“Life On Mars” (season four, episode 20; originally aired 4/30/2003)
I once heard about a study involving chimps that perfectly recreated what it’s like to work in an office. The scientists placed about a dozen chimps on one side of a large cage, then put a banana on the other. If any of the chimps went for the food, though, every chimp would get sprayed with a hose. (Yeah, depending on how you feel about experimenting on animals, this might make you sad—but as my former Psychology of Learning professor so eloquently put it, if you truly have a problem with this, then you should probably not take antibiotics, or use any soaps or grooming products, or do any of the myriad things that were made possible by animal testing. And if so, great, drop the class, no hard feelings. Nobody did.) Eventually, the chimps wised up, and by saying that, you’d think I mean they collectively agreed to stop going for the banana. Not really. What happened, in fact, was that any time a chimp decided to go rogue, the rest of the chimps would beat him or her until the dash for the banana duly ended.
They let this go on for a little, then messed with the formula. Slowly, they removed one chimp at a time from the cage, replacing him or her with a completely new chimp. They did this until there were no original chimps left, only new ones. And any time a chimp went for that banana, the other chimps beat them senseless. These chimps had never experienced the hose; to them, the hose might as well have not existed at all. But they learned the formula of banana = beating. I imagine one chimp at one point turned to the chimp brethren and said in chimp-speak, “Wait, why are we beating people up for trying to eat sweet, sweet yellows?” (“Yellow” being chimp-speak for banana, of course.). To which the rest replied, “Shut up and beat up!”
I often forget that The West Wing is a workplace drama. That specific place of business happens to be one of the most famous workplaces in all of the Unites States, as made very evident by the enthusiastic ear-fucking CJ Cregg receives as she she speaks on the phone with Stu Winkle. But it’s still a workplace, and one where certain behavior simply cannot be tolerated. The only wrinkle is that instead of an HR department, the White House has the American people.
“Life On Mars” might as well be called “Joe Quincy: Day One”—it’s the story of one man navigating the complicated office politics of a new job. There are a few stories being leaked from The White House, and the staffers, so intent on beating those chimps who are going for the banana, are unable to notice that there’s a pattern behind them all. But Joe knows there’s something else. He’s only been at the White House for one day, but he can sense that at some point in the past, there was a hose. Basically, he realizes all those stories have something in common, something which evades everybody else: John Hoynes is having an affair with socialite Helen Baldwin.
“Life On Mars” starts at the end, so let’s start with what’s happening now: the 2012 presidential election, specifically last week’s vice presidential debate. When I think of President Obama, I think of Vice President Joe Biden almost immediately afterward. To me, a typical American voter, they are pals, bros for life. Watching Biden debate Paul Ryan Thursday night only reinforced this view. Biden took every opportunity to praise the president’s efforts, and assure the public that things are going as they should. And why should we trust him? Because he was there, he said, and saw these things firsthand.
Now, I don’t know if Biden and Obama are friends in real life. From what I could gather from the DNC speeches, they weren’t really all that close when Obama started office, and now they get along very well. But in any case, Biden acted as Obama’s surrogate at that debate, speaking as if he were Luther, Obama’s anger translator from Key & Peele. There is a mythology behind the role of the vice president: BFF In Chief.
Now, on The West Wing, I haven’t thought about Hoynes in weeks. The thought of Bartlet is immediately followed by the thought of Leo. He’s Bartlet’s closest confidant, and this season has almost completely removed himself from the grind of the bullpen so he can remain on presidential watch duty—monitoring the situation in Kundu, fielding sensitive domestic issues before they get to the Oval Office. For all I know, Leo might as well be the vice president.
In The West Wing, the chief of staff is the friend. The vice president is the necessary evil they put up with because he won the Bartlet administration a few key states in earlier elections. And as past episodes indicate, Bartlet and Hoynes have a contentious relationship, eased only by the presence of Josh Lyman.
Yet when Joe pieces together the pieces, and Hoynes is forced to confront Bartlet and Leo, it’s Bartlet who is the sympathetic one—the guy who maintains his composure and insists Hoynes sleep on the issue.
The details, as they stand, are sprinkled throughout “Life On Mars,” and only come together when Joe confronts CJ and presents what might as well be his scribbled notes straight off his conspiracy board. Helen Baldwin, a woman who overhears a lot of the goings-on at the White House, signed a seven figure book deal for a tell-all. Charlie reads about it in the paper, and this sets off Quincy’s alarm. Earlier in the day, he’d heard that somebody leaked the news that the government was suppressing a report that carbonate molecules were found on Mars. He’d also heard that the news got a hold of a very specific figure: 100,000 computers were given to classrooms in exchange for the government calling off an anti-trust investigation. Only a handful of people knew that number, and one of them was Hoynes. So at this point, Quincy has a hunch. He goes through Hoynes’ phone records, looks up the stories being written, and traces them back to Stu Winkle, a gossip columnist.
I mentioned last week that Sorkin is kind of a master at showing the audience exactly enough information so they can make their decision (though as some of you commenters astutely pointed out, he can be pretty hamfisted just as regularly), and the reveal scene recalls the deftness of The Usual Suspects. Quincy is still unsure he’s entirely right—it’s his first day, after all—so he has CJ call Winkle and tease the fact that she knows it’s him. Winkle bites, and begins describing to CJ, his hero, the intricacies of his career: how he’s stuck on this gossip beat, but dreams of hitting it bigger and reporting on stories that actually matter. Meanwhile, CJ has stopped listening, because Joe is handing her stories with Winkle’s byline circled, and throwing down phone records that show an exorbitant number of calls between Hoynes and Helen. CJ knows. Quincy knows. Poor Stu blabs on.
The title of this episode is “Life On Mars,” referencing the study the government tried to suppress. But I like to think of the episode as a story about getting ahead of yourself. One might read the study that these tiny molecules were found on Mars, and think that obviously this means there are three-boobed aliens like in Total Recall. Obviously, news about this sort of thing is the kind of news you’re supposed to take one step at a time, but it’s hard not to get just a little excited. “Life On Mars” shows an eager Joe Quincy performing feats of intellectual strength made possible by his ability to see outside the work environment he’s placed inside. He correctly figures out what’s happening because he leaps ahead of himself logic-wise, and it turns out he’s right. Hoynes, as well, knows this is the end. Leo and Bartlet would like Hoynes to weather this storm, but he just won’t do it. The Bartlet administration has already had to deal with the president’s MS concealment; it cannot handle another scandal. He gets ahead of himself, and sees how things are about to play out. He resigns.
The thing The West Wing is not really good at, though, is reflection. Which is probably why I see a lot of silent reality buried in its thick, silky dialogue. How often do we, as people, sit around and go, “Now is the time when I think about my past misgivings and repent for them”? Once a year on Yom Kippur? I kid, but really, I don’t think it happens very often. We’re always on the move, mentally and otherwise, and the Internet is the treadmill below our feet that just won’t stop. Our reflecting, it turns out, happens on the fly, in small bursts, in private and in public. And “Life On Mars” is just the kind of workplace drama that encourages this kind of retrospective.