+Bartlet: "Well, Oliver, it really boils down to this: I'm gonna tell you a story, and then I'm gonna need you to tell me whether or not I've engaged 16 people in a massive criminal conspiracy to defraud the public in order to win a Presidential election."
[Oliver Babish smashes dictaphone with "big hammer."]
So it begins.
At the beginning of this season, Bartlet's MS was a quick footnote Abbey remarks to the anesthesiologist on duty after the President was shot. It wasn't nothing, but it was merely a small part of a much scarier story. I certainly couldn't have guessed that it would become the most compelling part of the season. I swear I haven't watched or heard about anything from the next two episodes, but unless something drastically changes, mark my words, Bartlet's going to have an episode in "Two Cathedrals." (Not that my prediction holds much weight for the majority of you, obviously.)
Now, The West Wing has kept me on my toes. Though MS was not a major issue early on, it was a major problem that had to be addressed sooner or later. It's to The West Wing's credit they did it so soon—why beat around the bush? And to do so while folding in the fact that the President never signed a form giving the Vice President authority when Bartlet becomes unfit to govern, and having that fact compound the issue? Savvy stuff.
I guess I'm trying to say that with something so all-encompassing looming on the horizon, every aspect of The West Wing is electric. The characters, some of whom I truly know little about, are popping like never before. At one point, Sam asks Ginger a question, and I found myself elated that Ginger got to be part of the action too. Ginger. Episodes have been so jam-packed that even the Gingers of the show are striking a chord.
I'm not gonna lie. It's been four hours and I've only written this much. I just really, really loved these episodes. I'm at a loss for new descriptors to talk about how nuanced and specific this show has become, and how much it makes me well up at nearly every moment.
Like, okay, at the end of "Bad Moon Rising," when Bartlet and Charlie finally chat. Bartlet had spent the entire day being interrogated by Babish, insultingly so. Charlie, meanwhile, the nicest most giving person of all time, had been harboring the secret knowledge of Bartlet's condition since probably, gosh, when he started the job. And earlier that day he had happened upon a college medical form that stopped him dead in his tracks—he instantly puts two-and-two together that Zoe, having not been 18 when she entered college, required Mrs. Bartlet sign her medical form stating the conditions of her family, MS excluded. The shift in tone from before Charlie has this thought (jovial and playful with Mrs. Landingham) to after (gut-wrenching) was, to put it mildly, severe. The day had not been good to either Charlie or Bartlet. In order to prove his loyalty to his President, Charlie had needed to expose his secret knowledge. Finally, the two meet.
Bartlet: "I'm confident in your loyalty to me; I'm confident in your love for me. If you lie to protect me, if you lie just once, if you lie just a little, if you lie 'cause you can't stand what's happening to me and the people making it happen, if you ever, ever lie, you're finished with me."
It got me, thought I'm not specifically sure what it was that put me over the edge. Was it Bartlet's stubbornness, even in the face of the greatest crime he's ever committed, to maintain his integrity? Was it the realization that Bartlet has finally become a fully realized father figure to Charlie? The realization that Charlie, in fact, wanted a father figure this whole time? Whatever it was, The West Wing has a way of loading moments with subtext, on purpose or even accidentally.
Take another wonderful element of "Bad Moon Rising": Donna and Josh bickering over the proper tact to take when Mexico needs a bailout. Though Josh has already decided on the proper course of action, Donna is annoyed hers and other hard-working American's hard-earned dough is going to a foreign land when it's so desperately needed at home. So she fabricates a message for Josh left by a struggling factory worker whose wife works nights as a telemarketer so his son can take music lessons after the school cut funding for the arts. Josh, who loves this kind of thinking-man's tete-a-tete (or is it Sorkin?), counters and creates his own message involving Europe in the late 1930s and some German guy who's going nuts over there. Just one episode ago, Josh was annoyed with Donna because she took the job working for him only after her boyfriend dumped her. This whole exchange this week demonstrates how perfect they are for one another, and how all of Josh's insecurities about Donna's loyalty are unfounded. That's the purposeful stuff. Accidentally, wow, that whole exchange demonstrates how much they should bone. Stat.
Much like "17 People," I was happy that "Bad Moon Rising" took its time with moving the MS storyline forward. First it was Toby coming to terms with the news he's heard, but he is not an outsider. He knows how the game is played, and at the end of the day there was no question whether or not he would fall on Bartlet's side. Now the same thing is happening with Babish, only we don't know much about him at all—and neither does Bartlet. He's only been at the office for three months (I guess without constant Bartlet face time, the job is hard to fill for an extended period of time) and seems so engrossed in his own little world that few staffers outside the legal team would really be socializing with him. He's also an outsider, which is a perspective this season hinted at first with Ainsley Hayes, then again with its obsession with polling and the continued obsession with Joey Lucas. Hell Bartlet doesn't even enjoy attorney-client privilege with Babish. This man could bring the entire system down. Yet I was happy Sorkin wrote Babish with some restraint. He doesn't fly off the handle or devolve into a sloppy puddle of tears. He internalizes what he's hearing with a mix of disbelief and wonder. In the middle of his questioning, Bartlet steps out to handle something and Leo turns to Babish, asking, "What do you think?" Babish replies, "I'm nowhere close to being able to answer that question." It's literally the most accurate thing he could have said.
I feel the same way. The show thus far has asked me to love a President who deceived the entire country by hiding his MS. I did without even considering the fact that he, well, deceived the entire country. As the rest of the staff discovers this fact, so too do I begin to understand just what Bartlet is up against. Babish spells it out near the end: Bartlet tells his staff, calls a press conference, takes every high-profile interview, answers his questions like a champ—and at the end of the day says, "Please, sir, may I have another?"
It's also becoming clear that this conspiracy, much to the chagrin of President Bartlet, involves the unwilling participation of the entire staff. Bartlet shows painful disappointment learning his wife was the one who signed the medical form; CJ is petrified and defensive realizing she repeatedly asked the question "Is there anything else I need to know?" without consideration; Toby is furious about every little slip-up as he readies his staff for the impending storm.
The terror running through The West Wing transitions seamlessly from "Bad Moon Rising" into "The Fall's Gonna Kill You," and this time there are fewer optimists left. There's Sam, who wants to get the wording of a speech just right. There's Donna, who believes her government can save her from a satellite hurdling down to Earth at an unknown location at an unknown time. (Josh is putting her through the motions because, hey, it's entertaining.) Everyone else is in closed-door meetings shrouded in literal darkness and uncomfortably halted whenever Margaret enters the room. CJ is collapsing under the pressure of being interrogated by someone who has "never found anything charming" and is as bold and specific as CJ herself. Ditto for Abbey Bartlet, who it turns out is even more the mastermind of the situation than I'd originally guessed. Toby trusts no one and says as much. It's bleak, I tells ya: Bleak.
The game of "The Fall's Gonna Kill Ya," then, becomes finding moments of incredible catharsis in the impending shitstorm. Nearly paralyzed with fear, Josh wants to put a poll out there because it's better than doing nothing. So he flies Joey Lucas out, has an hour-long chat with her in the airport, then sends her back. And because Joey trusts Josh, she abandons her guest interpreter and goes along for the ride. Josh rewards her by bringing her into the inner circle and apparently learned sign language for her. It was sickly sweet. Later, while Josh is explaining the poll to CJ and how he's afraid people will think Bartlet disclosed his MS because the poll told them to, she starts to laugh (though at first I thought she was going to cry). Why would they be worried at all about what the American people think about the poll, of all things?
But the most perfectly simple way to sum up "The Fall's Gonna Kill You" is what Toby told CJ before she spoke to Bartlet, and what he tells Sam just before he has his own meeting. "I'll be here when you're done." It doesn't make any sense to them before, and it means the world to them after. As I get closer to the finale, those little moments of pure understanding are coming faster and more regularly. I might think I know where things are headed, yet it's probably more accurate to say I'm nowhere close to being able to answer that question. And with only two episodes left, being able to say that about a TV show is beyond thrilling.
"Bad Moon Rising": A
"The Fall's Gonna Kill You": A
- "They can't wait to say they're from Chicago, even though now they live somewhere else." What can I say: We love our city. In two weeks I'll be living in Brooklyn, and I look forward to not being able to wait to tell people I'm from Chicago.
- That oil leak stuff couldn't have come at a better time. I wonder if there's some former lawyer out there, freaking out because he or she sold the boat to BP. Also: "Getting oil out of water? Try it some time."
- "You told them to devalue the peso?" "Well the Treasury Secretary did; I was in the room."
- "Why does anyone do anything?" I've said that more than I can remember.
- "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results." That too. Is The West Wing reading my tweets/fortune cookies?