When I first watched the trailer for Netflix’s The Politician, I was reminded of Election, which is a very good film. Both focus on a high school election that seems to be taken far too seriously (in my humble opinion). But after watching the first episode of Ryan Murphy’s new Netflix show, while I would say the comparison holds, I also find myself feeling that we are dealing with something far darker here.
Whereas Election followed the ambitions of a perky Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), and one couldn’t help but feel that she was putting on something of a fake persona, The Politician takes this further by giving us a protagonist who may well be a sociopath (and even worries that he is). And rather than the tension of the teacher overseeing the election being the big thing that comes into play, The Politician gives us the suicide of the opposing candidate in the first episode.
I’d suggest this gets to a meaningful change in our culture in the past 20 years. In 1999, it made sense to make the thing about the worries of Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) as he looked at the apparent inauthenticity of his student and her unbridled desire for power. This relates to the ethos of Gen X (which carries over to those of us I guess we’re now calling Xennials), that perhaps the worst thing is to be an inauthentic poseur. This was the worry about Tracy Flick—that it was all an act.
The Politician instead asks what the difference is between being authentic and pretending to be. It does this explicitly in an early scene, out of the mouth of Astrid after River expresses the worry that she is faking her enjoyment when they have sex. And what I think is significant here is that she doesn’t make her remark solely in terms of not understanding why River cares—she seems to genuinely not understand the difference herself.
And to what extent do any of us, at this point? As we live in a world that is more and more infused by social media, how do we understand the difference between how we present ourselves and how we are?
This has always been a problem, as we present ourselves differently to people in differing situations and so on, but it has become exacerbated. Because as much as I might want to say that I am my true self alone in a dark room, it is the virtual inscription of myself online that is more durable, and, thus, in a sense, more real. It is more open to others, and more objective in terms of how it defines me, than how I am IRL.
The Politician plays with this tension, and the real-life effects that it can have, brilliantly. In an early scene, River opens up during a debate with Payton about how he tried to kill himself the previous year, and why. Payton expresses the worry to his adoptive mother Georgina (Gwyneth Paltrow) that he might not be able to truly feel things. Astrid (Lucy Boynton) cries when Payton sings a song in remembrance of River, but then immediately moves to say that she will run in his place, with looks on her face and gestures that make it seem the crying may have been a show. For his part, Payton does the same when he meets with Infinity (Zoey Deutch) and her nana Dusty (Jessica Lange) towards the end of the episode. He breaks down in tears in that scene, and they seem genuine—I think maybe he did love River—but then immediately afterwards he is back to a kind of cynical detachment about how securing Infinity as his running mate will help him win the race.
What is the difference between being authentic and pretending to be? This is perhaps the defining question of our age, as politicians in the real world dupe us with their faux authenticity and we struggle to sort it out.
But it also cuts deeper than that. It becomes a source, potentially, of existential despair. And I think this is what we see with River. I wonder to what extent it affects that younger generation we’re calling Gen Z (at least until we land on a better term) in particular. They’ve grown up in this world infused with this difference and tension between the online reality and the offline one. And, on the one hand, they infuse one another, but on the other, they can not only come into tension, but the virtual can take precedence.
We see this in The Politician when Payton’s girlfriend Alice (Julia Schlaepfer) presents the plan to break up and say she was cheating in order to help his campaign. He agrees to a set of terms that include posting things on Instagram and looking back at her after they pass in the hallway at school. And while it’s not clear whether he does the former, it seems like he probably doesn’t, as he clearly doesn’t do the latter on purpose. They pass each other in the hall towards the end of the episode, and he doesn’t look back.
It seems clear how we should read this. After Alice’s post on social media and the response Payton got from his own response saying that he was heartbroken, he has decided to go a step further from the plan Alice set forth. He’s decided it will benefit him even more to make this real and cast her aside. He doesn’t care about her. It’s not clear he cares about anyone, really, and while he worries about that earlier in the episode, his mom precisely attempts to set his mind at ease by suggesting that the difference between caring and pretending to care doesn’t matter.
Then we have Infinity. She rebuffs Payton’s attempts to get her on board as his VP candidate until he breaks down and admits to being a phony, declaring his love for River through tears. Yet her situation is not at all clear at the end of Episode 1, and there are some big questions surrounding it.
The biggest is whether she has cancer or not. Throughout she is presented as though she does, and although her nana is clearly exploiting that in order to get a table at the Olive Garden and so on, Infinity herself seems genuine.
She doesn’t want to be exploited or used for someone else’s gain (her nana aside), and she presents a kind of joie de vivre in the face of her cancer that is inspiring not only to the audience, but I think truly to Payton as well.
He may primarily look at her as a way to get ahead in the school’s election, but I can’t help but feel that he also is truly inspired by the way that she says that she views every day as a gift after his remark about high school being hard enough. He’s not soulless, even if he is Machiavellian.
And, so, this suggestion at the end that she is faking cuts fairly deep. If she is faking (which I expect will probably be the case) then the whole question about authenticity will be taken to a further level.
This seems to be the main thing that The Politician is asking: what’s the difference between being authentic and seeming to be so, and why does it matter?
I look forward to the rest of the series exploring this further.