Payton Hobart (Ben Platt) of The Politician, on Netflix September 27, is not a real boy. Or at least that’s what the show’s opening credits lead us to believe. In the credits, a Payton-shaped wooden figurine animated by the powers of sheer single-minded ambition (and magical goo). Payton is more Pinocchio than person.
The elaborate opening credits show the making of a millennial monster. At the start of the sequence, a series of items are deliberately and carefully placed in wooden compartments. Instead of organs, Payton has debate team medals. Instead of a brain, he has a miniature White House. At the end, a heart is tossed into the center, and the entire treasure box is filled with black goo. After, Payton’s wooden body is shaped, sanded, and brought to life by an animated liquid of some sort.
No aspect of Payton’s character is spontaneous. These books, pins, and figurines are the making of his personality, carefully assembled to help him become the person he needs to be. Together, these prized objects form the picture of someone who never deviates from a Master Plan.
Payton’s final destination is the U.S. presidency. We’ll unpack all the things that help him get there. They’re at the core of him, literally.
There are two categories of objects in the opening credits. Some are possessions; things that Payton owns. Others are symbolic, representative of his situation in life. We’ll start with his stuff.
St. Sebastian High School Club Metals: Not only is Payton on the Debate Team and Model U.N. He’s really good at them, too.
Military Ribbons and Medals: Odds are, Payton collects these because he thinks they look presidential.
Presidential pins: We can see Payton affixing one of these pins from old presidential campaigns and feeling a rush of adrenaline.
Vintage Report Card: Payton got A’s in American Law, Abnormal Psych V, AP Intersectional Fluidity, Politicizing Beyonce, and Religious Studies. He got an A+ in History of Modern Sexuality, and D - in Mandarin II. That explains why he needs a tutor.
Pills: We don’t know what the colorful pills are for, but we know Payton is on them.
Diamonds: These diamonds are big enough to be used as a ball in a sport — or as Georgina Hobart’s (Gwyneth Paltrow) wedding ring.
The Last Will & Testament of Keaton Hobart: Payton’s father uses his will as a weapon. Are you in the will, or are you out (read in Heidi Klum’s Project Runway voice)?
Box of Matches: He’s ready to set the world on fire. Not.
Harvard Medal: Harvard is the next stop on Payton’s Master Plan.
Checkbook for the Bank of Santa Barbara: Payton can write checks as casually as I can write this article.
White House: Of course Payton has a mini White House in the spot where his brain should be. He only thinks about one thing.
A Sponge: Payton’s at the point in his life when he should be soaking up knowledge and experiences. But the sponge is dry, which means he’s not curious.
Silver Spoon: Payton wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth, an expression used to describe people with generational wealth. The spoon was put in his mouth after his biological mother put him up for adoption and he was adopted by one of the wealthiest families in the country.
Crying Crocodile Figurine: The term “crocodile tears” describes Payton’s whole personality: An insincere display of emotion. Crocodiles supposedly look like they’re crying when they consume their prey. But they’re not sorry. Payton is wholly self-serving.
Participant Trophy: The Participant Trophy is the emblem of the millennial generation’s greatest flaw, in the eyes of its critics: Millennials think they deserve praise, even when unearned.
Hobart Family Figurines: The credits contain a mini family saga. Payton’s scheming twin brothers are dragged out of the family unit. No spoilers!
Fake Tarot Card: The card says “La Vittima,” which means “the victim” in Italian. On the card, a man with many arms plays a mini violin, holds a sword, and crowns himself an angel. It’s an illustration of three different idioms: Becoming a martyr, falling on your own sword, and playing the smallest violin in the world. It’s an illustration of someone who wants other people to feel sorry for him.
A Bee Trapped in a Jar: Is that not a good metaphor for high school? Buzzing around, and crashing on the sides of a glass container?
Hashtag Ticker Tape: Up in Payton’s brain, a ticker tape prints out hashtags in a way that makes them seem meaningless. #Whatmattersrightnow, #resist, #MeToo. They’re buzzwords, said only to show other people that you’re on the “right team.” Payton doesn’t have beliefs. He stands for what’s “in.”
A Worn-Out, Tiny Pink Heart: Whether or not this tiny, pink object counts as a heart — the symbolic center of love and empathy and human goodness — is up for debate.
The Reading List
The Emperor’s Handbook by Marcus Aurelius: a series of essays by Marcus Aurelius, who served as Roman Empire from 161 to 180 AD. Payton likely bought this book because it has “emperor” in the title, but hasn’t cracked it open yet. Aurelius is concerned with how to live a fulfilling life while remaining virtuous. Payton’s mind is far from virtue.
Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey: One of the seven main points in this very famous self help book is, “Begin with the end in mind.” That is so Payton.
English-Mandarin Dictionary: Payton and River didn’t get around to much studying, considering Payton got a D- on his report card.
Rules for Radicals by Saul Alinsky: It’s surprising that Payton has Saul Alinsky’s 1971 manual for radically disrupting the political system on his shelf, considering he uses presidents’ past lives as a guide to becoming president himself. That’s establishment multiplication.
How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie: This self-help book has sold over 15 million copies. You could say it’s won a lot of friends and influenced a lot of people, including Payon.
Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain: The sole work of fiction on Payton’s shelf, Huckleberry Finn is a classic about a 13-year-old boy and a runaway slave’s trip down the Mississippi River.
Unmasking the Face: A Guide to Recognizing Emotions From Facial Expressions by Paul Ekman and Wallace V. Friesen: Ah, so this is the book Payton uses to pretend he has emotions.
The Bible: He probably bought one for his religion class.
Idiot’s Guide to Clowning: If all else fails, Payton can become a clown. He’s already a performer.
Finally, there are books by past U.S. presidents, both Democrats and Republicans. Payton cares less about who they are, and more about how they got there.
The Theme Song
The refrain “all things go, all things go” is probably stuck in your head now. Sufjan Stevens’ “Chicago” is The Politician’s theme song. At first, the moody song about a kid on an aimless road trip seems to be an unusual choice for the show. After all, Payton’s path is fixed, not long and winding. Payton would probably prefer the Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song” to set the mood for his triumphant political journey.
Then, things fall apart.
In the sixth episode, “Chicago” plays in the car radio as Payton drives along the highway. By that point, Payton understands that he has a narrow and naive understanding of his future. A person doesn’t become president simply by checking off a list of boxes.
“I made a lot of mistakes,” Stevens sings later on in the song. “All things grow.” Including, unbelievably, Payton.