Boss is at its best when it pulls all its various threads together into one tight, taut strand. It happened two weeks ago with “Remembered,” and it happens again this week with “Stasis,” the season’s penultimate episode, written by Bradford Winters.
It’s two days before the gubernatorial primary, and the city’s government is at a standstill while everyone waits for what they think is the inevitable fall of Mayor Thomas Kane (Kelsey Grammer). “Remembered” was notable for the way in which Kane’s staff marshaled their collective forces in an aggressive, frenzied defense of the Mayor, but “Stasis”—as the title implies—is a quieter, suspensefully still episode, achieving its tension by almost completely isolating Kane against the world. The episode feels like a siege story, with Kane holed up in his office—beaten, bleeding, and running low on ammo—while an unbeatable army waits outside. Only Stone (Martin Donovan) is at his side, and Stone is not optimistic: “If you have anything—any wild card whatsoever—now’s the time to play it.”
This is Kane’s episode from start to finish, and more than any episode to date shows what kind of politician—and man—he is. Throughout “Stasis,” everyone is advising him to take fast action, but Kane’s form of action is to find out exactly who his enemies are: until he understands the field, he won’t do anything. “Shake the tree, bad apples do fall,” he tells Stone, and so Kane spends this episode shaking his tree.
First up is Kitty (Kathleen Robertson). He’s had his doubts about her for a while now, and when he learns from Stone that Kitty passed on a deal that would have made the toxic waste story go away, he decides to give her a test. In the first of two meetings he’ll have with her, he expresses his weariness and implies that he may be ready to step down. “Maybe they’re right,” he says, of the people out there who think it’s time he resigned. It’s a marvelous scene, because—not for the last time in the episode—Kane is being simultaneously manipulative and totally sincere. He’s testing her loyalty, but there is also a grain of truth in everything he says, and never more so than when he speaks to her like a father and expresses sadness over how things have worked out between them. “I can’t help but wonder whether to admire or regret what our run has turned you into,” he tells her.
Kitty, of course, is already dealing with a lot, having discovered what we all knew last week: that she’s pregnant with Zajac’s child. Robertson’s performance throughout this episode is excellent, as she too is called upon to play a lot of layers in every scene: she is betraying Kane, and she’s terrified of him, but we also sense how much she still admires him and craves his approval.
And so we follow the results of Kane’s mole-hunt. Kitty believes Kane’s misdirection about resigning, and passes it along to Zajac (Jeff Hephner), who in turn passes it along to Meredith (Connie Nielsen), who sends Zajac to Alderman Ross (James Vincent Meredith). When Ross offers Stone a job in the new administration, Kane knows everything he needs to know.
His second meeting with Kitty features all the speechifying flourishes for which Boss is frequently criticized, but in this case it worked for me: this is a speech Kane has had time to prepare, and it is believable and appropriate that he would unleash the full power of his rhetoric and wrath at the woman—this almost daughter—who has betrayed him.
“I’ve asked you before: do you know who the fuck I am? Right now, in this moment, I am the angel of fucking death for you. And the next few minutes are going to feel like perdition itself if you don’t tell me what I need to know. Nod. You want to play. Let’s fuckin’ play. How small, how pedestrian, how fucking cheap: do you understand how little your petty act of defiance even registers? And to what end? To make your mundane, inconsequential life mean something? You want to feel, is that it? Feel needed, worth it? You want to fucking matter? You don’t. You don’t fucking matter. Whatever station you occupy, others have given you. It’s those of us who make things who matter. And you know this: that’s your burden. And forever, no matter how hard you work, how many futile sacrifices you make, how deeply you commit, you know it will always be another’s hand that feeds you. Because that’s what you are, that’s what you’ll always be: dependent. And now you have designs on what? Shifting your dependency? How numbingly predictable. Go ahead. But before you walk out of this room, I want names.”
I’ve chastised this show—deservedly—for always going the one step too far, but “Stasis” shows how good this show can be when it doesn’t take that final leap into melodrama and sensationalism. Granted, this scene is tense in part because we’ve seen Kane go ridiculously crazy before: he’s assaulted Aldermen, strangled nurses, shit with the door open, and collected severed ears, so nothing he could have done here would have entirely surprised me. But the fact that he doesn’t physically assault Kitty makes the scene all the more devastating; he hits her where it hurts, in her own professional pride and sense of self-importance. (Robertson, again, is fabulous here, her identity crumbling with every word Kane speaks.)
But Kitty hurts him right back by giving him the information he wants. As she lists off names in the conspiracy—Zajac, Ross, Cullen, Kohler, Mata—he becomes more and more fearful, until she gives him the final name that nearly breaks him: Meredith.
It’s the following scene that is the most powerful—and most important—of the episode. Kane, alone, humbled, and set upon from all sides, reaches out to the one person left that he knows isn’t out to get him: his daughter Emma (Hannah Ware). Emma has been the only person he has reached out to for emotional support, the only person he told about his illness. Here he calls to tell her he loves her, and Grammer is fantastic in the split second pause during which he waits to hear if she’ll say it back. She’s the only person he has left.
And he throws her under the bus. Seeing no other way out of his public relations problem, he has her clinic raided for illegal drug activities, and has Emma herself arrested. As Zajac says—giving it an appropriately sacrificial spin—“Kane so loved the City of Chicago he gave up his only begotten daughter.” He throws her away—throws away the one person he loves, and all the work he’s put into rebuilding their relationship—for a media distraction that can get him through the next two news cycles.
It’s a risky move to make your protagonist this unlikable: Kane has always been an anti-hero, but this is a new low, even for him. And yet it’s also the best character development this character has had so far, and—perversely—the most human he has ever been. Just as in the earlier scenes, every word he says during the phone call to her is true, and so are the emotions he exhibits. The love is real, and his need for her—however selfish it has been all along—is also real, and painfully human. And yet—having lost everything else—he is reduced to a choice between the two things he has left: his daughter and his power. He chooses the latter.
We may not understand that choice, but that choice is exactly what Boss is all about. The show is about power: not for fortune, or gain, or even for what it can accomplish, but for its own sake. Kane doesn’t want to get rich (though he is rich), and he doesn’t want to become president, and he doesn’t really even want to do good things—though perhaps he once did. He just needs to have the power: he’s sacrificed his entire life to get it, and he’ll sacrifice anything he has to to keep it.
The episode ends with an exercise of this power. Identifying his enemies was the hard part: destroying them is the easy part. A little blackmail—in the form of pictures of Zajac and Alderman Ross’s wife—puts Kitty, Zajac, and Ross all in their places. Mrs. Zajac—showing herself to be a sort of Meredith-in-the-Making—berates her husband like he’s a naughty child and sends him crawling back to Kane, who orders Zajac to kneel before him, and leaves him kneeling there in penitence as the episode ends. This is the victory Kane has won—not the election, or the fight to keep his job, or the lawsuit, or the battle for the O’Hare expansion, or any other external thing. He has reclaimed his ability to make men kneel before him.
I originally thought Boss would turn out to be a show about institutional power—and it is—but it is also turning out to be a show about the need for individual power, a show that explores the soul of a man who needs to rule. Kane is the kind of man who needs to make other men tremble, to make them kneel before him, to make them shake his filthy hand. Nothing else—not even love—is as important. This doesn’t make him an admirable character, but it makes him a fascinating one, and I’m increasingly confident that Boss and its star are up to the task of exploring the psychology of that drive.
- The remarkable (and uncharacteristic) restraint I mentioned above—the refreshing refusal to go that one step too far—was evident throughout “Stasis.” Another example: Zajac and Meredith are alone in an elevator, and no doubt every viewer expected a typically ridiculous sex scene between the mayor’s wife and the insatiable state treasurer. But the show, thankfully, settled for having him kiss her on the neck.
- Some very funny moments this episode, amid all the gloom and doom. I loved the moment during the lawsuit deposition when—after Stone has, with a straight face, repeatedly assured the lawyer that the Mayor is unavailable—Kane takes a brazen and leisurely stroll out of his office to get a glass of water.
- Somehow, despite his years on Cheers, Frasier, and The Simpsons, I find myself forgetting what perfect comic timing Kelsey Grammer has; this show should find more opportunities to take advantage of it. (The funniest line of the night comes when Kitty tells Kane that Zajac is planning to run for mayor. It’s hard to do justice to it here, because it’s only funny because of the withering scorn and disbelief with which Grammer says it: “Mayor. Of Chicago. Zajac.”)
- Another good Kane line, this time talking to Emma: “I’m not really up on my bible, but isn’t there something in there about how there’s a time to eat shit?”
- I didn’t mention that Sam Miller (Troy Garrity) becomes editor of the Sentinel in return for laying off the Kane story for a few days. I’ve been a big fan of this storyline, and Garrity’s work, but the parallel here—the “rise-to-power-through-ethical-compromise” theme—seemed a little too on the nose for me.
- The episode ends with Kane entering his home to deal with his wife. Next week is the season finale, and I have a feeling we can expect Kane to settle all family business. It should be a good one.