The Politician's season 1 finale begins with a big jump forward in time, and sets up an exciting new political campaign for Payton Hobart (Ben Platt) in season 2. Created by Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan as part of Murphy's five-year overall deal with Netflix, The Politician follows a fiercely ambitious high school senior who plans to become student body president, go on to Harvard, and eventually become President of the United States.
Payton is the biological son of a cocktail waitress who was adopted into a wealthy family. He's read the biography of every modern president from Reagan onwards and thinks he's figured out the formula for success, but even winning an election at Saint Sebastian High School proves to be an uphill struggle in The Politician season 1. His running mate, Infinity Jackson (Zoey Deutch), whom Payton chose because he thought her cancer would get sympathy votes, turns out to not have cancer at all. Instead, her grandmother, Dusty Jackson (Jessica Lange), has Munchausen by proxy, and has deliberately been making Infinity sick to get attention and free stuff.
This cover-up sets off a domino effect of disasters that ultimately leads to Payton's downfall. Though he wins the election by default when his opponent, Astrid (Lucy Boynton), drops out of the race on voting day, he later learns that the votes were counted and he would have actually lost. When the truth comes out that he knew Infinity didn't had cancer, Payton is forced to resign as student body president and loses his place at Harvard. He's also disowned by his adoptive father when his adoptive mother, Georgina (Gwyneth Paltrow) makes plans to run away and live with a stable master whom she fell in love with. Stripped of wealth and power, it seems like Payton's dream of becoming the president is over. Or is it?
The Politician's Season Finale Jumps Forward In Time
When we meet Payton again at the start of The Politician's season 1 finale, "Vienna," he's a piano player and singer in a New York City bar, musing aloud to the patrons about whether he's lived in the city long enough to call himself a New Yorker. That's how we learn that Payton has lived in New York for three years and is currently attending NYU, meaning that it's been three to four years since he said goodbye to Georgina at the airport. Though losing all his hopes and dreams has allowed Payton to fully experience his emotions, the downside is that he's coping with those emotions by drinking heavily - much to the despair of his old friend and campaign advisor James (Theo Germaine) who shares a dorm room with Payton.
Surprisingly, Payton has forgiven his former vice president Skye (Rahne Jones) for that time she fed him a cupcake laced with rat poison, and she is visiting him in New York along with Infinity, who wrote a book about being a victim of Munchausen by proxy. Meanwhile, Payton's former First Lady, Alice (Julia Schlaepfer), is getting married to a Harvard man, and Payton's attempt to win her back by sobering up and going to visit her ends in rejection. Payton's only comfort is that he's still being haunted by his old flame River (David Corenswet), who shot himself in front of Payton in the season premiere, and now acts as a ghostly confidant and moral compass. Just when it looks like Payton's political career is dead in the water, however, a new opportunity presents itself.
Dede Standish is Payton's New Political Opponent For Season 2
When The Politician's season finale takes a sudden left turn to introduce new characters Dede Standish (Judith Light) and Hadassah Gold (Bette Midler), it seems like they're completely unconnected to the rest of the story. Dede is the majority leader of the New York State Senate, who gets a surprising offer from handsome Texan Senator-Elect Tino McCutcheon (Sam Jaeger): he's planning to run for President, and he wants her as his running mate. With Dede's eyes now on a new prize, and having run her last three election campaigns unopposed, it's little wonder that her campaign office is an understaffed dead zone that still uses computers with Windows 98.
Enter McAfee (Laura Drefuss), Payton's old friend and campaign advisor, who gets a job as a campaign staffer for Standish, only to discover that her biggest responsibility will be sticking addresses on mailers. When begging Hadassah to let her run the campaign properly is met with derision, McAfee comes up with a new idea: she'll run a campaign alright, but in opposition to Standish. And the opponent will be none other than Payton Hobart.
Payton at first refuses to consider getting back into politics, so McAfee and Theo call up all of his old friends (and enemies) to let them know that he will be running for the state Senate. Astrid has dirt on Standish, since she knows the current Senator is in a three-way marriage. Alice abandons her own wedding to be Payton's partner once again. Even Skye joins Payton's campaign (hopefully she won't poison him this time). With the team assembled, Payton agrees to run against Standish and makes a fiery speech announcing his campaign, hitting his opponent hard for wasting money on patching over the MTA's problems instead of fixing them. Watching the speech, Hadassah declares, "We're going to eat him alive" - clearly setting up a second season where Payton will be running a new campaign, this time in the big leagues.
Does Payton Really Still Have a Shot At Becoming President?
Payton's fear of transgressions during his high school campaign putting a permanent end to his chances of becoming president might seem silly, but in a time when dirt from decades ago can come back to haunt a candidate, they're actually justified. After the truth comes out about Infinity, James tells Payton that this is worse than any scandal any recent president has had, and that his train is off the tracks with no hope of recovery. In the season finale, however, James and McAfee convince Payton that he still has a shot at the presidency if he manages to beat Standish.
They could be right. While knowingly garnering sympathy points for a running mate who doesn't actually have cancer is a hard thing to recover from, the one thing that might just overshadow it is defeating a 13-year incumbent like Standish before Payton has even graduated from college. The set-up for The Politician season 2 may have been inspired by real-life congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who at the age of 28 defeated 10-year incumbent and Democratic Caucus Chair Joe Crowley. Netflix documentary Knock Down the House features a memorable scene where Ocasio-Cortez is looking through one of Crowley's mailers and is decidedly unimpressed, which reflects McAfee's reaction to Standish's campaign. Just as Ocasio-Cortez caught Crowley off-guard with a campaign that got apathetic voters fired up, Payton could do the same to Standish next season.
Of course, the big question is whether or not Payton can defeat Standish, especially since it probably won't take long for Hadassah to uncover the fact that his last political campaign ended in disgrace. The secret of Standish's three-way marriage could end up being used not as a bombshell to discredit her, but as a weapon of mutually-assured destruction: if the Standish campaign attacks Payton over what he did in high school, he'll tell the voters that she's in a polyamorous relationship with two bisexual men. That might not be enough to kill her career in New York, but it would definitely end her chances of becoming vice-president.
The REAL Meaning of The Politician Season 1's Ending
One of the big questions posed by The Politician is whether or not Payton is a good person and, more importantly, whether or not he's the best person to be a political leader. Payton says that it doesn't matter whether or not he's a good person, only that he does good things, but he does a lot of bad things in service of winning his campaign, from going to River's house to yell at him, to cynically looking for a "token" running mate, to covering up the secret of Infinity's fake cancer. Basically, he's the perfect politician: believing wholeheartedly that his rightful place is in power, and willing to do just about anything to get there.
When Payton does get into power, however, his shortcomings are revealed. His tenure as student body president is lackluster, characterized by unrealistic plans to eliminate plastic straws and replace water fountains that are shot down by the school board and leave Skye so despairing that she poisons him in an attempt to get him out of the way. To make matters worse, he learns that he couldn't even run a campaign for student body president successfully, as Astrid ended up getting more votes than him. None of this bodes particularly well for his chances at becoming president of the whole country, or what he would do if he ever got the job.
What The Politician season 1's ending does capture is Payton's ability to inspire others to believe in him. By the time he's standing on the steps announcing his new campaign, he has a team of people behind him that includes former enemies. His final conversation with River also highlights how his perspective has changed; he no longer believes that it's his destiny to become president, but rather than he's one of those men who "when the world needs them, answer the call."
Of course, that's still pretty self-aggrandizing (even if it is coming from a hallucination of an ex-lover). Whether Payton's second campaign will be any different from the first, or whether his ego and anxieties will be his undoing once again, remains to be seen. Either way, he's still a long way away from the presidency - and there's a lot that could still go wrong.