What do you get when you cross Hillary Clinton with Ellen Ripley? A totally badass presidential candidate. That is, the woman at the center of USA’s mini-series Political Animals, Elaine Barrish Hammond (Sigourney Weaver). A Secretary of State who commands respect and endures indignities, she solves world problems, stares down bullies, and manipulates her children. She also makes the men around her behave, whether they’re rattling sabers or grabbing her ass.
Weaver calls Political Animals “a tribute to politicians like Mrs. Clinton, but it’s both sides. It’s the light and the dark.” The show also charts a different path out of Clinton’s well known scandals: what if she had survived First Ladydom, lost her party’s presidential nomination, divorced her philandering husband, and rode a wave of good will as she became Secretary of State. And what if she took a next step, and decided to run for president again?
Being a “political animal,” Elaine necessarily makes such decisions in a context where personal and public lives intertwine. Here, she still loves her ex, Bud (Ciarán Hinds), and even meets him for a booty call-advice session. Their arrangement reflects her understanding of the First Family’s complicated dynamics, its power and celebrity. Bud is a narcissistic rascal, a perennial optimist prone to delusions of grandeur. Unsurprisingly, Elaine is cast here as the grown-up in their relationship, idealistic yet pragmatic. She lost her presidential bid, she tells Bud, because “I hate lying and telling people things are going to get better when they’re not. You believe they will, that’s why you win.” His apparent optimism, she adds, is a function of his “epic narcissism,” on display here when he declares, “I’m the meat in the Big Mac of this party.”
While such dialogue might suggest why Elaine divorced Bud, it’s also indicative of how the show combines political drama with soap opera. At times it veers too far into the latter, with chatter about who’s sleeping with whom, who wore it better, who’s more powerful or corrupt. It’s more interesting when Elaine takes aim at the easy-target man’s world she inhabits. When, for instance, she’s working to free three hostages in Iran, she runs up against the American president, Garcetti (Adrian Pasdar), who’s already cut a back-room deal to sacrifice the hostages for the sake of a nuclear arms control deal. When she seeks Bud’s counsel, he encourages her to outmaneuver Garcetti by negotiating directly with Iran, specifically by bringing him into the process.
Most obviously, the episode sets Elaine’s good sense and morality (that is, her concern for the hostages’ safe return) in opposition to both men’s calculations (selfish and not). Her fight with Bud illustrates that even if they share beliefs and goals, they pursue them differently. Surely, it would be too simple to define these differences by gender alone, and the show makes Elaine sympathetic and smart and appealing even when she misjudges a situation or reveals her some psychological baggage. But Political Animals isn’t shy about criticizing men and masculinity as such.
At the same time, it makes clear that Elaine can play the same game, and even revels in it. She harbors ambivalence about gender conventions, the limits they impose and the opportunities they grant her. She prefers Hillary-style pantsuits but also dons a gold gown to compete with Bud’s vapid actress girlfriend at the engagement dinner she hosts for Doug (James Wolk), her son and chief of staff. Bud rewards her with a kind of compliment, turning from charming to hokey in an instant: “All anybody ever talks about is your ambition, they never talk about your heart,” he says, “It’s all I ever saw. That, and you were the foxiest piece of ass I ever laid eyes on. You still are.” Again, we understand her frustrations.
These emerge as well in her dealings with those familiar costs that politics — especially US politics — exacts from strong women. Her boozy ex-Vegas showgirl mom, Margaret (Ellen Burstyn), tells her she didn’t win the nomination because “because the nation didn’t want to sleep with you.” Sighing, they share a moment of annoyance, both knowing too well the indignities of performing for men.
Another woman serves as another sort of confidant and foil combined. A longstanding riff between Elaine and Susan (Carla Gugino), a Maureen Dowd-ish journalist whose stories about Bud’s affairs won a Pulitzer, turns around when a young blogger at Susan’s paper posts a story about a suicide attempt by TJ (Sebastian Stan), Elaine’s other son, who’s gay and oh yes, also a drug addict. Susan’s editor (Dan Futterman) suggests such gossip helps the paper stay afloat in a dying industry, but she argues otherwise.
Like Elaine’s, Susan’s ethical course is uneven. But this is a line crossed that leads her to side more absolutely with the Secretary, telling her that she regrets once writing that Elaine’s standing by her husband signaled the “death of feminism.” Their détente is a tenuous one. Though Elaine lauds Susan’s book about fourth wave feminism, she notes too that sales might have been better with a title other than When Bitches Rule. Susan argues that she’s reclaiming the word, but the show gives no indication of what such reclamation might entail or mean. Rather, it keeps trotting out the word like a joke that gets old quickly.