“And everyone will be happy, all the millions of creatures, except for the hundred thousand of those who govern them. For only we, we who keep the mystery, only we shall be unhappy.” — from The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky
I was initially annoyed at Boss for dropping a random reference to my favorite novel—Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov—in a scene that neither called for it nor explained it. Meeting with Kitty (Kathleen Robertson) about the class-action lawsuit against the mayor, a lawyer makes a clumsy, seemingly throwaway comment about how the mayor has a “choice.” “Sort of,” he says. “I mean, does man really have free choice? The Brothers Karamazov. ‘The Grand Inquisitor?’ Changed my life.”
For me, the line fell flat—seeming to exist simply to make the character quirky, and to introduce a shallow literary reference—until hours later, when I actually thought about it in relation to the rest of the episode. The “Grand Inquisitor” chapter of The Brothers Karamazov is about free will (though not exactly in the way the scene implies); more to the point, however, it is about power, and governance, and the ways in which those who govern justify their crimes.
Very briefly (and very reductively), the chapter features a parable about Christ returning to earth during the Spanish Inquisition, and being detained by the Grand Inquisitor. The Inquisitor accuses Christ of making a terrible mistake when, on the cross, He refused the temptation to rule the earth, and chose instead to allow humanity free will. People, the Inquisitor argues, don’t want free will: they long, in fact, to surrender their free will—their responsibility to decide between right and wrong—to any strong figure who will take it and provide for their basic needs. “Better you should enslave us, but feed us”—that, according to the Inquisitor, is the philosophy of the common people, because they “know the value of complete submission.” People don’t want to be burdened with questions of right and wrong: they just want to be taken care of. The Grand Inquisitor sees himself as one of the few men who are willing and able—in the absence of Christ’s rule—to accept the terrible responsibility of free will and subjugate the rest of humanity for their own good.
That major theme runs throughout this episode of Boss, and in fact goes to the heart of the show’s overall purpose. In the pilot episode, Mayor Kane (Kelsey Grammer) spoke of one of his predecessors and heroes, Anton Cermak, who, he says, “understood something basic about all people: they want to be led.” Boss is about pulling back the curtain on government, and suggests that we don’t want to know how things get done: we want the streets to be clean, and we want the trains to run on time, and we want to be able to feed our families, and we don’t want to know what it takes to make our cities livable. (I must say, I’ve found this particularly true of Chicago politics. During the Daley years, most people I know—if asked—would tell you Mayor Richard M. Daley was probably an irredeemably corrupt son of a bitch—but most of them would also say they liked him, because he got things done.)
In “Spit,” the brief scene with The Grand Inquisitor reference is followed by a long scene in which Kane tours a formerly run-down Chicago neighborhood with an old friend, Detective Ryan Kavanaugh (Danny Goldring). The two men discuss how the land on which they stand was once a quarry, and then a toxic waste dump, and is now a lush park; they look over a neighborhood that used to be a ghetto, controlled by the slumlords, until Kane helped clean it up.
Kane did this, in part, by burning down the slumlord’s house (an act Kane describes in a typically overwrought monologue). It was, the men agree, a “necessary evil.” “You do something bad to do something good,” Kavanaugh says, but Kane has his doubts about all the necessary evils he’s committed. “See, the thing is, one necessary evil leads to another, until one day when you can’t differentiate between what’s necessary and what’s merely expedient. And when that happens, you’re done. You’re a monster.”
“Try touring your city sometime,” Kavanaugh says. “See what the monster has built.”
It’s not immediately clear whether the neighborhood Kane and Kavanaugh tour is the original source of the toxic waste that got dug up and moved to Bensenville, where it poisoned someone else’s citizens, but it doesn’t really matter: it’s a thriving section of the city that represents all the good that has come from all of Kane’s “necessary evils.” Later in the episode, Kane himself develops this justification. He does so after Kitty pesters him about the lawsuit, chewing her out in front of the entire staff, but we have a sense that this is Kane speaking to himself, attempting to solidify his own belief in the rightness of his actions:
“Do you know who I am?…Spectators stand on the sidelines, shaking their heads, lacking the balls. Do you know what I mean?…When Truman nuked Japan, when Lincoln sent boys out to kill their cousins, do you think they gave a shit about their approval rating?…Fuck the spectators. If there’s another city in this country that takes better care of their citizens, you tell me now which one you think it is. Anyone? Good. If, in the course of doing what I think is best for this city, there is collateral damage, who here wants to explain to me the position of those on the sidelines shaking their heads?”
Kane is the Grand Inquisitor; he sees himself as one of the rare breed of men—like Truman, like Lincoln—who can make the decisions other people aren’t willing to make, who can take care of his people even if he has to enslave them, and even if he himself needs to become a monster to do it. The spectators don’t know what goes into these decisions, and they don’t want to know.
What he has to do now is take care of Dr. Reyes (Carmen Roman), who last episode accused him of covering up the toxic waste evidence. Fortunately—in an example of the often melodramatic and too-convenient plotting of which Boss is all too fond—Dr. Reyes has a brother who is, in Kavanaugh’s words, a “werewolf”—a former pedophile and rapist. Reyes falsified medical records to protect her brother, and now Kavanaugh forces her to rescind her accusations against Kane to protect her brother again. “She laid down the lives of innocent children to save her werewolf brother,” Kavanaugh says. “What does that make me?” asks Kane, who laid down the lives of innocent children for no reason half as noble. (The episode falls short of referring to Reyes as Christ—it settles for calling her “Mother Teresa”—but the parallels are clearly intended here. “The Grand Inquisitor” story ends with Christ saying nothing in response to the Inquisitor’s tirade; instead, Christ just kisses the Inquisitor enigmatically on the lips. Here, Reyes, too, says nothing to Kane, though she doesn’t kiss him, except symbolically: she spits in his face.)
It’s the rulers who will be unhappy, the Grand Inquisitor says: they are the ones burdened with free will, and so they are the ones who suffer for the rest. It’s a theme that’s developed in minor ways throughout the episode, mirroring the larger storylines. Alderman Mata (Ricardo Gutiérrez), for example, has thrown in with Alderman Ross (James Vincent Meredith) to overthrow Kane. But Mata is not completely comfortable with this, and not confident in the plan’s success. After a visit from Stone (Martin Donovan)—who wonderfully asks him point-blank, “Are you fucking us?”—Mata starts having his doubts, and begins backing out of Ross’s plan. He does so, however, explaining why he has put up with Kane’s abuse all these years—the compromises, the physical assaults, the shitty handshakes. “My neighborhood has benefited greatly from Mayor Kane’s generosity,” Mata says. He’s been enslaved to the monster Kane all these years—and made plenty of his own monstrous choices—but his people have been fed.
Alas, Mata himself falls victim to the monstrosity of city politics. Ross drops a word to Moco Ruiz (Joe Minoso), the contractor whose ears were—on Mata’s orders—sacrificed on the altar of Thomas Kane in Episode One. Ross lets Moco know that Mata has fallen from grace, and Moco is able to get his revenge by killing the Alderman. The scene is gratuitously gruesome and over-written, but there’s a nice symmetry to it: the whole problem started when Moco discovered bodies buried at the O’Hare site, and now he buries Mata alive in the very same ground. It’s also a nicely symbolic scene that ties into the overall themes of Boss: that the very foundations of the city are built (literally, in this case) on unspeakable crimes.
Boss has, so far, lacked for a truly sympathetic point-of-view character: no one has seemed particularly likable or relatable. The closest we have—and she’s becoming more sympathetic each week—is Kitty (Kathleen Robertson). Kitty initially seemed like a hard-as-nails, completely cynical professional woman, but we’ve gotten glimpses of an idealist that’s been driven underground by the cutthroat, day-to-day realities of City Hall. Robertson has given a complex performance as a woman who doesn’t quite dare let herself be idealistic, though her attraction to Zajac (Jeff Hephner) seems to be at least partially based on the hope that he could be a better man than Kane. In this episode, Zajac tells her that he might drop out of the gubernatorial race and run for mayor instead; Kitty doesn’t encourage him, but she doesn’t tell anyone else in the Mayor’s office about it either.
Her abuse by Kane probably doesn’t do much to reinforce her loyalties, and the final straw seems to come when the lawyer in the lawsuit gives her a file filled with pictures of the sick children. At the end of the episode, Kitty breaks down crying looking at these photographs, unable to accept any longer the terrible crimes on which Kane’s administration is built. (The scene—like so many scenes in Boss—goes at least one step too far, as Kitty not only cries but throws up in her wastebasket. I have a suspicion, however, that this last symptom is not so much emotional as physical, and Kitty may have had one too many spontaneous “conferences” with Zajac. Just as no character has ever coughed in a movie or TV show without then dying of a terrible illness, no female character has ever thrown up on screen without then discovering she’s pregnant.)
So Kitty may no longer believe that the Inquisition’s crimes are justified, and she may not be the only one. Meredith (Connie Nielsen) also seems to end this episode ready to betray her husband. After she secretly arranges a meeting for him with a media mogul (Craig Spidle)—who I can only assume is the owner of several news outlets, including the Sentinel—Kane responds by slapping her across the face and telling her never to blindside him again. This final crime seems to be the last straw for Meredith: when next we see her, she is warning Zajac about her husband’s wrath, and offering to help him win.
Boss continues to frustrate. It is an incredibly smart show in many ways; it’s tackling large and worthy themes with subtlety and intelligence, but then in nearly every scene it goes that one step too far into melodrama and sensationalism. Mixing the ridiculous and the sublime the way that it does—moving back and forth between politics, philosophy, tragedy, sex, and murder—is a very difficult game to play. (Shakespeare did it, of course, and so did Dostoevsky, who I am now certain is another of the show’s many literary influences). Boss hasn’t quite stumbled on the right formula yet for mixing high- and low-art the way that it wants to—it continues to put one foot wrong for every two steps right—but the ambition itself makes this one of the most interesting shows on television.
- I’ve completely skipped over the preposterous subplot of Emma (Hannah Ware) and Darius (Rotimi Akinosho), and I wish the show would do the same. Their relationship, the gang warfare, the drug-running intrigue, the soppy scenes between Kane and Emma: these are all dead spots in the middle of otherwise interesting episodes. (And the moment in “Spit” when Emma and Darius have one of the show’s trademark zipless fucks—and Emma starts praying while being screwed against a wall—epitomizes the ridiculousness I mentioned above.)
- I think Kitty’s loss of faith is genuine, but I have doubts about whether Meredith’s apparent betrayal is real: I suspect Mrs. Kane has endured too much, and is too deeply invested in her husband’s legacy, to turn so easily. She may be playing a long game, and may turn out to be the one who saves his administration instead.
- My favorite moment of this episode is when, after Reyes spits in Kane’s face, Kane’s assistant calmly and wordlessly hands the mayor a bottle of sanitizer he keeps handy. Clearly this is not the first time someone has spit in the mayor’s face: there’s actually a well-practiced protocol for such events.