity and an honest defense that perked up his ears. This time, it’s just his brain locking on to a girl’s head, which is attached to a girl’s body. He probably doesn’t even hear the thing about Drake.
Then Payton sits down too, and his solo lunch becomes a shouting match between the two in which he plays no role. (I expect that conversation might matter in the future, particularly the exchange about River.) He leans forward, out of their way. Then he leans back, further away. Then he gets up and leaves, violently slamming his tray down as he exits.
If I tell you I’ll vote for you, will you leave me alone?
While the episode’s final beat is the killer, the next scene is its best. Maybe Elliot shows a flicker of interest here, maybe. It’s just Payton, dialed way back, trying to get Elliot to talk about what he cares about. Elliot’s annoyed. He feels he’s being patronized. When finally spurred to speech, he shares the “issues” he cares about, and they are all implausible, or selfish, or kind of meaningless. Private bathrooms, in which to masturbate. (Payton thinks it’s fear of public pooping.) He’s asked about the financial divide, and all he can talk about is why the Sun Chips cost less than the peanut M&Ms (Payton suggests a snack subsidy) and his right to buy Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. (“Ah, a libertarian.”) This is what he shares. This is what he believes is important, or at least, that’s what he would like Payton to think.
But Payton makes a promise, and says he’ll keep it. Maybe you will, maybe you won’t.
Before leaving campus, Elliot finds one last spark of interest, spurred by Georgina’s body but which lingers for reasons that he doesn’t share. A young black student isn’t being allowed to vote because she doesn’t have her student ID, and Georgina puts on her best speak-to-a-manager voice and starts to explain voter suppression to the kids. She’s right, and also condescending and kind of awful; the argument that other students would be bussed in to vote illegally is ludicrous (and should sound familiar), but would anyone really put that past either Astrid or Payton? I’d like to think the latter would never, but who knows. Elliot loses interest, gives one last campaigner one last shove, and heads home to masturbate some more and eat spaghetti.
The dad says dad things. The mom drinks wine. The sister keeps hurling the word vegan at her mother like one of those grenades Elliot’s friends argued about. And then Elliot drops two lines. The first one seems like the twist, and it promises disappointment, for it is no twist.
I didn’t vote.
And then the follow-up, after a day of being literally chased down by people intent on securing his vote, a vote that could decide this election, a vote that, to these people, is of incredible value. It’s the sting in the tail, and it sticks:
My vote doesn’t matter anyway.
• Written by Murphy/Falchuk/Brennan, directed by Brennan. Just masterful on all counts. Gets better and more interesting on repeat viewing.
• “Don’t wipe it on the drapes again, they’re turning stiff as shutters. Use a sock like a normal kid.”
• And the award for achievement in comic wine-drinking goes to … that mom!
• Costume of the episode: Payton’s election day suit is gorgeous, I hope Platt got to keep it (or at least buy one just like it.)