Synopsis: Cole opens up about his past, while Samuels must deal with the consequences of hers.
Local references: "The Capitol won't allow us to put any banners up," notes a campaign staffer about difficulties with an upcoming rally, an oblique reference to the 2011 Wisconsin Capitol protests and subsequent directives from the state Department of Administration regarding protest signage in the building and on its grounds; "Badger Red" apparel; and, that trusty old Ancora steel tumbler.
Local landmarks: The opening montage and its sequence of b-roll featuring iconic vistas and streetscapes around Madison; the common local sight of a food cart being towed behind a truck; multiple shots of Capitol Square.
Locals seen onscreen: Actor Chad Grote, a regular player in Four Seasons Theatre productions; Arica Leonard, sister to Hollywood actress Laura Ramsey, who guest-starred in episode 10; improv artist and actor Paul Guse, host of "Smarter Than You Trivia" and a costar of Chad Vader; improv artist and actor Brad Knight, cofounder of and performer in the Monkey Business Institute improv troupe, and a costar of Chad Vader; and, Madison-based playwright and actor Sam White.
Memorable characters: Cole Graner, the lovelorn on-and-off-and-on again Samuels speechwriter and apparent future inmate or patient at some sort of institution, finally gets his moment in the spotlight when he connects with Gretchen Cowler, a White House staffer who is in town to help organize a rally with the President. Sitting down to work together on its stagecraft, they quickly start flirting via verbal sparring. "I just don't buy you as a fighter," quips Gretchen. "Yeah," parries Cole, "that's just sort of how I grew up."
Review: When it comes to holidays in Madison, there's really nothing like Halloween. Nobody's out of town to visit family or on break, costumes abound among adults at work as well as with kids at school, parties are ubiquitous, football reigns supreme, and there's an air of mirth throughout. When it precedes a big Election Day, the atmosphere is even more charged, as the season of politics crescendos simultaneously with the annual All Hallows revelry. That's the setting for this penultimate episode of Battleground, in which its theme of loves won and lost on the campaign trail really starts to sing.
"[The] Craig Loudon press conference had become national news. We started dropping in the polls. It was depressing." So notes Samuels campaign volunteer Ben Werner (Ben Samuel) about the fallout from affair disclosed at the end of episode 11 in an opening flash forward interview clip. As usual in these segments, he is sitting next to fellow staffer Lindsey Cutter (Lindsey Payne), and it's pretty clear they're married. A twist on the whole "will they or won't they" trope, the story of how they came to be a couple has unfolded as a primary storyline through the entire season.
Back to the campaign for U.S. Senate. It's Halloween morning, and Ben, sporting a wizard's hat and staff, is waiting for a bus, listening to other commuters talk about the scandal. Who should pull up but campaign manager Tak Davis (Jay Hayden) shouting "Hogwarts!" and offering his protégé a ride to the office. They arrive, and in a familiar sequence, Tak shares his political wisdom as they cross the parking lot. In response, Ben jests about casting a spell, and bringing their friendship full circle from pilot, Tak asks if he'll be staying in character all day and warns him to "watch out for the cat."
Once inside, Tak is intercepted by Lindsey, costumed as Dorothy Gale, who delivers a deluge of messages -- about interview requests from national media, about a call from a senator from New York, and about the logistics of a major campaign rally the president is scheduled to attend. Tak takes on that last issue first, and tasks Ben and Lindsey with tending the campaign camper overnight while it's parked by the Capitol. The pair accepts, but there's a hitch; hassles from police in the "back pocket" of rival candidate Gov. Creighton are certain. "You... shall... not... tow!" chants Ben, pounding his staff on the floor à la Gandalf.
As always, Tak is juggling multiple issues, the latest of which is a suit who just arrived from D.C. White House staffer Gretchen Cowler (Elizabeth Triplett, who is also a co-producer of the program) was sent to Madison by "Ax" (a reference to Obama advisor David Axelrod) to lend a hand with the rally. Her first priority: to get rally attendees to wear Wisconsin cardinal, in part because "Michelle looks good in red." Cowler is the second political advisor to descend from the national level to stick their nose into the campaign; the first was Carlton Haysbrook (Charlie Hewson), an intrusive staffer sent by the DNC.
Halloween is about to get even scarier for Tak, though, as candidate Deirdre Samuels (Meighan Gerachis) gets set give a press conference about her affair. Except it's not really a press conference, as Samuels, in agreement with Haysbrook and her husband George Mosley (Sam White), will not be taking any questions. "Looking back on it now, Tak and I should have walked," says campaign media chief KJ (Teri Reeves) in an interview clip.
Yup, the presser gets FUBAR the moment the no questions dictate is announced. As the candidate starts reading her statement, a pair of incredulous reporters (Brad Knight and Paul Guse) start lobbing questions and comments, an instant reaction to her boilerplate. "Respect goes both ways" exclaims one. "Why did you get into husbands?" asks another. It's hilarious, and another embarrassment for Samuels and her husband.
While the campaign is exposing the past failures of one relationship, it is also kindling the first flames of another. Ben and Lindsey have spent a lot of time working together out on the trail, but here their assignment is simply sit tight in the camper, together, overnight. Ben, unassuming and oftentimes nervous around his would-be sweetheart, has come prepared with a loaded picnic basket. His growth in confidence both personally and as a political operative has been a primary character arc of the season, and revealing the assured Ben seen in the interview clips.
Conversely, not showing any personal growth, campaign mascot Jordan T. Mosley (Jordan T. Maxwell) continues strafing fellow staffers and volunteers with blasts of nosiness and nerdrage. Costumed in a frilly-collared Dracula getup (aspiring to but not quite achieving the ridiculousness of Shawn Spencer's Lestat on Psych), he pontificates about Comic-Con and finds himself baited with contrarian opinions about the qualities of Back to the Future Part III and Jar Jar Binks. "He's better than television," remarks Ali Laurents (Alison Haislip), the purposefully inscrutable campaign techie-wisecracker. She directs him to the camper, whereupon arriving to the clear disapproval of both Ben and Lindsey, he proceeds to scavenge from the picnic basket and regale them with his drollery.
Keeping with the late-season scope of the episode, Battleground creator and showrunner J.D. Walsh makes another of his on-screen appearances. He plays "J.D.," the documentarian following the campaign. Typically initiated by a character breaking the fourth wall, oftentimes in a confrontational manner, J.D. then jumps en scène to defuse the situation. Here, he stands chest to chest with an ornery police officer (F. David Roth) demanding that the camera be shut off, after it captures the cop trying to intimidate Ben and Lindsey, and by extension the campaign, with trumped up parking rule violations.
Loitering tickets are the reward the pair receive for not backing down, while Jordan avoids a citation by hiding in the camper. With that, both Ben and Lindsey have had enough, and ask him to get lost. "Coolio... no big... whatevs," Jordan replies, and with that, he's outtie. So too, are J.D. and crew, after Ben directs them to leave and shuts the camper door to finally secure an uninterrupted spell with his love to be.
Back at the campaign headquarters, speechwriter Cole Graner (Jack De Sena) is likewise feeling his groove, working with White House liaison Gretchen to identify constituents with compelling stories to join the president on stage at the looming rally. The pair lounge on the office floor and start working, and swiftly end up sharing some of their own. Initially bonding over their experiences growing up on opposite sides of Chicago's urban-suburban divide, Cole tells a tale of youthful fisticuffs, and the consequences that ensued.
Campaigns are a setting for romance in this story, but they're also serious business, particularly when the provincial maneuvering intersects with the rarefied air of the West Wing. Staffers find themselves being offered and losing new opportunities in a heartbeat, and the candidate seems like just another player on the field. But with her numbers foundering in these final days, Samuels moves to reassert her authority with both interlopers from D.C., all while fortifying herself to come clean about the affair in a national interview.
As night falls on Halloween in Madison, the camera returns one more time to the camper parked by the Capitol. Peering in through a window, it finds Lindsey curled up next to Ben, who is reading her a tale of chivalry. It's his big moment, a campaign success no matter the outcome of the election.
Hulu has debuted a dozen episodes of Battleground so far, and only one remains in this premiere season. Given that most episodes follow "a day in the life of the campaign" structure, it would stand to reason that the finale will focus on the drama of Election Day. But, there's also that big rally with the president coming up, a sequence that would make sense as the centerpiece of an episode, particularly given how Walsh has discussed shooting it with a football Saturday at Camp Randall as the backdrop. Is there enough room for both? Might viewers be served a cliffhanger or some kind of twist, setting up a potential second season?
Battleground, the first original scripted series from Hulu, was shot in Madison by Hollywood filmmaker and former Madisonian JD Walsh. New episodes premiere on Tuesdays through May 8. The dramedy follows young staffers running a Wisconsin politician's underdog campaign for U.S. Senate.
Did you watch the episode? Spot more Madison references or people? Share your thoughts in the comments.