“Privateers” (season four, episode 18; originally aired 3/26/2003)
Time happens in a dizzying flurry on The West Wing. Some moments shake out in real time, like when Bartlet gives the order for a military strike and we sit in the Situation Room for a full minute, waiting to hear how it turns out. Some moments happen over an entire week, providing merely a glimpse into the madness of daily life at the White House. “Privateers” happens over the course of a single day—a chance to witness emotional rollercoasters in real time, and realize it’s not the kind of ride you want to willingly ride twice.
“Privateers” begins, simply enough, in the Bartlet bedroom. The president is surprised when the phone rings at 6 a.m. to wake him, when he specifically had asked for a 5 a.m. wake-up. But that’s just Abbey for ya. She had the call moved, as she’s the only person on this show who can stand up to the president—though she’s also the person with the largest imbalance between her personal feelings for the guy and “respect for the office.” It comes with the territory, I suppose, of being the first lady—or, when a Hillary Clinton/Michelle Obama ticket sweeps 2016, the first man—and don’t get me wrong, it’s sweet. In this case, Abbey just wanted the little guy to get some more shut eye. She looked over at him, all tuckered out from a trip to Nashville, checked the schedule, and moved the call time.
She has his best interests at heart, and he knows this. They even get a little time for some hanky-panky in the morning—though because of the circumstances of the day, that amounts to him being turned on by her wet hair, and then drinking coffee.
During this shameless show of affection, Bartlet mentions something in passing: Republicans have tacked on an addendum to the foreign-aid bill the White House is trying desperately to push through. It stipulates that none of the money will fund programs overseas that council for abortion. Bartlet’s not happy, but he shrugs and realizes that his office needs a win, so what’s he gonna do?
We find ourselves back in this bedroom at the end of the episode, a long day behind both Bartlets. Abbey proposes a solution to the abortion counseling dilemma, Bartlet says it’s a smart idea, and they banter themselves into bed. Just another thing married people talk about, simple as that.
What we see throughout the day, though, is something far more complicated and emotionally risky. Abbey is furious about the bill, and pressures Amy, her newest recruit, to pressure Josh to pressure Leo to pressure the president about it. It’s many steps removed from the actual source, and every step of the telephone game raises the stakes exponentially. Amy wants to do well by Abbey her first day on the job; Josh, stung by the office’s loss a few weeks ago, wants this thing to go through; Will and CJ worry about a crackpot woman who is boycotting an event tonight because I guess Abbey’s distantly related to a pirate (ahem, a privateer); Leo is concerned about news he receives that more than a dozen people died because a glacier melted. A glacier melted, you say? Yes, a glacier melted. Doesn’t that only happen once every million years? Yep. But it happened today, too. Thus approximates the repetition that sometimes substitutes for witty dialogue on The West Wing.
This, of course, is the nature of any risky business. You’re constantly trying to remain one step ahead of your opponent and your naysayers out of fear; and when something comes up that you’re actually prepared for, you feel great. That happens about as often as glaciers melt. Most of the time, you can’t fathom, even in your wildest dreams, that a scenario’s going to play out how it does. Hence, Abbey giving a fake award to Marblehead (as they call that crazy woman) to appease these pirate fears. Or, sometimes you prepare yourself as best as possible, the exact situation occurs you had hoped for, and you still collapse. Read: CJ losing her shit at the mere mention of the announcement, “I’m Marion Cotesworth-Haye,” Downton Abbey-style. And this is after she sticks olives in Will’s jacket, not before.
The ride remains disorienting and ridiculous throughout. This is Amy’s first day, as previously mentioned, and she can’t even get the pictures and diplomas to stay hung on her wall, let alone convince Josh to get Bartlet to veto (or threaten to veto) his own bill. Later, Josh rigs it so that Amy closes the door to her office, which promptly falls down, adding insult, injury, and the surreal vibe of a middle school production of How To Succeed In Business Without Even Trying.
As embarrassing as that is, at least it happens in private. Because of a complicated security risk involving some kid who was arrested in college for selling drugs, Donna is asked to shadow he and his date at the night’s Daughters of the American Revolution event. The catch is that he and his date are not to know it’s happening. Donna’s just… a concerned staffer who’s overeager to make friends, they think. They also might believe she has lost the ability to pick up on even the most obvious of social cues. It’s The Sims: Limited Edition White House DLC—she invites herself along to the bar, speaking like a robot might if it was programmed to be a creepy house butler or something.
At least a few people have their shit together. When Charlie’s approached by Jean-Paul before the party, he senses something is awry. After all, Jean-Paul was the one who was uncomfortable with Charlie and Zoey continuing to hang out, hence Charlie receiving a Dear John letter from his ex-girlfriend, on behalf of her boyfriend. It’s confusing and dumb, but it happens; in any case, now Charlie’s talking to Jean-Paul, trying to explain to the poor Frenchman that there are no driveways inside, and therefore there’s no way Zoey would be pulling up anywhere near where they are right now. “You’re stoned, and that’s incredibly risky when you’re around Zoey,” Charlie rightfully points out. Realizing what’s going on, he directs Jean-Paul to the wrong location, shows up at the right one to greet Zoey, and respectfully declines the letter. He’s going to keep pursuing her, whether she likes it or not. Respectfully. See, Charlie operates outside the system. His rollercoaster ride is more of a tea cup-type ride, spinning around but not going anywhere. Sure, he’s dizzy for riding, but getting better at reorienting himself every step of the way.
Toby, meanwhile, is the kind of guy who rides the scariest rollercoaster, and even if it’s really scaring him, he’d never let on. He recently came back from California, where he fought a losing battle he knew he was going to lose, just so he could stand next to his good buddy. In “Privateers,” he takes the side of a corporate scientist seeking whistleblower immunity—a man who admits his company has been forging facts for years—even though I’m sure part of him knows this can’t end well. Burt, the man who sat idly by as the environment was being polluted under his watch, has had a change of heart, but it took him three years to do it. He was a willing criminal this entire time, and could later be indicted on charges despite any immunity he might be granted. Not only that, but Toby and Josh are now implicated simply for, as Josh says, showing up for work today. Toby’s rollercoaster is the one with the huge drop and lots of loops, and it’s like that one Aerosmith ride where it breaks all speed records.
A lot happens in a single day on The West Wing. “Privateers” is an extended riff on what it means to be “good” at your job, what rights people have to stand up for themselves when the political machine spins out of control, and what the nuances of the word “pirate” actually mean. Abbey and Bartlet end in bed together, talking it over like it’s just another day in the life. Yes, the White House is not the kind of ride you want to take twice, but they take it every day. They’ve forgotten what’s it’s like to live on solid ground.