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

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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.

Margaret's exemplary qualities don't end there.

Margaret's fidelity to her loved ones, and her willingness to forgive and help them up when they fail her, stand out as especially exemplary against their backdrop: a show whose dramatic machinery is often fueled by the poisonous lies women (and men) tell. And her refusal to partake in the other characters' many mind games is what makes her one of the most likable characters on the show.

Acting as the gruff, tough-love voice of reason, it's Margaret who first punctures Elaine's presidential-aspirations bubble, pointing out to her daughter that mounting a campaign while her family is heading for a breakdown might not be such a wise parenting move after all. (Or, in other words, pointing out that maybe she can't have it all.) It is Margaret who, even before his extramarital womanizing becomes a plot point, tirelessly continues to warn President Bud Hammond to keep his dealings above the table. "Keep walking, Bud," she warns in sotto voce as Bud stops to sign a chesty female fan's campaign pin.

And it is Margaret who finally voices the concern I, and probably a number of other viewers, have harbored for Anne since the pilot: "Don't do it to yourself, honey," she says to her bulimic future granddaughter-in-law. "I was a showgirl. You think I don't know what some of the girls had to do to fit into our skimpy costumes? ... There's a lot of looking the other way in this family, but not by me." Margaret is the single character on the show willing to voice the concerns and hushed resentments that hang in the air between the other characters—and she makes it her mission to do so, one affectionate "you little shit" at a time.

Political Animals' bread and butter, of course, is its high-powered female protagonists' adept jockeying among loyalties, nimbly deceiving their colleagues (and one another) to serve their own career interests. Phony alliances, to be sure, are a key ingredient for great TV drama. But Margaret's allegiances are unflagging. She takes on the arduous task of addict-proofing TJ's room. She later lovingly but begrudgingly bestows her blessing on Elaine's campaign, too, acknowledging that her daughter's motivations are noble ones. "You'd be miserable if you didn't go for it," she adds. "And when you're miserable, we're all miserable."

Loyalty, forgiveness, and warmth are qualities that don't appear often enough in shows about strong women. In real life, strong women in positions of authority can and often do possess those virtues—but you might not know it from watching TV shows about them.

Political Animals is a good start. Greg Berlanti's miniseries shows what powerful women and compassionate women can learn from each other—and that the two aren't always such different animals.

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Ashley Fetters is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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