Photo: Courtesy of Netflix/NICOLE RIVELLI/NETFLIX
A 6-year-old kid wears a Halloween costume. He’s dressed like Apache leader Geronimo. The kid is white. It’s not cool. “Cancel Culture,” the frustrating-at-best third episode of The Politician’s second season, takes this idea and builds an entire episode around it. For 41 long, silly minutes, The Politician attempts to argue for nuance while being reductive and then ends with a twist. Take a shot every time someone says “canceled” and you’ll have a good time, assuming you’re willing to have a hangover tomorrow.
The most frustrating thing about “Cancel Culture” is that, despite what the title might suggest, there are actually interesting ideas here. There’s probably an effective way to do this — to make these stories both righteous and ridiculous at once — but it happens, at most, in flashes, and those are rarely glimpsed between all the fists being shaken at clouds. In this episode, chewing gum carries more weight than offering up dates with a woman as currency without her knowledge or consent, and the surest way to get into your opponent’s head is a selfie with a Speedo and a headdress.
Actually, scratch that — the most frustrating thing is that Ben Platt throws himself into every scene so entirely and the episode itself simply can’t measure up. For all its flaws, this is perhaps the funniest outing of the series so far for Platt; his meltdown about a six-second cold shower is unspeakably weird and perfect. But try to pin down what “Cancel Culture” has to say about anything at all at your peril. Thanks to Platt, Payton at least has an emotional throughline, and his obvious fear, disappointment, anger, and frustration bubble over in nearly every scene.
It starts for Payton with an early morning phone call in his dorm. (This episode helpfully confirms that yes, Payton at least is still living, frolicking, and watching Gilmore Girls in his dorm; do any of them actually attend classes?) His horrid twin brothers find a photo of him in a yearbook; he’s 6 and dressed as Geronimo. They send it to Hadassah, who thinks it’s a gift. When Payton gets that phone call, it’s to tell him there’s a photo of his 6-year-old self on the front page of the Post being a very white cultural appropriator. Alice tells Skye she should stand beside Payton as he issues a mea culpa; Skye reluctantly accepts, citing her own pragmatism, but tells Payton that he crossed a line and that he has to go out with her to register young voters of color. (Are we meant to believe that Payton’s campaign wasn’t doing that already? Really?)
While there are certainly hiccups after this scene, it’s also the high watermark for cognitive dissonance in this episode. On the one hand, there are lines like Andrew asking why Payton hates Native Americans or Alice saying, “He doesn’t see black or white or rich or poor, he just sees [sigh] voters.” On the other, Skye’s let-me-educate-you-about-why-appropriation-is-bad speech, which plays as totally sincere. In his speech, Payton says that the fact that he was 6 doesn’t excuse anything, also played sincerely; then talks about it as a personal failing without bringing in any nuance, and things only get more pandering from there.
The speech stabilizes his polling numbers, but the writing is on the wall, and not even another inspirational climate-centered campaign event with Infinity can change that. Zoey Deutch also makes a meal of this episode, anchoring the subplot in the joy Infinity takes in shutting down anything toxic in her life, literally or metaphorically. Andrew gets his extremely creepy “date” with her and she shuts him down hard; she encounters Beijing’s smog and decides to cancel pollution and waste; she references the abusive and toxic relationships of her past, which she seems to have wholly left behind; and when she sees Payton and Skye not quite walking the climate change walk (at least from her perspective), she sees an opportunity to take advantage of the power she has and demand a change from them both. It’s also, she points out, a move away from hypocrisy. She’s right to tell them both that they need to practice what they preach.
But then the episode pivots again, and suddenly it’s ridiculous. One moment the viewers are admiring Infinity’s zero-waste lifestyle; the next, everyone’s drinking “booty coffee” from recycled shower water. Pick a lane, show — and if you can’t or don’t want to, then embrace the complexity, rather than reducing arguments only to the extremes.
Ultimately, the episode sees Payton using outrage to his advantage, turning that first photo into an opportunity to embed McAfee in the Standish campaign. The mechanics of this storyline are a little foggy, and perhaps the next episode will offer some clarity. Still, let’s try to reason this out now. First, the terrible twins send the Geronimo photo to Hadassah, who leaks it to the Post. Payton gives the speech, admits he’s losing, and thanks all his friends. Then he takes a photo of himself in a Speedo and headdress and sends it to the Standish campaign himself; Dede calls him in, tells him she won’t do anything with it, and tells him he ran a good campaign. Here’s where things get complicated. Andrew tells Payton that the photo could only have been taken by someone with access to his phone and Payton pretends to be surprised and outraged, holding a big meeting where he asks his inner circle about the leak. Alice takes partial responsibility, citing her jealousy of Astrid, who she thinks is getting more romantic attention from Payton than Alice herself. She sent the photo to James, who sent it to everyone else, and they all had a meeting about it. Then McAfee says she leaked it to the Standish campaign, and Payton “fires” her. She gets a job from Hadassah, outs Andrew as the mole, and then meets up with Payton to discuss next steps now that she’s the mole.
So, is McAfee the only one in on the ruse? If so, why? Payton himself was the leak, so they’re not smoking anyone out. Did Alice really just see the photo by accident? Why not just pretend that Payton figured out that McAfee was the leak? It doesn’t make any sense. Yet that’s a minor complaint compared to the larger tonal issues of this episode. At least Payton will always have a handkerchief handy now — a lucky thing, as he seems to be crying more and more as the series goes on and defeat seems more and more certain.
Wouldn’t that photo of Payton as a child be a much, much bigger problem for his mother, who is currently running for Governor in California?
More echoes of season one: Alice once again pretending not to have hurt feelings in a way that bodes very ill for their relationship.
I cannot get over the idea that they’ve been having sex in that tiny twin bed in that dorm room shared by three people, on the regular. What the hell.
Hadassah on McAfee: “She looks like a sherbert Diane Keaton, which I love.”
Costume of the episode: Infinity’s let’s-tell-off-Andrew coat.