In concluding his speech with "decisions are made by those who show up," President Bartlet perfectly encapsulates what season one of The West Wing was all about. Forget the drama. Forget the intricacies of the policies the characters debate. Forget the deep significance. The West Wing is a love letter to those Americans who show up, every day, to better their country. And it's a celebration of that first day Josh, Leo, Toby, CJ, Charlie, Donna, and Sam decided to show up.
A few weeks ago, I wondered if the tension between the President and the VP would come to head and serve as the season's "big bad," so to speak. I'm new to The West Wing, so some commenters smartly pointed out that the show doesn't really follow that track, that there's no "big bad" to speak of. But if season one is a testament to the good guys showing up, it's also a constant reminder that the not-so-good guys—crooked politicians, foreign diplomats, wacko fringe groups—show up, too. It's this simple fact that fuels The West Wing: These guys love the fight, but it takes two to tango.
Throughout the season, the folks in the White House have faced their share of enemies, all painted in broad strokes and coming out in full force for the final two episodes. Sam's tailed, presumably guys hired by slimy Paul Provenza dude, because they hope to get photos of him hanging out with call girl buddy Laurie; and in one instant, an unmarked black car scampers into the night with photos, and Sam doesn't even get the pleasure of seeing the photographer's face. The team continues to go after those with sway in campaign finance reform, who are portrayed as a means to an end more than anything—a binary yes or no tally mark in the White House win column. Those key players are so hastily sketched out, that merely a little charm wins them over; Leo finds success capitalizing on one White House-smitten finance reformer by showing off an armed guard and introducing him to the Prez; later, Bartlet convinces another influential guy—rolling with an entourage 14-deep—to get his two nominees onto the committee by merely offering "the thanks of a grateful President." The second episode has the enemies appearing even more faceless: an American soldier goes down in Iraq, and a rescue team is dispatched to find him; Toby's brother is on the space shuttle Columbia, which is having difficulty making a smooth landing. In fact, the only enemy we see the face of is the final one, the pale little fuck who signals the season-ending shooting spree I'm still reeling from.
While the crux of "Lies, Damn Lies & Statistics" is simple—taking the country's temperature to gauge how the Prez is doing—the episode is quite claustrophobic. The first scene even, an epic walk-and-talk, takes care of most of its business in one take as staffers hop in and out of focus. It sets the tone for the rest of the episode, which involves a complicated round-robin of promotions and "doing something nice for prostitutes every once in a while." It's one of Sorkin's most ambitious episodes yet as far as political plot points are concerned; meanwhile, it needs to set up the finale. Basically, it seems Sorkin likes a challenge—he crafts an episode that attempts to tie up preexisting plot points (Sam and Laurie) and gets everyone in the Oval Office by the end, all from different places but seeking the same American-driven validation only a poll can provide. And they get it, more so than expected. Given the nature of the cliffhanger at the end of the season, this is cruel.
While the first of these final two episodes ended in a place of vague hopefulness—the results of the polls show a nine-point increase, prompting the staffers to ask in generic Sorkin uplifting fashion, "so… what's next?"—the season finale ends, quite gut-wrenchingly, in a place of vague hopelessness. Sorkin has experimented with flashbacks in previous episodes, but this is the first so far that starts with a straight-up tease, cuts back to the beginning, and follows the story back to where it began. And holy shit, there's not a lot of straight-up suspense on The West Wing (except for all those slow-motion Josh jogging scenes… wait maybe that's his regular running speed), but when Zoey's handler looked over at that guy in the crowd, he looked up to the building, and signaled his friends to start… doing whatever they were going to do, I shouted alone in my apartment. How dare Aaron Sorkin do this to me? How can I watch the rest of the episode knowing something that big was about to happen?
And to make matters worse—plus personally torment me—"What King Of Day Has It Been" is the most revealing episode character-wise of any so far. We see the President fret every minute the soldier is missing, and Leo sweat right alongside him. We see Josh wheel and deal with the Vice Prez, throwing out threats of point bumps like they're going out of style, then get scolded by Leo for forgetting the human side of politics—sort of Josh's constant lesson. ("There's a way to be a person," Leo shares. Youch!) Toby, the teddy bear with the prickly exterior, pushes Sam as far away as possible from the brother situation, but secretly appreciates everything Sam is doing; then there's Toby's moment of genuine relief upon hearing the news of his brother's safe return, a rare glimpse into his sentimental side. CJ has never been more on top of her game—hell, she can be pretty vicious when she wants to, calling on Danny to ask a question she knows she's going to lie to the press corp about. And Charlie totally tells off that ambassador for being a member of that racist country club ("Well, I'm the aide to the President, so I guess he's my boss"); he gets another moment later on, which recalls the wonder he felt his first day on the job, when the President says his name in the speech and uses Charlie's intel to wow the audience. "You were right," he says to Josh, "it doesn't go away."
Well, yes it does, only one scene later. And I think there's only one reason why Sorkin would lift everyone's spirits despite lowering them at the beginning of the episode in the first place, then destroy them again: Aaron Sorkin is a manipulative little bitch. I've seen it before on Sports Night, where Dan falls for Rebecca only to have Rebecca leave a few episodes later. Fuck you, Sorkin. I want to be happy for just a few seconds, for God's sake.
But Sorkin's manipulative in such a fascinating, masterful way, I don't mind at all. Like James Sawyer, Sorkin is working the long con; he plants these characters at the beginning of the season and allows us to witness how they interact, what they're good at, how much they genuinely love each other, for 21 episodes. Then he gives us the most open-ended season finale I've ever seen, and it stings because, no matter what happens, to whomever it happens to, it's going to be devastating. It's been a while since I felt this way about a TV show—that I'd finish a season finale and immediately wish I had the next season's discs on hand, realize I don't, and fret about it for days. It's happening now, and it's the best feeling in the world.
- I like Joey Lucas and all, but a part of me wants Josh to take Donna to Hawaii already…
- Leo to Josh, after Josh goes in for a hug: "Man, you read that wrong."
- "Seriously? Dallas Morning News?"
- We're closing up shop for the summer now that the season is done. I'm hoping to pick this up again later this year or next summer. It's been great reading everyone's comments every week, thanks for tuning in.