In some ways, “The Assassination of Payton Hobart” — the first half of a two-parter — is the opposite of “The Voter.” It sprawls, where the other is lean. It wanders down paths expected and otherwise, while the other moves like an arrow. “The Voter” had something to say, “Assassination” has a yarn to spin. But the pair also have much in common. They share an energy and intricacy that can only result from great structure and smart, purposeful writing. Both take some big swings creatively, but there’s none of that tonal whiplash that made some of those early hours frustrating.
One last common element: Both make only the occasional misstep. “The Voter” is nearly perfect, but it’s also got half the runtime and about one-fifth the storylines in which to go wide. This episode makes more mistakes, but it’s still a big, big improvement, anchored by a bunch of terrific performances and some fun, weird surprises.
It begins with a hell of a twist — one that gets twisted again later. Some polling model convinces Payton that his victory is assured, and he skips writing a concession speech. So when Astrid shows up, the safe bet is that she’s there to inform him that he’s lost. Instead, she cuts him off at the knees by revealing she’s bowed out of the election and the votes will never be counted. It’s a great scene. He wins by default, and he won’t be able to get anything done — or truly say he won. A “pyrrhic victory,” McAfee notes. Soon he’s tanking in front of a school board as disinterested and sometimes silly as the Pawnee City Council, watching Dr. Pimple Popper with his mother and a pizza, and eventually reeling from the revelation that both he and Astrid were wrong — she won by two votes. “You’re not Barack Obama,” the publicly affable, privately disdainful school-board president tells him. “You’re Gerald Ford.”
So he looks elsewhere for joy and satisfaction. He begins by making amends, and a friend in the process. And those friends decide to do a musical.
The Politician doing Assassins is very on the nose, but it’s a good kind of on the nose. It helps that Payton and Infinity are very well-cast in the roles of John Hinckley and Squeaky Fromme. (Naturally that means Ben Platt and Zoey Deutch are as well, though as long as he’s singing it’s hard to imagine Platt being miscast in any musical, provided it’s in his range. The Phantom? Sure! Valjean? Why not? Rum Tum Tugger? I mean, if you must. Let the man play Momma Rose, I’m good with it.) And it seems likely to be a blissful experience for both, save three things: Ricardo joins the cast, Payton can’t stop watching footage of the Reagan assassination attempt, and people keep trying to kill him.
That’s something he and Infinity have in common, though at this point the latter’s health is really on the mend. So, despite some questionable choices, is her life. She’s out of Dusty’s home, staying in a hotel she’s blackmailing Ray for (he just likes dressing up like a clown to cheer the kids!), and eating nothing but macarons. And that prompts Dusty, who now must provide a first-class trip to Paris in order to get Infinity to her funeral, to reach out to an unlikely ally.
As Ricardo, Benjamin Barrett has two good scenes in this episode. He’s great as he listens to Dusty tell the story of Infinity’s mother (a series-best scene from Jessica Lange, just spellbinding), and he expertly handles the unexpected turn in his final scene. So he’s capable of good, even great things. Now just imagine how much better all his other scenes might be if he weren’t written like a cartoon character. It is possible to write a guy who’s a dolt but not a cartoon, even possible to make him likable as he does stupid, selfish, and dangerous things. In fact, it almost seems as if the writers are attempting to imitate just such a character: The Good Place’s Jason Mendoza. But Jason Mendoza is a fully developed character, and Ricardo is a sketch at best, with maybe four scenes in total so far in which he’s got any shading at all (the two above, his last scene with Astrid in the New York motel, and that menacing home invasion). So when he tanks his scene in rehearsal, it seems like bad sketch comedy, not a person doing their best.
Still, if getting him in the rehearsal room was the price that had to be paid in order for that last, genuinely shocking reveal, then I suppose it was worth paying.
Of course, I could be wrong and there could be a reason the character’s drawn that way. After all, I was wrong about the episode-four scene in which Payton told Infinity about the poisoning. That becomes obvious in two places. The first is when he apologizes for treating her as a political problem and not a person, which was my exact complaint — specifically, that Payton always shows at least a flash of humanity, and he didn’t there. (I stand by part of that, though; I think Platt is just such a vulnerable performer that sometimes it creeps through when it might not be intended.) The second one is more interesting, in that Payton clarifies why the Infinity cover-up is so bad. It’s not that they knew it wasn’t cancer and didn’t tell the voters. It’s that they knew and didn’t tell her.
My mistake there was assuming that Payton was thinking about how it would look that he had known she was lying — he did keep saying she was faking it. But in this episode, he makes a clarification, and it is a killer: “And we opted not to tell her.” That’s messed up. More messed up than making his best friends sign NDAs. More messed up than Skye gaslighting her girlfriend about the poison she put in the cupcakes. Not as messed up as the poisoned cupcakes or the sepsis BBs, but pretty messed up all the same.
As mentioned above, these assassination attempts might make Assassins feel pretty on the nose, but would you really change anything? It would mean losing “Unworthy of your Love,” beautifully sung as Georgina packs to leave her husband and take away her son’s chance at that inheritance, and as Dusty dotes over pictures of her absent grandchild. It means losing Payton channeling his feelings of inadequacy into the song, and losing Infinity singing “Let me drink poison!” with joy. What a great scene. Who would ever trade it?
• Written by Ian Brennan and directed by Gwyneth Horder-Payton; those shots of Lange dancing to Shirley Bassey are gorgeous, as is that plane taking off. A real stunner of an episode.
• The best part in the show is neither John Hinckley nor Squeaky Fromme. The best part of the show is Charles Guiteau. But there are no bad parts in Assassins.
• “Besides, we just got so much free stuff.” “Who could be poisoning that little girl … against me?” That Munchausen storyline is all kinds of mess, but Lange’s monologue is one of the best pieces of acting of the whole year so far.
• Rahne Jones makes Skye such a good liar that I was genuinely shocked when the camera cut to her destroying the evidence. She’s terrific.
• Costume of the episode: Tough to pick! Dusty’s flashback suit was great, but Infinity’s Squeaky costume is just perfect. Her cap makes the outfit look even more cult-ready.
• “Tough titties, Nana!”