Gender and Corruption in 'Boss'

Emerald Pellot

The women of Boss are strong, smart and strategic, but can powerful women be happy too? How can they be mothers and leaders? Do they have to be cold and calculating?


Cast: Kelsey Grammer, Connie Nielsen, Kathleen Robertson, Hannah Ware, Jeff Hephner
Network: Starz

Boss is perhaps the best show on television right now. The series is comparable to The Wire, Breaking Bad and the often overlooked Damages. On the surface, there isn’t anything particularly new about Boss. The premise is simple: The Machiavellian Mayor of Chicago (Kelsey Grammar) is diagnosed with a degenerative neurological disorder and keeps it secret from all but his daughter, Emma (Hannah Ware). Mortality, corruption and politics have come packaged together for ages, however the way Boss uses conventional ideas of gender as a vessel for these negative traits is compelling and worthy of examination.

Mayor Kane (Kelsey Grammar) is caught in a political scandal when it is discovered he frivolously disposed of toxic waste, causing a high incidence of cancer among children of the surrounding area. His marriage to his wife Meredith (Connie Neilson) is completely for show and the couple long disowned their recovering addict daughter, Emma, to uphold appearances. At the onset of the scandal, there is political unrest as his colleagues, wife and personal aide, Kitty (Kathleen Robertson) secretly attempt to impeach him and convince a young candidate for governor, Zajac (Jeff Hephner)(which Kane selected and endorsed himself), to run against him for mayor.

Like The Wire and Damages, Boss examines morality in corruption. The former uses corruption as a means of survival as characters try to navigate and "make rank" in both the criminal and legal worlds. The latter, Damages, questions if the means always justify the ends and if corruption is necessary for justice to prevail. Boss asserts the same ideology, “you do some bad, to do some good.” Damages does so with two female leads and ultimately deals with issues of femininity (much like Breaking Bad does with masculinity): can powerful women be happy too? How can they be mothers and leaders? Do they have to be cold and calculating?

The women of Boss are strong, smart and strategic, but are conflicted about being overshadowed by the men with whom they rely on (and often control) to maintain their high levels of power and wealth. Both the wives of Zajac and Kane are revealed to be exquisite puppet masters who carefully craft the political and public personas of their husbands who must manage to work within constraints designed by their wives. Meredith, the previous mayor’s daughter is essentially responsible for Kane’s status. As “the woman behind the man,” Meredith groomed Kane to become Mayor, acquired his campaign’s organizational support and, although she is unaware of his illness, covers for him in public when his behavior is off. In light of the scandal, she is actively working to dethrone him to secure her own status. Kane’s personal aide Kitty struggles to be the soldier who must compromise her values to help these battling men (Kane and Zajac with whom she has an affair with) keep their power, but can never rise to any status of her own. While the women often make power plays and heavily influence the decisions of the men around them the trouble here is: if any of the men fall they must fall as well. Much like a chessboard, the Queens are the most powerful players, but it is the King we must capture to win the game.

However, asserting that the men lack any substance or smarts would be wrong and would make for a terrible show. Breaking Bad explores ideas of masculinity by having its male leads face their mortality and thus their manhood. It tests their moral boundaries on an existential level by presenting a series of choices that gradually render them good or bad, man or coward, loyal or betraying. Boss offers the same dynamics in different terms. Zajac is presented as an infidel until we discover his wife could careless about whom he sleeps with as long as she lives comfortably. He is given the choice to be governor under Kane’s wing or betray him and run for mayor, he ping-pongs between the two sides with all of his decisions made my by the women around him: Meredith the Mayor’s wife, his wife and Kitty his mistress. Finally, we see Zajac fully emasculated, literally on his knees, begging the Mayor for forgiveness.

Stone (Martin Donovan) Kane’s right-hand man, is highly intelligent in his ability to manage Kane’s outbursts and insecurities, along with Kane’s administration and campaign. Stone is extremely loyal and the only character who (on an individual level) appears moral and with strong character. He parallels Kitty because he is complacent working under the Mayor. The viewer must wonder why Kitty wants more and he does not? Kitty is the Mayor’s personal aide while Stone the senior political advisor, yet their jobs appear no different. Kitty can be dismissed as merely a secretary while Stone a respected political strategist.

The conniving Meredith is the perfect match for Kane as he is by far the most powerful and calculating player to the point in which it feels as though he is omnisciently watching each scene play out with the viewer. We watch as he slowly figures out all that we already know and in some instances, we want to applaud his lucidity, but we hold back because, of course, he is a “monster” of a man. Kane, after learning of his illness, reconnects with his estranged daughter (whom Meredith is avid about disowning). In one moment, of what we believe to be weakness, he calls Emma to tell her he loves her. We expect her to remain silent but she touchingly reciprocates. Seconds later it is revealed that Emma is arrested in a drug-raid ordered by Kane as his final attempt to regain public approval amid the scandal and election.

Kane is diabolical and becomes more so as his body fails him. He wets the bed, hallucinates and cannot control his bodily movements. It is arguable that Kane maintains his untouchable power through his asexuality. While sex, infidelity and personal dynamics create conflict amongst many of the characters, Kane leads a loveless and sexless life. Now unable to perform, he often shoes confused prostitutes out of his bedroom. Kane encompasses the meticulous craftiness and secrecy of the women on the show, while holding the power and callousness of the men. Kane’s duality of conventional male and female traits and impotency are what make him the force to be reckoned with. His life is free of the complications created by interpersonal relationships and he is highly intelligent in his ability to reason like both genders. However, Kane is miserable and lonely, his power is all he has, he knows this which is why he holds onto it so adamantly.

So why is a show where women are divisive and men are ruthless feel like one of the best equal representations of gender? The answer is simple: The show grants both genders autonomy and astuteness. Whether corrupt or immoral, each character has personal motivation and is intelligent enough to navigate the system of sharp-minded sharks. Everyone is guilty, but each will fall by their own hand and that is a privilege that any man or woman would fight for.

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