Family on The West Wing has always been a tricky subject. In season one, we saw Leo’s wife finally end their marriage because Leo was putting his job first. Toby still keeps in touch with his ex-wife if only to play politics—and pretty much only when he’s told to. I don’t know much about the families of the rest of the staff, other than I guess Josh’s dad died while he was campaigning for Bartlet. And if I remember correctly, he asked permission to attend the funeral, reminding Bartlet multiple times that he didn’t have to go if Bartlet really didn’t want him to. As cheesy as it is to say, family on The West Wing is this group of coworkers we’ve been watching. Other family is just a distraction from all that great time you could—should—be spending with your real family.
I wasn’t surprised at all to learn that Bartlet has a daughter he’s not very close to. Given the track record of the West Wing’s staffers, it seemed too perfect for him to be exempt from familial problems. Zoe and Abbey are always going to be in his corner, but with the world demanding his time and attention, someone’s bound to slip through the cracks. (Had there been mention of this other daughter in previous West Wing episodes? I can’t remember. If not, it didn’t really feel like it came out of nowhere, which is good.) What did surprise me, though, was how affecting the reunion was. The drama of “Ellie” had so little to do with Ellie herself as much as what she represented, yet the resolution sewed up the cold hard political problem with as much heart as I’ve seen on the show. “Ellie” earned its emotional center from a distance.
The matter at hand is with the Surgeon General going rogue with her thoughts on marijuana. She’s doesn’t say anything incorrect, but her talking points are definitely skewed towards, in the words of The West Wing, fans of The Allman Brothers. When asked about long-term effects, she’s quick to point out there are no conclusive studies on some of the harms, and mentions that the drug is a class one narcotic—just like heroine. It’s a bit much, she posits. Now, saying what you really mean is certainly not something The West Wing shies away from at the end of episodes, but this is the beginning, so of course everyone freaks out. Josh, immune to the power of the lollipop, visits her on behalf of Leo on behalf of the President and calls for her resignation.
A few things happen at once. The Surgeon General refuses to resign, stating that she’ll serve in office until the President fires her. Meanwhile, the President’s daughter Eleanor calls reporter Danny to offer an unsolicited quote: Her dad would never fire the Surgeon General, it’s just not like him to do that. It’s then we learn that Bartlet and this daughter don’t have the best relationship—she unsure her father is proud of her; he unsure his daughter wants any part of his life. Of course that’s not what’s discussed: Ellie claims to have called Danny purely to defend the Surgeon General’s sound medical reasoning, and the President summons the Surgeon General to his office because it’s time to dispense with business.
Turns out the Surgeon General is Eleanor’s godmother. Nothing is ever simple on The West Wing. Thus Bartlet takes the long way around Ellie’s quote—realizing it’s actually the nicest thing she’s ever said about him—and decides to let the Surgeon General keep her job so he can attend to more important matters: Making Ellie laugh. (A much easier task given they’re not watching Prince Of New York—and because no one would dare shush the President.)
I’m not sure which thought is more comforting: a President who follows through on cold hard facts, or one who, like me, is a bundle of illogical whims and stray confusing, often terrifying whims and bases his decisions on the illusion of common sense. The latter represents me best, but will I agree with the decisions that President carries out? Are we able to identify uncontrollable emotional sway in strangers—and empathize? The West Wing demands I should. The mind rarely triumphs over the heart. I sit and tear up as Bartlet and Ellie watch Dial M For Murder, a film enjoyed only after angering thousands of people on multiple levels. Ellie shushes her father; this is what’s important.
So suffice to say “Ellie” got me. Then there was “Somebody’s Going To Emergency, Somebody’s Going To Jail,” which I wanted to like so much more than I did. For one thing, it had such a different texture than other West Wing episodes. Leo wanders into the office at the wee hours of the morning to find Sam, asleep on his couch. The show aims to light its scenes naturally, thus this opening sequence is thick with darkness and eerie red morning glow. Sam awakens and tells Leo about his father, who was recently exposed for having another woman in a Santa Monica apartment for 28 years. There’s no murmur of stray office work, no pleasant score to accompany the dialogue. Save for Sam, it’s absolutely silent.
The episode is much like “Crackpots And These Women” from season one: Today is “big block of cheese day” at the White House, so staffers are taking meeting with, like, cartographers for social equality. Everyone is out of his or her element except for Sam, who stays behind. Yet put off by his daddy drama, he spends the episode obsessively focused on staying grounded. First there’s his shirt—he has to change it, must talk about changing it, needs to do it right now. Then he helps Donna’s friend score a pardon for Daniel Galt, a task that first breaks him, then provides the clarity he was searching for.
“Somebody’s Going To Emergency, Somebody’s Going To Jail” strays from West Wing location conventions. Sam visits FBI offices and meets with an NSA official in an empty Situation Room. CJ has her map mind blown in a deserted press briefing room. Toby is dispatched to speak with WTO protesters, and he hangs out on the DC streets and reads the sports section inside a shadowy lecture hall (with a painfully salt-of-the-earth cop). Sam occasionally returns to his office, but only to chat with Donna’s friend about the progress of his mission.
The information he learns about Daniel Galt—that he was in fact a Russian spy—paints a portrait that parallels what’s going on in his own life. Sam so desperately wants Galt to get that pardon because he wants Galt to be remembered free of stigma or judgment. He’s not a good person who may have done some bad things; he’s a good person, period, end of sentence. Despite evidence that Galt did something questionable, if Sam believes it didn’t happen hard enough, it didn’t—and the pardon would prove that to him. It’s only when presented with a comically large NSA file to the contrary that Sam starts to see that the issue is no longer black-and-white. Actually, I suppose it’s not until he decides not to tell Donna’s friend, because the file certainly flipped Sam’s attitude 180 degrees ([singing] in a New York minute…). And suddenly it’s enough for Sam that his father is, well, his father. A secret mistress can’t take that away. Good people do questionable things.
Family on The West Wing tells a story I didn’t know I wanted to hear.
"Somebody's Going To Emergency, Somebody's Going To Jail": B
- I would like to officially declare my interest in being nominated for the position of Sturgeon General.
- “11.” “11 in the morning? 11 in the afternoon?”
- Good to know that before he ran a creepy Heroes carnival, Samuel was a filmmaker.
- “Shut the hell up everybody, I’ve fired more people than you before breakfast.”
- “You wanna make out with me so bad right now.” “When don’t I?”