The West Wing: “Guns Not Butter”
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The West Wing: “Guns Not Butter”

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The West Wing

“Guns Not Butter”

Season 4, Episode 12

“Guns Not Butter” ensures I no longer view working at the White House with any sort of reverence or majesty. It might have something to do with all the crazy people on The West Wing. Over the course of the episode, CJ talks to her fish, Josh starts a comically large stopwatch, a senator demands $115,000 to fund research into the medical relevancy of prayer, Bartlet passive aggressively compares Zoey’s new boyfriend to his own wife, and then they all take their photo with Ron the goat as Will Bailey looks on, presumably thinking, “Yeah, it’s probably okay that I’m not one of those guys yet.”

The episode feels like it’s setting up something larger: Bartlet, despite his victory in the United States, has a very long fight ahead of him on more fronts than he realizes. His daughter is dating, his foreign policy ideas are about to get shut down, and his covert Qumari operation is about to be exposed. There’s also the goat picture. AND HE HAS NO BUTTER!

As such, there isn’t much payoff in “Guns Not Butter,” and truth be told I’m doubtful it’ll stand out when I look back on my time watching The West Wing while a single tear falls from my eye. But it’s entertaining in and of itself, mainly for the plight of one Donnatella Moss.

See, the Senate is about to vote on a foreign-policy bill, and the projected numbers are at 50-50. At least, that’s what Josh thinks when he walks into the “Republican cloakroom” to talk with the staff of a Senator who Josh assumes is in the can. So he bounces a few ideas off of other senators who might be persuaded to change their vote when they drop a bomb: Their guy’s backing out because the president spent too much time campaigning in Colorado for his rival.

Josh hatches a plan and gives himself 14 hours to do it. He needs to track down Grace Hardin, a first-time senator who just might vote the president’s way if he can get her on the phone with Bartlet. And Josh enlists Donna for the job.

Thus begins a quasi-heist film that involves double crossing, trickery, and a whole lot of phone hand-offs. And throughout it all, Donna proves herself to be a master verbal gymnast. She’s like that little guy in the Ocean’s Eleven remake who’s stashed in the case and flips over the security—but for talking. She’s given faulty information about Senator Hardin’s plane, finds someone at the airport who gives her an updated status, and should be on her way. But she takes an extra second to realize she’s being thrown for a loop, decides to snag an envelope from someone, and pretend it’s an important delivery for the senator. Talking to a different person, she’s told to head to a conference where Hardin is speaking, but instead runs into the Senator’s aide, Ellen, who’s reading a statement—also the only person more tenacious than Donna on this particular day. Donna gets a call, shares that two other Senators have flipped and they no longer need Hardin, politely refuses the food advances of the chefs once again, and heads out knowing she kicked major ass and ripped off the casino her ex-wife is hanging around in.

It’s an impressive day for Donna, but winds up being fruitless; because she named the senators who presumably flipped, Hardin’s office had some ammunition in realizing it was bogus, and Bartlet’s gonna lose the vote and spare Hardin from his sweet, sweet words.

The characters on The West Wing fail all the time, and their general mantra has always been, “We do this job not because we want to win, but because we like to fight. But also, let’s try to win, ’kay?” And that seems to be what’s happening here, only Josh says apropos of nothing, “I lose this vote, I’m resigning.” Donna hears it and doesn’t take him seriously, until she does, and worry sets in.

No one really thinks Josh is going to quit, but wouldn’t that have been crazy? I mean, that’s probably how somebody like Josh is going to quit: Not with a bang, but a whimper. There have been plenty of bangs worthy of quitting: being fired, leaving in the night, whatever. I’m guessing the thing that finally does in a member of the White House staff is going to be slow, unexpected, and totally blown out of proportion. After all, they spend their entire life putting out fires; you’d think one has been burning slowly but surely this whole time, ready to get fanned.

In the Oval Office, Bartlet says to Josh, “The difference between you and me is that I want to be the guy. You want to be the guy the guy counts on.” That’s probably true for every single person besides the president, and as Bartlet goes on to explain, when he loses, he doesn’t look to the score for consolation. Every loss is a loss, plain and simple, and not just because a resolution won’t be passed but because someone let someone down. I could potentially see a scenario where Josh would leave over something so seemingly trivial.

After all, it takes a while to register that Sam isn’t in this episode at all. Not that we’ve seen the last of Sam Seaborn, but if we never saw him again, I don’t think I’d be completely upset. I’d certainly like to know whether or not he wins his election, but giving him some special, grand farewell almost feels antithetical to The West Wing. Characters rotate in and out, and losing them doesn’t mean they’re out of the Sorkin universe all together. Will I be bummed to not have Sam around every week? Of course. He’s funny and snarky. But I’m glad there’s no moment of him, like, wistfully looking at his office before turning off the light. At least not yet.

So let’s talk about Will for a bit, since I’ve known for a while that Josh Malina was going to be joining the show at some point, and right now it seems as if the show is really pushing Will Bailey in the hopes we forget about Sam. With apologies to all of you who love Malina, I just… don’t get it. He’s no Christian Slater, not by a long shot, but he never gets truly comfortable reading Sorkin’s dialogue—like a guy who shows up to the table read having read the script once, but not having said it out loud before. I feel that way about his character on Sports Night, and I felt it the moment he was introduced in the Orange County mattress store. Sure, not much is known about his character, and perhaps after a season or two he’ll endear himself to me. But you know how someone like Margaret can have one line every seven episodes and just completely nail it? Malina still hasn’t done it, and he’s been a staple for the last five weeks or so.

Plus, he came on in such a way that he could remain removed from the action, looking on from afar and commenting on the insane things he sees people do. “You people are all crazy!” is essentially what he says in every episode. He’s the voice of some outside perspective Sorkin apparently felt like the show needed. (For example, his quip about how much walking he’s done at the White House thus far.)

But at the same time, Will’s so Sorkin-y he’s almost a parody of one of the characters he can playfully mock. He’s this unsung genius who refuses the limelight despite his insane talent. He stands up for what he believes in but is secretly terrified that someone will take his suggestion and put it into practice. And even when he’s thrust into an uncomfortable situation by which there’s literally a goat in his office—not to mention a handful of bikes from people who resent him—he never stops a-quippin’. “Witty to the bitter end” is what The West Wing’s tombstone might read. (Another example couched in parentheses: Leo joking about how they need a back-up plan during a tense exchange with the president, at which point Leo feels the need to defend his moment of levity.)

You know, the show’s still great. There’s a breezy feel to season four, where even though the president had to get reelected and is now about to be discovered for committing an unspeakable crime against Qumar, things are still chugging along, showing no signs of wear and tear. The balance of power hangs by a thread, and Charlie’s still passive-aggressively reprimanded by the Pentagon in the form of a gigantic memo—even though he was just trying to show off for Zoey. And no matter what, they find time to pose with a goat for a photo. That damn goat. In the Bartlet White House, the shenanigans never stop. 

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