Despite an opportunity to explore multiple storylines regarding governmental malfeasance, corruption and immorality, Boss never seems interested in straying too far from its central conceit that a man in power losing his mind is somehow a more appealing avenue to take. Still, in the show’s defense, the affliction destroying Mayor Tom Kane (Kelsey Grammer) has been mostly understated, and sometimes even poignantly observed thus far. Now, with season 2 reaching the halfway mark, the series decides all that can go out the window, and lets loose with an episode aptly titled ‘Mania.’
There are several key issues clamoring for attention during the episode’s runtime that, though consistent in a way, ultimately undermine the efficacy of what the series is desperately hoping to communicate, and the result winds up augmenting some of Boss’ already lewd and lascivious tendencies to the point of making them laughable. The appeal of depicting mental illness or degenerative brain disorders onscreen has been widely documented – just look at past winners of Academy Awards and you’ll see why writers, actors and directors are so keen on putting their vision of said illness on the screen. At a certain point – and especially with a television series – if the highs and lows aren’t managed with some kind of compelling buffer story, then what is left begins to quickly wear thin.
To its credit, Boss does try; the Lennox Gardens business has gone from a sticky situation to all out war in an episode’s time, but strangling contractors in retaliation for putting in the lowest bid is only so captivating – and pay-cable has been filled with sordid story elements like this since the late ’90s. And the star-crossed lover story between drug-addled Emma (Hannah Ware) and her drug-dealing boyfriend Darius (Rotimi) isn’t really going anywhere – besides, the idea of Emma being locked up in a house with the parents she detests is a far more interesting angle for the series, but beyond a few terse words and an unpleasant dinner conversation, that apparently hasn’t captivated the show’s writers.
‘Mania’ starts out interesting enough: Kane delivers a massive blow to those who would not play ball on one simple project and has corruption charges brought up against several union leaders, aldermen and ward bosses. The immediate effect is for everyone to begin questioning Kane’s timing and wonder what exactly he hopes to gain by “lopping heads” in such a manner. Mona Fredricks (Sanaa Lathan) and Ian Todd (Jonathan Groff), too, are left wondering what Kane is hoping to achieve, but despite their continual head-butting, seem to be on the same page – at least when it comes to the idea of serving the mayor.
Meanwhile, Kane’s answering only to the ever vigilant hallucination of Ezra Stone (Martin Donovan), and he, along with Grammer, seem to be the only two getting a kick out of how wildly off the rails the episode continues to get. Stone has gone from near-silent reminder of Kane’s own culpability to in-your-face loon with grabby hands who barely lets anyone get a word in edgewise. Even though, or as a result of his being dead, it’s nearly a more compelling role than he had in season 1. But while Kane is attempting to impress Mona by making wild promises to banks in an effort to move foreclosures through, he takes two steps back alternately snapping or laughing at Ezra, who manages to undermine a simple negotiation between the mayor and a judge regarding said foreclosures.
The aftermath of Ezra’s obstruction sees Kane rely on Todd to issue a mea culpa to the judge – which results in Boss using sex as a motivator, both with its characters and a means by which it may progress the story. Naturally, no one is immune; Kitty (Kathleen Robertson), Sam Miller (Troy Garity) and, of course, the libidinous Ben Zajac (Jeff Hephner) all have run-ins with the issue at one point or another. Curiously, Zajac’s motivator is his wife – which may be the first time in the series the increasingly hapless gubernatorial candidate has engaged in such activity with Maggie (Nicole Forester). Meanwhile Miller is seduced, unsuccessfully, by Kitty in an effort to leak photos to the Chicago Sentinel that will effectively cripple Zajac’s campaign.
Miller had been asked to put aside his journalistic integrity once before when he deposed the former Sentinel editor, and again, though to a lesser degree, when he took the name of Meredith’s alleged shooter from Kitty in exchange for some increasingly suggestive behavior. This time, though, Miller’s looking to play the straight arrow when it comes to getting scoops directly from the office of Senator Walsh (Amy Morton) and refuses both the damning evidence against Zajac and Kitty’s more personal offer. In the end, Kitty gets the evidence in another paper and masterfully pulls the trigger on illicit photos of Zajac and Alderman Ross’ wife being released just as Zajac’s town hall debate in Cook County begins.
The ensuing fallout leaves Zajac not only without his wife and his campaign manager, but also without a shot at the Illinois governorship. As a result, Kane is in a state of disbelief (and with $500k down the drain), as his manic state begins to subside and reveal the more temperamental and angry side of the mayor that’s previously been on display. After throwing a very public tantrum over a pothole, Kane speeds off in his Town Car – his destination unknown, even to Ezra.
With the second half of the season ahead, there’s hope this episode was as temporary as the state of mind it looked to draw inspiration from. In the future, the series, like it’s main character, needs to ask: In this pursuit of prestige, when will enough be enough?
Boss continues next Friday with ‘Backflash’ @9pm on Starz.