Boss Season 2, Episode 3: “Ablution” has Kane choosing whose villain he wants to be

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Boss Season 2, Episode 3: “Ablution”
Written by Angelina Burnett
Directed by Lesli Linka Glatter
Airs Fridays at 9pm (ET) on Starz

Having ironed out some of its stylistic creases already this season, Boss returns, thematically focused and strong, this week, and the moves “Ablution” makes serve its equally focused title well.

Spring is here and it’s time for Kane to wash the snow away. Kitty purges herself of her past associations, accepting a fresh start with Walsh, who offers her a situation not of hierarchy but parity. (There might be further meaning in the origins of that word – the condition of having given birth; parenthood.  It’s a detail worth tracking, especially considering how static Kitty’s character has become since the termination.)

But there are obviously far too many stains on Kane’s past for them to be washed away without causing more hurt or bloodshed. He has discovered, however, another way forward, and it’s informed by the threat of personal loss and a sense of mortality (the sight of blood preoccupies him). Perhaps Dr. Ella Harris actually didn’t know who she was dealing with when she attempted at the season’s outset to convince Kane that his best days are behind him. While his past may be beyond repair, he can repair the present, and therefore his legacy. “It’s what you leave behind,” as he muttered to himself in the season premiere.

No matter what he does, Kane will always be a villain to some. He must temper his expectations, as Meredith advises when Kane expresses his hopes of a reconciled family home. And so he does, realising that whichever path he takes – “the way forward” or “willing capitulation to the status quo” – he must confront the condition of betrayal. The choice is in who and what he prefers to betray. Whose villain does he prefer to be? As this episode shows, he’s going to make his political life very difficult for himself.

This choice may not be entirely altruistic – cynically, it might be a way for Kane to serve his hubris and leave a respectable legacy behind. It’s an intriguing development, a complication which doesn’t yet narrow our expectations to a predictable outcome.

Unfortunately, the change is introduced a little implausibly. Though Kane’s transformation might be an attractive prospect to those viewers in dire need of sympathy for the protagonist – even should this development be intended to generate pathos only so that a later reversion to his old behaviour (or worse) will be all the more horrific – it doesn’t quite feel organic enough. The main hurdle is that one would expect at least some visible trepidation from Kane. After years of sinful, corrupted leadership, shouldn’t a Kane who’s set on revolutionizing how the city is run (relatively speaking) appear rusty, nervous, and even slightly unsure of himself?

It doesn’t show, at least not in his face and manner. Rather, his uncertainty is reflected in his decision-making, which navigates the middle ground between Ian Todd’s proposed maintenance of the current order and Mona Fredricks’ idealistic yet pragmatic objectives; baby-step adjustments won’t rock the boat too much.

That Kane doesn’t yet fully surrender to the angel on his shoulder certainly offers a necessary tempering of his character’s transformation. In this unfamiliar, idealistic territory, he finds a comfortable foothold in Mona’s sense of political calculation – one of the promising qualities which attracted him to her in the first episode of this season.

Promise and seduction: we’ve seen this a handful of times in recent episodes. Maggie Zajac uses the promise of sex (in what appears to be a sexless marriage) to manipulate the insatiable Ben. He’s not going to get any (though he does get some release from a smitten campaign volunteer)- clearly, Maggie understands that a perpetually deferred sexual promise is both carrot and stick. The cart creeps steadily forward.

As is probably obvious from the above, entry to the story-world of Boss mainly entails puzzling out character motivations and plot points. And this is where Boss continues to stumble. Given the number of characters and possible connections between them, the effort this demands is significant. Though there is more breathing room this season, Boss is still a claustrophobic experience because we sense that everything is connected, each little detail deserving of our attention. There remains a flattened perspective to the world it creates precisely because of this; it seems unwilling to commit fully to a single point of view which would arrange certain elements to foreground and others to background. Though it purports to be a focused study of human behaviour against a background of contemporary politics, its foreground is fatally overpopulated.

So, how will our efforts be rewarded?

Season One provided everything we needed to make sense of the story and characters’ actions and in doing so constructed a gratifying but self-contained narrative, the unfolding meaning of which depended not one bit on audience inferences based on their own lives and experience. The result was distancing: admiration rather than participation.

The fear with Season Two is that its resolution will be too neat, that in the end there will be nothing that exceeds the puzzle-laden narrative. At this point, we know exactly why we watch Boss, but what’s missing is some quality that can’t be easily verbalized and theorized, something that stems from the inherent ambiguity and irreducibility of human behaviour. It’s perhaps too easy to criticize Boss for this; the inevitable comparisons with recent TV greats can be crippling, especially given that Boss is still so young. Just as an example, The Wire’s first season suffered from some of the same problems as Boss, and it wasn’t until the third season that it began to breathe unassisted.

Boss has become truly compelling: between Kane’s renewed moral vision and the deep-seated corruption of the city there will obviously be a large-scale conflict. With that established, will we be treated to something more sophisticated and authentic than an inflated struggle between good and evil?

Odysseas Constantinou

2 Comments
  1. Ody Constantinou says

    Thanks Matt, you’re right about the uneven array of talent! Zajac and Kitty are one-note characters at the moment, but maybe that’s because their scenes at this point in the season are meant to function in a really simple, expository way. It’s a bit soap-operatic.

    Luckily they didn’t get totally rid of Martin Donovan as Stoney. And the guy who plays Sam Miller is really good – the way he plays it reminds me of Dustin Hoffman (even his voice) in All The Presidents Men. I thought that might have been intentional, given the material. I wanted to write more about him, but you know Boss – way too many key characters to discuss.

    Do you think the storytelling is claustrophobic though?
    I was thinking that one of the reasons for it is that you’ve got only *one* main media source threatening to bring Kane down. Realism is not the point of Boss, yet it would really open things up to have a public threat in the internet. Bloggers and whatnot. Kinda had that already in Season One, but it was Sam Miller’s blog that got the ball rolling. How about some kind of *independent* web threat?

    I suppose they made it clear already that Kane’s continued success was not dependent on public opinion, and that the media was there as a messenger between the various camps and wards. And introducing even more antagonists might further clog up the foreground. I think the writers have made things difficult for themselves. But given that the writing is already stronger this season I have more trust that they might pull it off. Grammer has already said (in interviews) that this season is sort of divided in half – maybe it will manage to push some things into the background leaving us entirely with the problem of Kane’s increasing irrationality.

    I guess 1000-word reviews of Boss episodes require footnotes :)

  2. Matt Marquissee says

    Nice review! I think the show is scatterbrained, but so is politics. Also, not every actor carries Boss’s material so well. Zajac and Kitty are pretty blah to me. Then you have breakout performers like the new aides and the feisty reporter. I find this season has more momentum and focus.

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