Still reeling from the events of last season’s finale “Posse Comitatus,” I fired up my “DVD player” and expected “20 Hours In America” to pick up right where that other episode left off. At the very least, having not watched The West Wing for the better part of a year, the first thing I thought of when I remembered “Posse Comitatus” was the kick-punch that was the death of Simon Donovan. Then I remembered CJ crouching outside the theater and crying. And, of course, Bartlet putting Governor Ritchie in his place. Surely these were all going to be things that factored heavily into the season four premiere, in the same way the season two premiere picked up right after the gunman shot at Bartlet’s party.
I was surprised, though not really too much, that “20 Hours In America” takes place in the thick of the campaign trail. Bartlet is out in rural Indiana making a few stops on his way back to the White House. Toby and Josh are hanging on the sidelines with Donna, talking to Amy Adams the farmer about her diesel car. CJ is waiting to usher the President on to his next meeting. Back at the home front, Leo discovers Qumar is reopening an investigation on the plane they took down, and Sam is sent home to sleep after working way too much. Time has passed since the incidents in New York, and it seems little has been done to acknowledge them.
Things aren’t that simple on The West Wing. Rarely has Aaron Sorkin ever written an episode, or even a short series of scenes, where an action leads to a reasonable or logical reaction. Characters on this show behave like normal people with super demanding jobs. They let things fester, brewing below the surface, suppressed from years of putting the needs of a nation before their own.
Take CJ for example. During the course of the two-part “20 Hours In America,” I think she says Simon’s name three times, maybe only twice. Presumably, she grieved. She had a hard time. She let a lot out. In these two episodes, she deals only in facts. Simon was a mentor to a boy named Anthony, arrested for a charge that should be a misdemeanor, but because of priors will likely land him in juvenile hall. She spoke to the judge, who agreed to let Anthony off with custody if a White House staffer is willing to take Anthony under his wing. So, she asks Charlie. She asks Sam. She pulls Anthony aside and tells him she’s working on it, and when he ignores her, she speaks about how she misses Simon too. There’s no more emotion in her voice, though. That part of her isn’t allowed to take over anymore. She speaks about Simon the same way she gives a press briefing, even a shockingly tragic one like the news of the 44 college students killed later in the episode. And because she keeps her cool—because she can’t bring herself to get worked up over this issue anymore—her words are even more painful to hear; Simon’s shadow lingers just a bit longer.
Taken as one unit, “20 Hours In America” perfectly captures that spirit of, “I’ll deal with this later; right now we have an election to win.” Or, rather, it’s essentially two simultaneous episodes crammed together in stark contrast. Back in Washington, Sam isn’t even allowed to finish his day off. He’s woken from his hard-earned slumber by a call from Josh, and ordered to the President’s side for the day. He’ll herd the President from one meeting to the next, filling him in on pertinent details and trying to make sense of the global ripple effect of budget deficit, and how it might relate to a superstitious photo op with the guy who shook the President’s hand the day before the Great Depression.
At the other end of the spectrum sits Josh, Toby, and Donna. They missed the motorcade and because of a Daylight Savings Time snafu (wouldn’t the President’s official schedule reflect this?), they are stranded in Indiana and run into a mess of bad luck trying to get back to Washington. Unlike the others who can conveniently ignore sleep or the passing of a loved one, they have to deal with this situation now, because they have an election to win.
So thus begins a fish-out-of-water tale: Three big city government folks trying to make their way through the simple country roads of “middle America.” Aw gee golly gee. Aaron Sorkin loves writing characters who do something really well but aren’t fully appreciated by those around them; and if regular people only knew, well, they sure would treat them differently, that’s for sure. Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip was the most egregious example—writing for TV and lusting after an unavailable Christian bombshell is really hard!—but there’s plenty of this attitude in “20 Hours In America.”
And I say this with a sigh, because it’s not quite as ham-fisted as I’m making it out to be, but it sure does get grating after a while. After the motorcade leaves without them, Josh and Toby are able to procure a ride from Amy Adams the farmer and her bullish boyfriend. The car runs out of diesel, and the trio (Donna included) has to walk to the nearby gas station—where there’s no diesel to be found—and wait for one of the volunteers to pick them up. There, Toby and Josh make a silly bet off of a silly throw-a-rock-at-a-trash-can game: Whoever misses first has to spend the rest of the day introducing themselves as, “I’m _____; I work at the White House.” Toby suggests the idea, but immediately loses and now must make himself seem even more out of place than he already acts.
They run into the volunteer’s girlfriend and her friends, who don’t give a shit where these guys work; they only want to talk about their extreme beliefs that all people in Washington are baby murderers. They meet a couple who owns a diner, impatient with these city folk asking them questions about the menu when really everyone just gets the dry rub. And finally, they meet a man in the hotel bar who is trying to put his daughter through college, but he’s afraid the recent stock market crash is going to make that difficult, and he just wishes someone in the government could help him out. Donna pointed out to Toby and Josh that they weren’t really listening to what these people were saying; they were spilling the same political rhetoric they always do, and these folks just didn’t care. Now, Toby listened—really listened to this guy, and even bought him a beer.
I suppose the “message” of these two episodes is meant to be, “If you really listen, you’ll be surprised what you hear!” And if that’s the case, sure, I get it. But I’m kind of refusing to acknowledge that “20 Hours In America” can be that simple, and choosing to focus on something I noticed in the background. It goes back to the point about time management, how there are things that take precedence during an election season that probably shouldn’t. And “20 Hours In America” proves that more often than not, you’re wrong.
There’s a tragedy that occurs at a college, and 44 are dead as a result. It’s horrific. Bartlet, as it turns out, is giving a speech that night, and he decides to address what happened earlier that day. And you know what? He found a way (or rather, Sam found a way) to make his remarks completely apolitical. He could have made it an issue; he could have lobbed something in Ritchie’s face. But he didn’t. He made his remarks in the interest of healing as a nation. We deal with this now, so we don’t have to deal with this later.
Meanwhile, Toby and Josh are having a fight that’s basically about the antithesis: Dealing with something in the moment that’s best dealt with later. Throughout their Indiana travels, Toby keeps getting upset that Bartlet is making his remarks about proving he’s way smarter than Ritchie—debating facts and pointing to specific moments of incompetence. Josh doesn’t understand why Toby would get so angry; after all, they’re playing for the same team. But it’s not the facts that Toby wants to win the election—not the witty retorts or farm-specific jokes and jabs Bartlet makes at Ritchie’s expense. He wants to win because Bartlet deserves to win, which is based more in qualitative reasoning than quantitative. He wants to make Bartlet the President that inspires hope and change in America (notice anything similar?), knowing that the policies and the smarts and the witticisms will come later. Bartlet’s speech about the 44 dead students is about the here-and-now; Toby is thinking about bigger things: what the Presidency represents, and how that idea can inspire voters to throw their weight behind their guy.
We end on a shot of DC just as the sun is coming up. Toby, Josh, and Donna got off their shuttle bus and are walking to work. They forget for a minute that there’s an election going on. They’re simply basking in the glow of the idea of an American government. “20 Hours In America” demonstrates that not everyone gets it, but that there’s nothing more American than believing in America.
- Kept waiting for the motorcade to roll through Pawnee. Leslie Knope would have a lot to say to Bartlet, I’m sure.
- A great exchange from these episodes: After Josh accidentally talks about Amy Adams in front of her boyfriend, “Is that corn?” “No. Trees.”
- Lots of funny moments, like when the volunteer points in one direction and the train goes in the other, or Sam’s voicemail mentioning that he’s taking time off, and if he’s really needed they should shout, followed by Josh screaming into the phone.
- Hey, Leo’s daughter is back! And Sam is fucking great at his job! Go off and literally make beautiful children, Chris Traeger.
- Man, Bruno sure does love talking about women. He should run a birth control subcommittee.