Television

In Ryan Murphy’s New Show, the Only Safe Place for a Gay Politician Is the Closet

The Politician flaunts its progressive signifiers, but its sexual politics are deeply conservative.

Ben Platt as Payton, standing at a podium in front of an American flag.
Ben Platt in The Politician.
Adam Rose/Netflix

The latest entry in Ryan Murphy’s overwrought canon (and the first show of his enormous Netflix deal) is The Politician, a series about Payton Hobart (Ben Platt), a young man who yearns to be president of the United States and has convinced himself he’s enough of a monster to get there. But it takes a lot to achieve that dream: a team of craven acolytes, a pair of wealthy and detached parents, and a hefty load of sexual repression.

From the first episode it’s clear that Payton is struggling with his sexuality, pulled out of his emotionless tunnel vision by the disarming advances of a high school jock who’s struggling with his own demons—demons that drive him to suicide in front of Payton. After that moment, the dead gay jock follows him like a shade, constantly bringing him back to humanity and reminding him to feel. But that’s exactly what Payton longs to avoid, pivoting quickly to how this death damages his campaign rather than reckoning with the feelings, and the relationship, he wants to put behind him.

Payton’s budding queerness is a pesky problem for his success, out of step with the narrative he’s spent his early years creating. There’s no room for homosexuality in his political narrative, so he’d better pummel it down and sublimate his feelings into the walking terror he appears to be. He doesn’t have time to deal with the pain of teenage loss when he’s got presidential aspirations.

Though The Politician plays with the signifiers of progressivism—queer, nonbinary, and trans people abound—it continues to push the idea that the winners are the ones who repress or hide these politically unmarketable traits in order to gain power. The Politician wants to be in conversation with other works of queer television like Insatiable and Heathers, but it never has the same confidence in its own queer future. Unlike in those series, there’s no celebration of queerness, and the gay isn’t empowering. It’s something meant to be kept private, out of the public eye. There’s no moment Payton considers that his sexuality might be an asset instead of a liability, no understanding of the political reality he’s coming up in where queerness is increasingly acceptable, even in a presidential candidate. Sure, Payton’s campaign ticks some boxes—his running mate is black, queer, and nonbinary—but that’s just to fill the quota. They take up the nonstandard part of his ticket so he can be the unblemished straight white savior he’s always envisioned himself as.

This all crystallizes in the final episode of the season—also the best—when Payton, now at New York University, is inspired to reignite his political dreams because a potential opponent for state Senate (Judith Light) has a dirty secret. She’s in a throuple. Gasp! We’re supposed to understand that this relationship is so radioactive that it would clearly tank her campaign if it ever got out, so Payton and Co. leap into action, aiming to take her down now that they’ve got the goss.

But this shift is beyond disappointing. We’ve just witnessed Payton’s past few months of drunken stupor, crooning to Billy Joel at Marie’s Crisis in Manhattan every night while seeing the face of his dead lover in all the busboys and bartenders. Rather than reckon with the deep hurt he continues to feel, he buries it when he finds out that his high school sweetheart Alice (Julia Schlaepfer) is getting married. It’s a jarring shift back to soullessness, with no hope for him as a lost queer trying to sort through his desire.

The solution to Payton’s problems is a return to the emptiness of politics, since there’s no space for the messiness of emotion when vying for public office. If there were any hint that Payton’s  relationship with Alice might be a political alliance with some sort of less conventional option on the table, that’d be different, but Murphy seems to want us to believe that gayness is still only feasible, at least on a national level, as a private experience. It’s something to be kept behind closed doors, rather than an exciting and empowering public possibility for a future we all long to live in.