Why did Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Ian Brennan start their second season of The Politician at the end of the first? Maybe they felt the high-school story was done after seven episodes. Maybe they didn’t want to end on a low note. Maybe they just could not resist the urge to get Bette Midler and Judith Light in the mix as soon as heavenly possible. But there’s another possibility: Maybe Payton’s journey this season wasn’t a line, but rather a circle, another trip through the Wash & Brush Up Company we see in those opening titles. He picked up other things during that trip, so maybe he starts with some new pieces in those tiny boxes. A drinking problem. Loss. Regret. Gratitude for the forgiveness of others. And presumably, the knowledge of what it’s like to have legions of devoted fans who want nothing more than to hear you sing “Vienna” over and over again, no matter how drunk you are.
Maybe season one ends with the beginning of season two, because the point of Payton’s cycle is not the end of the election. The point is to launch the next one.
We rejoin Payton in New York City, where we learn he’s attending NYU and serenading people in a bar. A drink sits on the top of the piano and his eyes flit to it now and again, but mostly this is about the physical and — more importantly — emotional act of singing. Payton is feeling with his whole body, and drinking with his whole body, and puking with his whole body. (Seriously, Ben Platt hurls himself off that couch headfirst.) But his eyes don’t just flit to the drink. They also flit to a table in the back, where the first and second of many welcome surprises await: Infinity, with lustrous hair and gorgeous nails that scream money, and Skye, who is not wearing an orange jumpsuit. Later, they wander the streets and reminisce. Skye’s lawyer was a genius. Infinity got a huge book advance and is getting more free stuff than ever. And they became friends at a shoot for a Vanity Fair article, which was unkind to Payton. They were both, Infinity and Skye assure him, misquoted.
So here he is, a college student with a drinking problem and, just because, a world-class singing voice, someone layered and messy and a little bit broken and undeniably human. And the tone of the show reflects that. All the performances are more naturalistic; that heightened rhythm and energy pops up only occasionally. (The best example comes from Alice, more on that later.) They’ve grown up a little, and they’ve stopped playing pretend.
Payton hasn’t left everything from that time behind, however. James is his roommate. He’s still pining for Alice. River wanders the club from time to time, bussing tables and saying nothing at all, until a wedding invitation — for Alice and a guy named Thad — sends Payton on a quest to get her back, with his dead friend riding shotgun. It seems that River’s presence — as an emotional coach, or the personification of the part of Payton that feels, or his Dream Ghost, whatever you like — has been roused by Payton’s slow return to life, and he’s around to make sure that no one changes the station when the Cure comes on.
He’s also there to encourage Payton to do the things that terrify him, such as walk up to Alice on campus even though her fiancé is there, and at least consider the opportunity that McAfee and James toss into his lap.
The Alice conversation comes first, and it’s not only one of the best scenes in the episode, but in the series. Finally, finally, Alice becomes a real person, and Julia Schlaepfer gets some meaty stuff to do. She asks why he didn’t turn back, a question that definitely got more potent with time, and defends herself and her choices while crumbling just a little bit with every moment. Then this stunner of a moment, as she leaves the coffee shop weeping: She turns back and says, in the voice and demeanor of the old Alice, the one playing the role of First Lady: “Maybe we could have an affair or something.” She almost pulls it off, dropping the mask right at the end. Then she leaves.
The next time we see Alice, she’s sitting in a dorm room with Skye, McAfee, James, and Astrid, telling Payton he’s got to run, and that they’re all there to help him. He demurs, saying he can’t win, and that’s when a vaping Astrid drops the bombshell: His opponent is in a throuple.
We know that already, of course. A significant portion of the first half of this episode is devoted to introducing us to New York State Senator Dede Standish (Judith Light) and her chief-of-staff, Hadassah Gold (Bette Midler), who spend that time either (a) getting courted by a hot senator from Texas (Sam Jaegar) who is planning to run for the Presidency and wants a running mate from the moment he announces. All he wants to know is that she has no skeletons in her closet. She doesn’t, but she does have a husband (Joe Morton) and a third, equal partner in their marriage (Teddy Sears). And she’s also got a campaign dependent on a grouchy office manager (the great Jackie Hoffman!), Windows 98, stickers, and an intern. Each and every one of those scenes is so lively and bright that they’re impossible to resist; I’m a little furious that I can’t watch the next episode right this second.
In short, it’s a hell of a lot of fun, weird, and a little wild, with a lot of emotional truth — precisely the balance The Politician never seemed to strike early on. This first season had its ups and downs, and some major flaws, but like Payton, it seems to want to get better, to keep improving, and to do something good. It stands a pretty decent chance of that, because the biggest takeaway from this odd, premiere-shaped finale is this: Both Payton and The Politician have loads of potential.
• Written and directed by Brad Falchuk.
• “I didn’t, of course, that would be a heinous crime.”
• “That’s the last scene of The Graduate, Payton, and if you think that’s a happy ending, you should probably watch it again.”
• Alice stopping a cab by hurling her bouquet is going to make a hell of a GIF.
• Costume of the episode: As much as I loved seeing Alice’s enormous wedding dress spilling over that tin bed, Judith and Bette were dressed like ketchup and mustard for that last shot. So clever and fun.
• Thanks so much for reading this season!