Burden recounts just how strange the events of the past week have been—he finds that he is emotionally affected by Irwin’s death and by the news that Irwin was his biological father, but he knows, also, that he has a job to do for Willie, and before long he reports back to the Boss that the Boss will now need to find a new angle in order to pressure MacMurfee into giving up his Senate bid. After thinking on it for about a week, Willie decides that he knows what to do—he will in fact, against his best wishes, give the building contract for the free hospital, for six million dollars, to Gummy Larson, who can use political leverage to get MacMurfee to withdraw his Senate bid in favor of Willie’s. This quid pro quo violates Willie’s desire that the free hospital be free of scandal and bribery, but it allows Willie to retain his shot at the Senate.
Willie is forced into a position he never wished to contemplate. He seems less concerned with the idea that the Judge killed himself, perhaps considering this the cost of playing hardball and doing business in the dirty game of politics. But Jack is too dazed to know what to do, and asks for a respite from the sorts of political machinations have throttled the Stark administration. As will be seen soon, however, Willie is unable to let his dream go without a fight, and when he loses the hope he has placed in his son, he is more willing to go back on his promise and save his other “baby,” the hospital.
Meanwhile, after Irwin’s death, Jack has asked that his portfolio of assignments for Willie be limited to issues of policy, rather than of “politicking” or influence-trading. Willie places Jack in charge of developing a tax bill that will redistribute income in the state and help the poor—Jack spends weeks in the library researching how the bill might work, and one day, after a particularly long stint of research, he heads to the governor’s mansion to present his recommendations to Willie. But Jack finds that Gummy Larson and Tiny Duffy are already there—and Willie appears drunk and upset, while Duffy and Gummy are acting triumphant.
Jack goes back to his bread-and-butter, which is the act of researching, of placing together careful policy plans and avoiding the kind of dangerous human contact that hurts people’s feeling and, in the case of the judge, ruins lives. Jack understands, too, that by continuing to work for Willie, he will never be very far from influence peddling and all the other dirty sides of politics—the parts that Anne and Adam didn’t want anything to do with, back in the day.
Jack realizes that Duffy and Gummy have achieved what they’ve always wanted—the lucrative contract to the free hospital, which Willie considered his untarnished political dream—a project that came not through bribery or influence-trading but through Willie’s earnest desire to help the people. Willie drunkenly raves in front of Burden, Duffy, and Gummy, all of whom are mostly silent—Willie then orders Duffy and Gummy away, saying he’ll do business with them, but he won’t respect them or like them. Jack tries to comfort Willie, but Willie vows to “crush” his political opponents using all the powers of his office.
Willie’s drunkenness in this scene is a truly pathetic spectacle, in the Greek sense of pathos, or the total identification on the part of the reader or audience with the plight of the afflicted. Willie has placed his hopes and dreams into the hospital, yet his desire of total political control of Louisiana, and his wish to eliminate the problems created by his son, forces him to go back on one of the few principles that is absolutely important to him.
But another terrible event occurs which throws off Jack’s and Willie’s plans, and which Jack acknowledges to be the event that bring about, through its consequences and ramifications, Willie’s downfall. At a football game where Tom has been put in—the hopes of the LSU squad lie firmly on Tom’s shoulders—Tom takes an especially hard hit and is knocked out cold. When Tom does not get up, the stadium realizes he has been seriously hurt, and he is carted off to the locker room. Jack, who has been sitting with Willie, worries about Tom’s condition, as does Willie himself, but Willie also wants to present an image of confidence, and so waits until the end of the game to meet Tom at the hospital where Adam works (not the free hospital but the “old” hospital).
One of the last of the great dramatic events in the novel, with Willie’s murder being the final. Tom’s violent demise, which then takes place slowly over the course of many weeks in the hospital, is perhaps a mythic encapsulation of the way he lived his life—quickly, without very much concern for those around him, and with essentially a kind of reckless abandon. Willie’s desire to wait for part of the game to check on his son indicates his desire simply to make the problem go away—but this is a problem he cannot fix.
Lucy joins Willie at the hospital—she has been living apart from Willie, still, but recognizes that this moment that the family ought to be together, and she is desperately worried about Tom’s condition. Adam, who has been attending to Tom himself, comes out to the waiting room to report to Willie, Lucy, and Jack that Tom’s spinal cord has been partially crushed, meaning there is a very real chance he might not even survive his accident—and that, if he does, he will be paralyzed for life from the next down. Willie is devastated by this news, and Lucy, too. Willie begins placing all his hope in a Dr. Burnham, being flown in from the east coast, a respected neurosurgeon who is Tom’s best chance at recovery, via emergency surgery.
Tom, as it turns out, has been paralyzed in brutal fashion, and Willie now desires that the doctors move with a kind of swiftness and assuredness Willie himself practices when making decisions in the capitol. The problem, of course, is that medicine cannot be solved by bribery or by back-room dealing—if Tom is to survive, it will be because of luck and the surgeon’s skill. And these are the best surgeons in the region, meaning that, for Tom, his good luck simply ran out—his charmed lifestyle could not last forever, considering his reckless behavior and courting of danger.
While Tom is undergoing this emergency procedure, Jack talks with Sadie in the hospital—who is largely unmoved by Tom’s state, since she feels that Tom was placing himself in harms way by playing such a dangerous sport—and with Anne on the phone. Anne is truly devastated by Tom’s condition, not the least because she is worried about how this news will affect Willie. Jack, Willie, and Lucy wait in the waiting room until Drs. Burnham and Stanton emerge, with the news that there was nothing that could be done in emergency surgery—Tom’s life has been spared, for now, although his condition is still perilous, but the spinal cord was crushed and could not be repaired, and he will be paralyzed.
Anne cares a great deal for Willie, and seems to recognize, here, that Willie will never be the same again after this colossal injury to Tom. But Anne notably does not try to get in touch with Willie, understanding that this is a moment for Willie to be with Lucy—instead, Anne resorts to the only person she knows to talk to, Jack, who, despite his anger at Anne’s and Willie’s affair, nevertheless continues to be Anne’s friend and confidant.
Willie is led away by Lucy, who tells him he needs to rest, having been awake for more than 24 hours. The next Monday, in the office, Willie is bombarded with flowers and notes of sympathy from politicians and big-wigs from around the state, but he is inconsolable over Tom—whom he essentially considers to have died, despite Tom’s lingering state between life and death. Now that Willie seems freed from all concern, since he has lost the great hope he had in his son’s future, he calls Tiny Duffy in and tells him that he will no longer allow the free hospital to do business with Gummy Larson—Willie is rescinding his deal with Gummy and Duffy. Duffy sputters that Willie can’t take this back, but Willie says he does not care, and sends Duffy away.
Willie no longer feels he has anything to live for, nor anything to lose, and so he goes back on his promise to Duffy and Gummy. If he were to lose the hospital, too, to a back-room deal, he would have effectively given up all his hopes and dreams in the course of one week—and that is too much even for the hardened political warrior Willie to bear. Willie still has some idealism in him. Willie vows to carry on without Gummy and Duffy, even if it ruins his political career—and as will be seen, it ruins more than that.
The next day, Jack receives a frantic call from Anne, who says that Adam visited her the night before and called her a series of terrible names, implying that she was a slut and a whore for carrying on a relationship with Willie—and that this relationship is the reason Adam was chosen to run the hospital. Adam seemed incensed, almost crazed, at the idea that Anne’s “sordidness” caused him to be roped into working for a politician he never liked and supported. Anne asks Jack to find Adam and to talk sense into him, and Jack begins going from bar to bar in the city, asking after Adam, attempting to snag him and calm him down.
Jack once again does Anne a favor, because he cares for her and cares for his friend. Jack also seems to recognize the severity of Adam’s anti-social disorder—he has essentially become deranged, having heard that Willie and Anne are having an affair, because he feels, now, that Willie has tainted his family forever, has ruined the possibility that the Stantons emerge from Louisiana politics without the scent of “fallenness” and corruption.
Jack is unable to find Adam, however, and returns to the capitol to meet with Willie and determine what the Governor will do, now that the free hospital will no longer be handled by Gummy and Duffy. Jack presumes that there will be political fallout from Willie’s decision to eschew the deal with these political rivals, and so attempts to figure out a plan with Willie from how to manage this possible crisis in government. Jack finds Willie in the Capitol and walks upstairs with him—Willie says he wants to talk to Jack.
If Jack had been able to intercept Adam somewhere in Baton Rouge, perhaps Adam would have never shot Willie and shot himself, and perhaps the whole matter of Willie and Anne, of Jack and Adam, could have been sorted out without violence. But such is the nature of drama and tragedy—here Penn Warren seems to state that violence is inevitable, that it can only be pushed back, never thwarted entirely.
But in the hallway, as Jack turns away for a moment and turns back, he sees Adam, looking haggard and dirty, talking to Willie. Before Jack can realize what is happening, Adam shoots Willie several times in the chest—and then Adam is shot by Sugar Boy. Jack, stunned, runs with Sugar Boy towards the bodies of Willie and Adam—Adam, having been shot in the head, is dead, but Willie seems to be clinging to life, although he has been seriously wounded by Adam’s shots.
The climactic scene of the novel. Although it seems to play out in slow motion, the entire episode could not have taken more than a few seconds, yet right afterward, looking down at the Boss, Jack realizes that the life he knew is over, that Adam is dead, the Boss is dying, and the world he had, of life in the Landing and life in the Capitol, is shattered.
Jack then reports that Willie was taken to the hospital, the same one in which Tom also lies—he is tended to by another surgeon named Simmons, who manages to remove the slugs from Willie’s chest, but after several days of recovery, Willie takes a turn for the worse, and his wounds become infected. Jack goes in to speak with Willie, who is severely weakened by the gunshot trauma. Willie, clearly very upset, tells Jack that he never meant to harm Adam, and that he “never did anything to him.” Willie says that things could have been different, implying that, if Tom hadn’t been injured, none of this might have taken place—he tells Jack that Jack “has to believe” things could have been better if Willie were to live. Jack says he’ll “see the Boss around soon,” and leaves the room after sitting with him for a moment. The next morning, Willie dies in his hospital bed, of his wounds.
Willie’s death, like Tom’s eventual death, does not take place in a single moment, the moment of impact, but is rather drawn out over an excruciating series of days. This makes it even more difficult for Jack to bear the thought of Willie’s suffering, and Willie, for his part, wishes to make some sense of the assassination—why Adam needed to do it. As before, Willie does not admit to himself and to Jack that it is because of Anne, and her “honor,” that the shooting took place—and Jack has a hard time dealing with the raw emotions of the moment, so he says very little to the Boss.
Jack ends the chapter by saying the Boss’s funeral was later that week, and was attended by an enormous part of the population of the state—Jack contrasts the funeral the very small, private affair held for Adam in Burden’s Landing. He notes that, at the Boss’s interment, there were so many “regular citizens” present they were toppling tombstones, and had to be removed only through the encouragement of police.
Much like Huey Long’s assassination and funeral in Louisiana in the 1930s, the Boss’s funeral is an occasion for nearly all the state to mourn one of its great leaders, and to pay respects to a man who always wished, at least publically, to put their interests first.