Character Study: Political Animals on Scandal, House of Cards, and The Good Wife, Part 1

Picture of Cyrus screams at his husband

“We’ve barely scratched the surface.”

Rasha: Here for political animals!

Gemma: So, do we want to look at each and then the relationships among the three, or do we want to be relational throughout?

R: I was thinking the latter. One of the questions that came up for me was: what are the characteristics of a political animal–how do we know one when we see them?

G: How do political animals evolve? was one for me.

R: That’s good. I think I did have some kind of “what is the origin story?” for political animals, how did they come to be who they are, so maybe those three questions make a good progression/oscillation for us to consider.

G: In observing our three TV Political Animals of study–Doug Stamper from House of Cards, Cyrus Beene from Scandal, and Eli Gold from The Good Wife–one of the first things I noticed was that, though they were all white dudes, they all had something significant that marked them as outsiders

"They know my secret."
“They know my secret.”

R: I think I agree with you. Say more.

G: Cyrus is gay, and for the early stages of Scandal there are questions of how closeted he is or is not going to be. Doug is a recovering alcoholic in what is often an alcohol-driven social world. Eli is Jewish, and much is made in the early episodes of his Jewishness in a very WASPy Midwestern social milieu. So that made me think one defining characteristic of a Political Animal is that they can “pass” in a mainstream circle, but will always see themselves and know themselves as outside of it. Which makes the choice that Scandal made at the end of last season (which I just watched last night) particularly interesting.

R: Let’s come back to the Scandal finale in a sec! I see that outsider status as one factor that makes it hard for the political creatures to just live their own life. One thing that is so interesting for me about each of these characters is the degree to which they are not the protagonists of their own lives. They are political operatives, and the candidates or officials for whom they operate are the people who are the stars of their lives.

G: Yes. They are dependent, and bound to people who are bound to take advantage of their dependence.

Ugh, this dude.
Ugh, this dude.

R: For Eli, it’s Peter and occasionally Alicia. For Cyrus, it’s Fitz and then Vargas (though it’s always been clear that Cyrus has the desire to be president himself, and so in some ways he’s also like Frank Underwood as much as he is the loyal family dog like Doug Stamper). And for Doug, of course it’s Underwood, his OTP.

G: Indeed. And each of them, one way or the other, uses the approval of the person in question as a marker of self-definition. But, at least in the cases of Eli and Cyrus, it’s a liability to admit the depth of that dependence because the relationship is ostensibly supposed to be Professional.

R: So going back to last season’s Scandal finale, I agree with you that the choice to put Cyrus in the VP spot on the ticket with Vargas is an interesting move for the kind of second-class citizen he’s been playing in his support role to Fitz. And his occasional antagonist role opposite Fitz. Damn, I’m starting to see Cyrus as a much more complex character than Doug or Eli, but I’m sure more discussion will reveal more.

G: Well, Cyrus has straight-up had more screen time than either Doug or Eli.

R: I mean, there definitely is an element of homoerotic love involved between each of these political creatures and their candidates. For Cyrus, it’s very open.

G: Yes. What do they seek in terms of romantic love, political animals?

R: Cyrus loves Fitz like a favorite son and like the hunk he pines for.

Excuse me, I think I felt my heart beat, just once, right there.
Excuse me, I think I felt my heart beat, just once, right there.

G: Cyrus is seeking a “wife” in the most traditional and problematic sense. He wants a partner who can disappear or be used/subjugated to his needs, and is too challenged by those that don’t. Which allows his primary relationship, with exactly that division of love you describe, to continue being with Fitz.

Oh, for a secondary love that lasts....
Oh, for a secondary love that lasts….

R: Cyrus is more deeply in the closet than just being slow to talk about being gay. He is that kind of political beast who wants the photogenic, voter-tested facade. It’s what he wanted when he married a woman, it’s what he pushed James into with the subjugation of James’ career to his (and so in some really important ways, James never brought Cyrus out of the closet), and it’s what he’s demanded like a tyrant from the lastest trophy husband Michael. Thank God Michael at least spends time with Ella because all of us have been worried about who was parenting her. It was certainly not Cyrus.

G: No, it has never been Cyrus. Ella was adopted for vanity reasons, a fact that I think has never gotten quite enough attention on that show.

R: I really feel like Kerry Washington in real life would yell at someone about that, but adoption is a bit of a trope on Shonda shows, and in some ways I can’t fault her, and in other ways I think she has blindspots for the nuances of it just as she has blind highways about interracial relationships.

G: I can see that. Both Cyrus and Eli, I’d offer, are people of monstrous ambition who will always subvert love and longing to that. Both want to be acceptable to the mainstream, but never will be, and so they’ve chosen to conquer the mainstream from backstage. That will always take on greater significance than anyone they might come to love along the way.

Adorably flustered by this younger woman whose undocumented employment he threatened to expose that one time!
Adorably flustered by this younger woman whose undocumented employment he threatened to expose that one time!

R: You know, Eli has had a much more interesting and tender love life than the other two. I LOVED his awkward romance with America Ferrara (whose Superstore show is back for S2! It’s campy, but still enjoyable), the ways in which he lost all his power when he was in the same room as Natalie. His relationship with his daughter Marissa is also very satisfying from beginning to end, whatever my other annoyances with Marissa’s IDF stanning. Even his crazed arguments with his ex, Parker Posey!, are delightful and almost madcap.

G: Marissa’s going to take the Kalinda role on the spinoff, I just read.

R: Ugh. I mean, okay. But really.

G: He also had that odd, brief fling with a fellow political animal played by Amy Sedaris, which was interesting. But it’s true, Eli’s sense of love isn’t as subverted to the professional necessity of monstrosity.

R: I totally forgot about Amy Sedaris having him for a snack! And his absolutely outmatched boy toy internship with Vanessa Williams.

G: Possibly just because that show had less of a commitment to melodrama than either Escandalo or HOC, but still.

R: Well, I think part of it can be explained by Eli’s status as a local/state political operative and not a national player. Think of the arguments between him and Ruth!!! I could more easily see Ruth toe-ing off against Cyrus or Doug.

G: Margo Martindale is the actress.

R: I started to say that Doug doesn’t do standoffs much, but then I remembered all the times he threatens people in dark rooms or nearly chokes them. And then kills them.

Yeah, that is totally in the job description.

G: That’s true, that we’re dealing with grander scales in the cases of both other shows. Doug is certainly less showy than either of the other two gentlemen, but that makes him more of a stealth bomb.

R: But Doug doesn’t often square off against rivals. And even though Cyrus is ready to straight up murderate his peers, like has called off assassins at the last minute (or not), I am still more scared of Doug Stamper. He really is like a dog with a bone. He’s not going to let go, even if he buries it and has to dig it up again just to rebury it.

G: I mean, it’s the case for all three that they’ll kill whoever they have to kill, and whatever aspects of themselves they must kill in the process, in order to do it. That’s basically the entirety of the Doug-Rachel-obsession journey. And, I mean, you know I always hated James, but Cyrus’s journey with James was very similar. I recall an early episode where Cyrus nearly killed James himself out of “necessity,” chose not to, and then later was one of several cogs in the machine that led to James’s murder, and by then it was a tragedy, something he could Blame Jake and Rowan For.

Remember this fun time?
Remember this fun time?

R: Has Eli ever literally or figuratively killed someone/something he loved for political expediency?

G: Well, he felt guilty later. Eli’s closest equivalent is the phone message. Which he did not fully Regret until Will was killed.

R: His relationship with Natalie? I can’t remember why they didn’t work.

G: Natalie took as much of a role in their not working as he did. It was a very mutual decision.

R: Yeah, TGW was much more about an ever tightening web of small moral compromises than it was about big dramatic sacrifices or betrayals. THAT IS WHAT MADE SEASON 5 SO AMAZING TO BEGIN WITH THOUGH, because it was Massive Betrayal, raw and open.

G: When TGW went raw, it went deeply raw. That was when it worked best. Though I feel like in HOC we get an extremely intimate picture of Doug constraining and destroying himself. I was intrigued by the relationship between Doug and his brother with the Normal Life in that sense.

R: Yes, on that note, can we talk about Political Animals and their addictions?

G: Would you say they’re all characterized by an addiction other than adrenaline? I mean, Doug of course, but the other two?

I think Cyrus is proud of his obsessions, and even his addictions.
I think Cyrus is proud of his obsessions, and even his addictions.

R: Neither Eli nor Cyrus have quite the problem with alcohol that Doug does, even though most characters on Shonda shows are functional alcoholics who are defined by their choice of poison. Doug’s addiction struggles, and even Rep. Peter’s addiction issues in S1, bring to light what I think is often a core feature of political operatives in real life, at least the ones who aren’t flaming narcissists like Frank Underwood.

G: Go on.

R: Many activists and political beasts I know need an obsession. Politics may have always been that obsession, or it may be one that replaced another obsession. They need something external to feel okay about being alive, whether that’s a cause or a candidate or a puzzle or a fix. I don’t know that this dynamic is exactly unique to politics, though I think the centers of fame and power draw folks with this kind of need in greater numbers. I don’t mean it as a criticism– some former addicts make the most amazing activists because that is where all their fire is going and they may not have the luxury of getting distracted. I think Doug is an example of how that kind of obsession is both powerful and very dangerous.

This kind of control is a terrifying self-delusion.

G: The drive is obsession. I mean, this is going to sound odd, but as we’re talking I’m thinking of Princess Carolyn, the agent cat character on BoJack Horseman (also played by Amy Sedaris!). She shares a lot of characteristics with these guys, and one of those is this question of obsession. The only way you keep yourself from disappearing is by becoming a necessary part of the machine/candidate/operation that is your object of obsession.

R: Yeah, I think you’re right in naming that obsessive work as labor to prevent the self from disappearing. I don’t know that we’ll ever get or need more backstory on Doug’s family to know why one brother needed politics as a balancing force in his life and why the other was fine with job, wife, and kids, but for me, I’ve seen it enough in real life that I can fill in the gaps. It rings true.

G: Oh, yeah. For me too. And so you’re left with the contradictory desires: the desire to be at the center of the action, and the desire to disappear because you’re an outsider in a society that wants people like you to disappear.

R: Did you have more to cover with the Normal brother?

G: Not much, except that Normal Brother offers Doug something that Doug wants to want, but genuinely cannot want.

Longing to long for what we do not want.

R: I think that’s absolutely true.

G: We see the same thing happening with Olivia, who is a Political Animal in her own way, and certainly with Cyrus, and on smaller scales with Eli.

R: Eli doesn’t really want that normal life either, though he does want love of a grown-up kind, not just a Mom replacement or political office. Is there anything else to say in summation before we leave the origin story/evolution for next week? We may also think of more questions.

G: Well, in summation: political animals walk an insider-outsider dichotomy, are defined by their obsession and the complex ways in which obsession does and does not relate to love, and …

R: Now I’m curious to look for political operatives characters who are not white dudes. Olivia is about more than just the politics, and there’s something about characters who aren’t the central protagonist. I’ll think about it more for when we revisit this in Part II next week.

G: We haven’t even mentioned Elizabeth North! And I’m definitely putting Princess Carolyn on that list. ‘Til next week!

I think this is what she’s talking about?

Read Part II here.

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