The West Wing: "Mr. Willis Of Ohio"/"The State Dinner"
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The West Wing: "Mr. Willis Of Ohio"/"The State Dinner"

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The West Wing

"Mr. Willis Of Ohio"/"The State Dinner"

Season 1, Episode 6
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The West Wing

"Mr. Willis Of Ohio"/"The State Dinner"

Season 1, Episode 7

"Mr. Willis Of Ohio"
Who lives in America? What are all these people like? What do they all have in common? And, most importantly, what do they want? When The West Wing devotes an episode to a budget surplus, we get to see the White House staffers grapple with these questions, the answers to which define their careers in politics. If only understanding them were simple.

So we've got this administration full of Democrats, and all this extra money. It's time to start figuring out where it should go, and of course there are a lot of options: road construction; wildlife preservation; you name it. Our team is already on it, having composed a 7,000 page, 55 lb bill that spells out how this surplus will be spent. But even Donna, who watched Josh labor over the thing, is skeptical. See, the Republicans in the House would love to give that money back to the people in the form of tax breaks, and Donna agrees. ("I want my money!") Problem is, Josh is a staunch believer that the people won't spend the money wisely. If Donna finds herself with $700, she'll buy a new DVD player; Donna's money pooled with a bunch of other peoples', and now the government can build a much-needed hospital, or something. Even though Donna points out that her money would help the DVD player manufacturers employ hardworking Americans (assuming there was a strong American DVD player company), that's not enough. Why? "Cuz we're Democrats," he says. Translation: Americans, as a whole, don't have the best judgment.

But the wonderful thing about "Mr. Willis Of Ohio" is how it allows regular, ol' Americans to triumph in the end. Enter Mr. Willis himself, who took his wife's seat in Congress after she recently passed away. He, along with two other Democrats, are currently not supporting the proposed House appropriations bill, and all three have been summoned to the White House to meet with Josh, Toby, and Mandy. Their main beef is about the proposed changes to the census process: Done currently using door-to-door direct methods, the government wants to start doing random sampling, to account for the huge errors currently being racked up—homeless and inner-city populations are suffering the most neglect. The two other representatives just won't have it, and want to get out of the room right away; Mr. Willis, though, is open to listening, and tells Toby to "take his time," much to the others' chagrin. As it turns out, that patience becomes a virtue: He's the only one who understands Toby's argument that this is similar to the dated practice of counting all white land-owners as one, and three-fifths of everyone else—in the end, it's the less fortunate that will suffer. And because Mr. Willis is truly listening to what's being said—because he didn't enter the room with his mind already made up—he swings his vote back into the hands of the White House. He's a history teacher, after all; he understands the value of a good argument.

As much as this episode is about the refreshing joy of normalcy (as evidenced by the final scene, with Toby tuning in on the vote just to hear Mr. Willis make his one and only mark on democracy), it's also about the loss of it, specifically by Zoey Bartlet. She's just a 19 year old girl on her way to Georgetown, but she's the President's daughter. She wants to visit parents at home, but a crazed woman with a gun hops the fence with Zoey on her mind. She longs to go out with friends, even adds herself to plans involving Josh taking Charlie out for a beer, but even that simple outing goes awry. At said bar, an incognito Zoey leaves the pack to order CJ a grasshopper—the thickest of all bar drinks—but is intercepted by a band of bros led by the always slimy (except in 24) Eric Balfour, who want nothing more than to harass the hell out of her. And not Charlie; not Charlie and Sam; not Charlie, Sam, and Josh can tear them away, only the team of Secret Service agents that show up once they push the panic button Zoey's been carrying around.

Bartlet's argument with Zoey near the end of the episode brings Zoey's desires to the forefront. On the one hand, I completely understand why Zoey is furious; she just wants some space after all—how can she be expected to make normal friends in college with some gun-toting dude following her around? But Bartlet has a good point. If Zoey were to be, say, captured by terrorists, Bartlet would suddently have to deal with his role as a father, rather than making the tough calls as the nation's Commander In Chief. There's definitely nothing normal about that.

Stray observations:

  • "Malts? This isn't Our Town."
  • Where would one go to get a copy of the Constitution, pre-Wikipedia?


"The State Dinner"
Sometimes, people fuck up. And when you work in the White House for the President of the United States, when you fuck up, he fucks up.

They started as such little problems (relatively). There's a hostage situation in a small Idaho town with no end in sight; a hurricane is headed for Georgia, and preparations need to be made; the truck drivers union is having a dispute over wages. And as luck would have it, this is all going down the night of a fancy shmancy dinner being thrown for the President of Indonesia, who is visiting the White House, and a speech must be written.

Everyone on staff gets their own little assignment. Toby and Sam start working on the speech the President will make to the affable, friendly, talkative, not at all cold Indonesian Prez; CJ preps the press for the dinner, including the details on the menu and what—or who—everyone will be wearing. Josh tells all Navy ships in the Georgia area to withdraw from the coast (standard procedure). Leo sits the truckers down for a meeting. Even Mandy, in all her n00bness, gets to spearhead the hostage sitch.

And while The West Wing isn't necessarily a plot-driven show right now, a lot happens in a short amount of time, even if it's just in the background. Despite recommendations to send in a team to extract the white separatists who are holding the hostages, Mandy recommends sending in a negotiator to demonstrate the US's more rational side; we find out, just before the dinner, that the negotiator was killed, and Mandy goes pale. Toby decides to be more direct in his own little mission, writing a speech that directly attacks Indonesia for its failure to embrace full-on democracy. (He hopes to send a message to the world, he says, that the US will not tolerate Indonesia's antics.) It's yet to be determined if his speech had the desired effect, but it immediately destroys his chances to right a more immediate wrong: His friend, a French citizen, has been imprisoned in Indonesia, and he takes this dinner as an opportunity to ask the second-in-command to free him. Insulted by the speech, he refuses Toby outright, and we're left with a nagging feeling that the whole state dinner was for nothing. (Not to mention Toby is crushed to have his friend behind bars.) And Leo doesn't even get anywhere with the truckers; they just bicker, and bicker, and bicker.

But, as is the case always, it's the President who looks bad in the end. The hostage situation is going to make for some pretty bad PR, and relations with Indonesia have been severely severed. As for the truckers, Bartlet is forced to step in and threaten to tear apart the union himself from the inside-out—effective, sure, but it makes him look like a demanding crank. And as far as the hurricane is concerned, it turns out the storm made a drastic turn east, meaning now those Navy boats are being hit full-on by powerful winds and neverending rain. Even though Josh was simply doing what has been done time and time again, it's Bartlet we see at the end of the episode, talking to the one boat with any radio contact, listening with tears in his eyes as the rest of the fleet gets torn to shreds by Mother Nature.

You get the sense sometimes that politics is just a bunch of stuffy, emotionless people behind a desk, making decisions that affect millions like they're simply pawns in a chess game. But at least in The West Wing, when someone fucks up, nobody's even remotely happy.

Stray observations:

  • All the Laurie stuff in previous episodes might as well have just been to get us here: Sam at the dinner, staring across the party at "Brittany" on the arm of another man. "I'll give you $10,000 not to go home with him," he says, and my heart breaks a little.
  • We finally see the President's wife, and their marriage seems to be in much better shape than Leo's. Still, wondering why she's been spending so much time away, and if something's up between them.
  • From now on, I will only talk to someone through at least two translators.