The Drunk, Foul-Mouthed, Feminist Moral Compass of 'Political Animals'

Ellen Burstyn's character started out as comic relief, but then emerged as the show's surprising moral center.

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It was obvious within the first 20 minutes of Political Animals' first episode that the USA miniseries was a show that loved powerful women. Before the third commercial break, we'd watched Carla Gugino's calculating journalist Susan Berg verbally undercut Sigourney Weaver's Secretary of State Elaine Barrish in glittering, Pulitzer-quality prose, and we'd seen Elaine herself issue a bilingual dressing-down to an over-frisky Russian ambassador.

But of all the strong, complicated women on the show, it's a hard-drinking, twice-married single mom who stands out the most.

Seventy-nine-year-old actress Ellen Burstyn has orbited the main plotlines of the miniseries—which ended its six-episode run on Sunday night—in dazzling fashion as Margaret Barrish, the elderly, widowed mother of Sigourney Weaver's newly divorced Elaine. She began as little more than a source of tipsy, raunchy one-liners. But over the course of the six-episode miniseries, she's emerged into the show's unlikely moral center—and something of a rogue feminist role model, too.

In the 1980s, a question arose among feminists: How much can a woman afford to care for others before her autonomy is jeopardized? Paraphrasing feminist ethicist Sheila Mullett, theorists Rosemarie Tong and Nancy Williams wrote that for women, "To care too much is to risk being servile, [but] to care too little is to risk being so selfish that one's heart freezes along the way."

Political Animals is a show populated by women in search of the tiny margin in between those two unappealing extremes. Susan, for example, looks crestfallen when her editor and sometime boyfriend Alex admits he felt ignored, passed over in favor of her journalistic ambitions; similarly, after Elaine's son TJ overdoses, Elaine ruefully considers putting her own political ambitions to rest in order to care for him (and atone for not having done so in the past). Both women, it seems, cared too little about their loved ones. And yet, both women struggle to leave relationships with unfaithful partners, fighting the desire to continue steadfastly caring for men who don't care equally for them. Even Elaine's future daughter-in-law, Anne, who alters her career interests and conceals an eating disorder in an effort to simultaneously win the love of her fiancé, his mother, and the American public, seems to be blindly searching for that narrow, acceptable middle ground between unlikable egocentrism and frowned-upon subservience.

Margaret may be the only woman on the show who's found that balance. Margaret provides a glowing example of feminist ideals coexisting with warmth, empathy and loyalty. Margaret's love never compromises her empowerment: A weathered, longtime single mother, she ditched a destructive first husband to create a better life for herself and baby Elaine (a feat both Susan and Elaine could stand to emulate). But her autonomy never compromises her ability to care, either. After TJ's desperate attempt to fund his latest venture with money stolen from Margaret's purse, it's Margaret who brings TJ to see the error in his ways by issuing the sharp-tongued warning. "If you ever steal from me again, I will never speak to you as long as I live," she says. Then she places a sad, affectionate hand on her grandson's cheek.

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Ashley Fetters is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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