“Dana Get Your Gun” (season two, episode thirteen; originally aired 2/1/2000)/“And The Crowd Goes Wild” (season two, episode fourteen; originally aired 2/8/2000)
Last week we talked about Sports Night at its funniest. I’m glad we have that memory to sustain us, because this week the emotions are raw, and the comedy is tinged with desperation. The breakup of Jeremy and Natalie is a pivotal moment in the series, representing onscreen its irrevocably threatened future. This show began with Jeremy’s arrival, almost immediately paired him with a fast-talking screwball heroine, and has relied on their interaction (and friction) to ease viewers over the bumpiness of its lead characters’ epic dramas. We’ve always been happy to believe in their good-hearted inevitability; even when they were arguing or teasing each other, we were encouraged to feel that their relationship was the secure bedrock of the show. And then, with startling speed, it’s gone.
When the dating plan made its disastrous debut, I was already dreading this moment. I was afraid I would find this breakup to be another inexorable mangling thresher of a plot point designed only to deny these characters joy. I’m happy (relatively speaking) to discover that it’s not. In fact, it’s haunting, devastating, and brilliant in execution, although correspondingly difficult to convey through description. That’s because the brilliance emerges from the breakup’s positioning in the show’s structure. It doesn’t matter whether you think they should have broken up over this episode’s disagreement about going to a club. Like a real relationship disintegrating, the precise moment of collapse recollects and recontextualizes all the tensions we were happy to have smoothed over for us during the last year and a half. Suddenly the danger lurking underneath those previous moments is resurrected, and all the tamped-down frustrations explode in sudden contact with the surface.
It begins so innocently, as just another cog in the Rube Goldberg machine of favors Dan has to engineer in order to get a night off to see Tom Waits play at a club. Casey will switch nights off with him if Dan persuades Natalie to accompany him clothes shopping. Natalie will accompany Casey clothes shopping if Dan gets her on the guest list at Lot 61. Kim will call her bouncer not-friend at Lot 61 if Dan gets her a room at the Four Seasons so that she and the bouncer will have a nice place to hook up. Then after it all falls apart, with Dan descending from “Tomorrow at this time, I'll be bathing in the raspy drawl of Mr. Tom Waits!” to a gritted-teeth “Edgerin James re-ups for some … do-re-mi!” in a matter of seconds, Natalie saves the day by getting Steve Sarris to fill in for Dan’s original fill-in Tina. “Plus one,” she casually amends her guest-list request to Dan, and when he asks whether Jeremy will want to go to Lot 61, she replies in her characteristic alpha-woman fashion: “Who cares? He’s my boyfriend, he loves me, and he’s going.”
When Noel and I visited our wedding officiant for that surprisingly tense session where the reverend gives you words of wisdom and you worry that he’s judging whether or not you’re worthy of being married, he gave us a book about the “Love Bank.” The idea is that when you do something nice for the other person, you’re making a deposit in their love bank. You need to keep a healthy balance in the love bank, because eventually you’re going to need them to cut you some slack or forgive you a wrong, which are entries on the debit side of the ledger. (Noel and I spent the first few months of our marriage hollering “love bank!” at each other for every favor done or blunder incurred.) Natalie has been cavalier about the love bank. Who needs to check the balance? Love is infinite overdraft protection, right?
On the other hand, though, Jeremy reacts abominably to this latest check-kiting incident, ridiculing people who go to clubs—the people Natalie wants to hang out with—to his captive control-room audience. Obviously he should work it out with her in private rather than snark all over what she cares about to their coworkers. Why doesn’t he? Because whenever we’ve seen those intimate conversations, Natalie tends to trump everything with sex. Jeremy doesn’t feel like the arguments he makes are heard or respected. Even though patching things up should involve deposits to the love bank, Jeremy nurses a grudge he’s been writing off losses instead of getting repaid. Thus the sudden, terrifying intensity of their breakup argument in the hallway outside the control room. Both are so wrong about what they feel the other person is doing to them there’s no way to make it come out right. And both are so right about how the other person is carving up the relationship with their accusations that there’s no way to put it back together again.
As if to twist the knife, Sam and Dana are suddenly a potential item, in the way that all great annoyance-flirtations move from “s/he drives me crazy” to supercharged close-standing to kisskisskisskisskiss. “Dana Get Your Gun” sets it up with two incredible scenes in Dana’s office: Sam reels off dialogue to change the way she sees the Revolutionary War musket she’s inherited, but what he’s really doing is confirming the change in the way she sees him that started in “The Sweet Smell Of Air.” Then he tries to put an arms-length back between them: He’s leaving in a week, and as he tells her in “And The Crowd Goes Wild,” his aversion to attachment is such that he prefers to “preemptively” change things himself rather than have them change around him. So while Jeremy and Natalie are bitterly sniping at each other in the sad, inevitable officemate breakup sparring match whenever they have to share a workspace, Dana is experiencing the happy, confusing rush of something starting, and coming to hope that she can keep it from ending before it starts.
I remember when I saw this episode in its first airing more than thirteen years ago. It all came back to me in a rush with the shot of Sam standing outside the control room, looking in through the pane of glass in the door. I remember registering that he was wearing a coat and scarf, and realizing with the slow-motion clarity of a car accident what was going to happen. Oh, the pain. The finality.
The thing about the love bank is that if you can avoid a scene in the bank manager’s office and work with the collection agencies, eventually you might be able to look back on that time when you were left holding a vat of red ink and see that it’s part of a beautiful, interesting, vital life story. My fear upon starting this season is that Sorkin was going to do nothing but chip away at my love bank for this show by torturing its characters for no reason. Now, with the perspective of time, I see that there was a reason. It’s no less painful, but it’s not a disintegration of what I love about the show. All these endings are real consequences of who these people have come to be. It’s not like I shouldn’t have expected it—all of what has led here happened right before my eyes, while I was watching—but a lifetime of television comedy led me to expect that the books were cooked. Not this time. You have to admire that.
- You couldn’t tell from the writeup above, but there’s comedy in these episodes too! I’m not the biggest fan of the Casey-gets-his-eyes-dilated bit in “And The Crowd Goes Wild,” even though the capper when he tries to get sympathy after taking them off is sublime (“In case anybody was wondering, I’m fine by the way,” he announces to the control room, then upon being ordered into the studio, mutters: “Actually I ran into a wall before”). But Steve Sarris hijacking the broadcast to beg (with wildly fluctuating strategies) for his girlfriend not to break up with him is a gift that keeps on giving (“Did you hear that? Ms., not Miss! It’s called respecting you”).
- Dan suggests that Jennifer can sub for Tina even though she’s pregnant: “There have been medical advances that allow you people to work well into the fourth or fifth trimester.”
- Dana’s assertion in “Dana Get Your Gun” that she and Sam could not be an item (“He likes guns, so right away, and B, I don’t find him all that attractive!”) is such a lovely line with such a lovely confused, offended reading by Felicity Huffman. It reminds me of “He breezes on in here …” from “The Sweet Smell Of Air,” in the way she can’t finish her thought but believes it to be perfectly obvious.
- My favorite moment in the whole Sam Donovan storyline might well be his dismissive, flustered response of “Ahhhhh, whatever!” post-kiss, when Dana asks what kind of cake he wants. From that bubble of incandescent happiness to Sam picking up his bags and leaving without saying goodbye is matter of only a few minutes, but oh, how steep the slope.
- The A-story of Natalie’s opposition to turning over footage of the Madison Square Garden riots to police at first seems to be pretty trumped up. Nobody else is on Natalie’s side, and rightly so; there’s a clear distinction between protecting sources and helping solve crimes, even in this age of Snowdenmania. The scene where it becomes clear that she is conflating this principle with the ones she is trying to hold onto in the wake of the breakup is beautifully written and played with tremendous emotion by Sabrina Lloyd. But very few scenes can survive dissolving in tears, because watching someone experience that breakdown is embarrassingly intimate, and we as viewers tend to disassociate and retreat from the moment, regaining awareness that we are watching a TV show, losing our involvement and our investment. (Or is that just my problem?)
- On the plus side of the breakup, Natalie’s new mussed ‘do is a great look for her.
- Hey, It’s The Year 2000! Consumer spending on music largely takes place in offline, brick-and-mortar stores, like Tower Records.
- When Dan is pranking temporarily-blinded Casey, he crows: “It’s tuna fish in a barrel around here,” another in a series of common expressions he has misheard all his life.
- “Natalie, I love Tom Waits more than … I don’t know, I just love Tom Waits.”