“Angel Maintenance” (season four, episodes 18; originally aired 4/2/2003) and “Evidence Of Things Not Seen” (season four, episode 19; originally aired 4/23/2003)
This can’t be good. In both “Angel Maintenance” and “Evidence Of Things Not Seen,” the White House has seen tiny problems become major issues, seemingly out of nowhere. In “Angel Maintenance,” a 30-cent piece of plastic is standing between a safe landing of Air Force One and a number of other nebulous options that might endanger the lives of the president, his team, and a few dozen reporters. There are shots fired in “Evidence Of Things Not Seen”—shots pumped blindly at the White House that don’t hit anybody, but require the cat-like reflexes of CJ Cregg to properly protect everyone. And this is from an episode that largely involves a poker game.
I’ve seen this one before. Season one. Threatening letters come to the White House; people get hurt in the finale. Ugh. I have a really bad feeling about all this.
“Angel Maintenance” though less ominous, is the more puzzling and open-ended of this week’s double feature. The threat to the well-being of those aboard Air Force One is not immediately apparent, and few who work for the president even have much time to let it sink in. Bartlet learns that the landing gear might not be locked, but it’s unclear whether it’s actually unlocked or whether the indicator light is simply broken. So either everyone’s totally fucked, or it’s a case of faulty wiring. If that’s not a microcosm for The West Wing in its entirety, I don’t know what to believe in anymore.
In a weird way, “Angel Maintenance” is the show’s attempt at a bottle episode. Much of the episode takes place on the plane, and as a result, the action is claustrophobic and giddy, likely the result of the confines itself and the hours upon hours of not sleeping. Nobody on the plane can agree on what time it actually is in D.C., let alone form coherent thoughts. And when people get slaphappy on this show, they get seriously slaphappy.
So their lives might be in danger, but CJ and Will suddenly become obsessed with how to keep the press off their backs, which leads to some unexpected humor. A fighter jet is slated to fly alongside Air Force One and check the landing gear, so they have to figure out a way to get the entire plane to look out the left side at the same time. Some sort of light festival, perhaps… in the Blue Ridge Mountains. At night. “I don’t see how it could possibly fail,” Will says, as deadpan as ever. And fail it does. The one reporter who’s been continuing to work, despite extreme tiredness and hearing news about dead Americans in Kundu, spots the fighter plane, and every passenger rushes back over to the other side. It’s like when a bunch of elementary school kids try to make the school bus rock by jumping from one side to the other.
To be fair, the White House treats the members of the press like they’re little babies sometimes. They tell the press what it can say, and dodge contentious points that are obvious and should probably be printed, for the benefit of any American reading the papers looking for real news. Even when a bunch of reporters might, you know, die, CJ spins a story about an oil spill on the runway in D.C., ensuring that, were the reporters to be in any real mortal danger, they wouldn’t have to worry their little heads off until the exact moment when crisis became inevitable.
Everyone in The White House has selective memory and attention. I’ve said it before, but if anyone who works there were to truly take in the magnitude of the horrors they endure on a daily basis, they’d go insane. I suppose we all do that to some extent. Hell, I doubt I’d be a writer at all if I had to look at the financial realities and truly weigh time spent vs. financial and emotional payoff. I doubt any movies would be made, any TV shows would get greenlit, or any music would be written. Lying to one’s self is the greatest achievement of our species, the homo sapien sapien (repetition intentional)—the ultimate thinking man’s thinking man.
In the short time he’s been on the show, Will has proven himself the most capable of ignoring what’s around him and focusing on the task at hand. Hell, his office was full of bicycles for a solid three weeks (in the middle of winter), yet he soldiered on, unwilling to let the jealous whims of others get in the way of writing a few remarks that the president could take credit for. In “Angel Maintenance,” he once again demonstrates an uncanny ability to tune everything out and obsess over what’s in front of him. He concocts the plan to get the reporters to look out the window. He then briefs the president on the situation with Colombia, making sure to be as witty as he ever is. But at no point, until the very end, do we even realize that he’s afraid of flying—well not afraid, per se, but definitely apprehensive since he’s a member of the Air Force Reserve and he knows that to attempt a gear-less landing runs the risk of splitting the plane in half. This whole time, there’s been talk of emergency measures, and he’s been too focused on his work to give much of a shit.
Near the end of the episode, Donna delivers a speech to Josh about the government’s protocol involving the plane. Every 154 days, it’s taken apart and completely reassembled. They go to great lengths to make sure everything is working just fine every single time anyone wants to use it, even. Yet no matter how much care and attention they pay the plane, there’s always the chance a light might not work. An insignificant thing that might just work its way into the very framework of the plane itself, causing an error that takes down the whole thing.
It’s these little things, and the fear of them, that can control a nation, but specifically controls the characters in “Angel Maintenance.” Josh is working with a Republican to get a bill together that calls for a cleaner Chesapeake Bay—a bipartisan effort that should be praised—yet there are some that think the administration is unfairly endorsing this guy, and call for an immediate stop. Toby talks to a congressman who wants the draft reinstated so that rich white families will feel the sadness of the poor, black families he represents in Brooklyn. Meanwhile, five Americans are dead in Kundu, and phone calls must be made to their loved ones, be it from the plane or back on the ground. These are the indicators of democracy for sure, only for some, the light hasn’t turned on, and the entire system might as well be malfunctioning.
This implies there’s some calculation, or at least some control. And that’s true. Then we get to “Evidence Of Things Not Seen,” and realize that’s horseshit. The indicator light, so to speak, is turned off in this episode by a crazy gunman wildly firing at the White House. There’s nothing anyone could do to stop him. I’m sure they wish they could have seen it coming, and thankfully they have no ramifications to face except for this guy’s trial—where his true motives might come out.
For now, and prior, there’s a poker game. A hell of a poker game, meant to be a night off for everyone. There’s pastrami from Krupin’s. And it’s tissue paper thin.
Fear is a great equalizer on The West Wing, and nowhere is it more apparent than in “Evidence Of Things Not Seen.” There’s fear in small doses, like when Debbie Fiderer joins the poker game and bluffs (or not) her way to the hard-earned paychecks of many a colleague. There’s fear on a grand scale when a spy plane goes down outside Russia and Bartlet must somehow convince the president of Russia that the United States should be able to just waltz in and take it—and he has to do so without using the words, “spy plane.” And there’s the quiet, nagging fear that Josh encounters when he interviews Joe Quincy, sure there’s something he’s missing about the guy that’s just below the surface.
This is perhaps the first scene between Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford. Perry plays Quincy, a soft-spoken Republican-leaning lawyer who couldn’t charm the pants off his pantsless wife of 27 years. Naturally, later in his career, Sorkin will choose this actor to stand in for himself in Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip, and will cast Whitford as Perry’s foil. Their shared scenes in “Evidence Of Things Not Seen” have the electricity of a broken lightbulb.
I’m not sure what convinced Sorkin that he just had to have this combination again! But Whitford is certainly on his game in this episode. So about halfway through, the staffers begin to loosen up, and they discover Will’s an expert at tossing cards into waste paper baskets across the room. Toby thinks he can one-up the guy, so the two head to the press briefing room to have a card throw-off, with CJ as their judge. Bullets are fired, and nobody’s hurt, but the White House goes into immediate lockdown. Meanwhile, Josh is interviewing Joe, and when he learns of the firing, Josh pushes all his emotions away. It’d be understandable if he was at least a bit shaken. Hell, Donna calls his psychologist just to let him know Josh might be calling, then she just calls the guy and has him wait on the phone. But Josh soldiers on. He might be more terrified than he’s been since he was hurt three years ago. But he doesn’t let on, even for a second, that he is.
Donna does not believe him. Just because she can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not true. In the same way, the president of Russia knows that Bartlet’s hiding something, and won’t let the U.S. get back their little spy drone. Fear is a powerful motivator on this show. We rarely see it outright, but it’s there.
But you know what else is there? Sorkin might not have the best judgment when it comes to casting a show where one of the characters is essentially playing Aaron Sorkin, but he is a master at telling the viewer exactly the right amount of information we need to come to our own conclusions. And at one point in this episode—only one—CJ uses the word “faith.” Not religious faith, mind you; more like… hope. For every fearful situation, there’s also hope that things might be okay. Chigorin might be wary of America’s motives, but Bartlet can appeal to his hopeful side, and ask that the two countries remain united and trust each other. Josh can be skeptical of Joe, but witness that nugget of truth that ultimately provides enough of a reason to hire the guy. And why does Charlie try so hard to keep Zoey away from Jean-Paul? Sure, he might be scared of losing her, but spin that another way, and he’s hopeful she’ll change her mind.
If CJ can balance an egg, then the White House can finish its poker game even after it’s been riddled with bullet holes. It’s a beautiful, if not ominous thing.