Clinton’s primetime soap opera reaches its finale

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
Photos: John Raoux/AP; Lynne Sladky/AP

We’ve finally arrived at sweeps week in the televised event posing as our presidential election. And if American viewers can’t quite bring themselves to click away from Donald Trump’s vulgar and monotonous reality show, it’s probably because they’ve had all they can take of the cloying, predictable soap opera that keeps rerunning on the other channel.

By now, everyone gets the plotline of “Dynasty: NYC.” A couple of unknown country-dwellers who once clawed their way to the pinnacle of power — only to get old and lose their grip — are now on the verge of a shocking restoration, thanks to the wife’s tenacity and ambition.

The only thing standing in their way is the narcissistic billionaire driven by a thirst for legitimacy — and, it turns out, the ne’er-do-well husband of the wife’s closest confidante, who all this time has been sitting on a hard drive full of explosive new revelations!

(Or maybe he’s just sitting on a bunch of emails about who’s got the dry cleaning and which cereal he wants to eat while lounging around in his underwear perusing Twitter all day long. We really have no idea. That’s the cliffhanger.)

I know, it all sounds a little too trite and ridiculous, even for network TV. But somehow the suits who program this stuff were at a total loss to come up with anything remotely new or compelling in the time slot, so here we are.

There are plenty of villains for our power couple to blame in this “Dynasty” remake. There’s the garish billionaire, of course, and the sexually deviant almost-son-in-law. And now we’ve got this maddening G-man who seems bent on derailing our female protagonist, mainly because he’s the kind of Boy Scout who would chokehold a jaywalker if he happened to witness the crime.

But somehow our main characters never seem to grasp that the core of their problems lies in their own tragic flaws. We never see them reflect or genuinely regret anything. They just repeat the same mistakes, over and over.

You see, the backstory here is that our characters are the emblems of their sprawling generation — the most powerful tandem to have been molded by the transformative social movements of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Theirs was a generation that embraced the ideal of public service, squaring its shoulders first against war and inequality, and then against corruption at the highest level of government.

From the start, they believed themselves to be sacrificing for the cause. They were doing good for the world, and if you were doing good for the world, then the means by which you accumulated and kept power weren’t really so consequential.

None of these moralizing critics, always portrayed in our story as craven and feckless, had any right to judge. What were they doing to help humanity, anyway?

In Arkansas, our heroes learned to compromise on their youthful principles — liberalism, feminism, pacifism. They learned the necessity of artifice, in order to keep a firm hold on the levers of government.

Long before email existed, they became expert at separating their public and private selves.

Cries of deception followed them everywhere. Their staged traditionalism, their cautious maneuvering, would incense the conservatives who saw them as symbols of cultural upheaval, even as it disgusted the liberals who saw them as shiftless.

In a sense, our besieged protagonists were the inverse of the Bushes or the Kennedys or the Roosevelts, people who amassed vast fortunes and came to believe they owed something to society in return. Our heroes were paying their debt up front. They expected something down the line, when the good work was over.

Except the good work was never over. Instead, as they barreled their way into old age, ambition became mixed with money, altruism with entitlement. They were no different from a lot of the activists of their generation, those who rose to power as reformers of the democracy, only to make millions off lobbying shops and direct mail.

They wanted to be both good and great, both selfless and wealthy. Theirs was a generation of Americans that didn’t believe in difficult choices.

Stung by criticism, by the constant intimations of their moral impurity, our couple walled themselves off behind a small coterie of loyalists. Inevitably, some of those loyalists, too, mixed public business with private profit, moving to make their own fortunes off all the good work they were doing.

Sooner or later, what the main characters do in these shows always filters down to the supporting cast.

Ultimately, it’s all the secrecy and entitlement — more than any outright corruption — that’s now plunged the wife into another existential cloud of scandal. It’s her refusal to risk being truly seen, her determination to project one reality while safeguarding another.

She did not feel she owed anyone a full accounting of her insular world, preserved on government servers. She had already submitted herself to a lifetime’s worth of scrutiny. She was offering herself up to do more good for the world, and that was all we needed to know.

Someone should have told her, of course, that whatever discomfort might arise from transparency would be nothing compared with the fallout from more imperiousness. But the supporting actors wouldn’t tell her, or couldn’t.

When foreign agents somehow hacked into the internal emails of her closest aides in a recent episode (a plot twist someone at the network really should have flagged as too fantastical to be believed), what we found out was that her loyalists were more thoughtful and more exasperated than we might have guessed. They knew the peril of her paranoia, her intransigence, her expedience.

But by then our protagonist had grown too defensive to be challenged. Her public apologies felt tinny. Apparently no one in the inner circle had either the courage or the standing to tell her the truth.

And the truth is this: It isn’t your ideological enemies, one phalanx after another of zombie-like haters, who are to blame for the latest near-death experience. It isn’t a news media that yearns to attach the word “gate” to every story it sees. It isn’t the vile, misogynist billionaire, or the sad, loudmouthed sexter you once called family, or the latest in a long line of colorless prosecutors.

It’s the ammunition you keep handing them all. It’s the sense of infallibility and victimhood that creeps into every poor decision. It’s the inability to accept the realities of public life that foreclose certain protections, whether you like it or not.

Now the season finale approaches. Probably the protagonist and her husband will be renewed for another installment, their billionaire foe vanquished, the height of their power regained. Possibly not.

What we do know, though, is that in successful dramas, great characters always have to evolve. Absent that, a depressing sameness sets in, and the next chapter is bound to feel too much like the last.