“The California 47th” (season 4, episode 16; originally aired 2/19/2003)
Who knew The West Wing had so many “levels”? Donna has one, and she’s able to tell if someone plays at that level by whether or not they have a strong opinion about Richard Sutter. Will has a level that most—all—of the speechwriting staff doesn’t think he’s earned, so they bail on him even though he provided them plentiful Rice Krispies Treats. (Side note: How weird is it to hear the characters pronounce the “s” at the end of “Krispies”? I always just say, “Rice Krispy Treats,” even though it’s not grammatically correct I suppose; to quote Will Bailey, it has a certain flair.) Bartlet has the top level of course, but Sam feels like he can jump a level or two over him and force his hand on the Democrat’s proposed budget. Jean-Paul think he’s at the top level just because he’s “French.” It’s like Inception over here!
I rarely get a sense that there’s a steadfast hierarchy on this show. Of course, there’s a President of The United States who trumps all, and there’s a Chief of Staff who the rest of the team respects and has to clear things through. But Aaron Sorkin must have spoken out of turn plenty of times in his life, because there’s a whole lot of that on the show. Recall, if you will, that the U.S. is in Kundu to begin with because Will didn’t know when he was supposed to keep his mouth shut. The president came down to his level and visited his office unexpectedly, and Will was caught off-guard. There’s always a sense that everyone’s in this thing together.
“The California 47th” reveals the show’s architecture—its level design, if you will. When somebody is at a higher level, they show it: They throw their weight around, they ensure nobody will ever forget who is in charge, and by the end of the episode, it’s clear that’s not always a good thing.
Let’s start with Will, who is left back in Washington while the rest of the team heads to California for a weekend of speeches. He’s tasked with creating language the president can use after Monday, when the administration will be unveiling its counter to the Republican budget, which includes a one percent increase in taxes for the highest one percent of earners. The GOP plan calls for a 15 percent cut across the board, including a removal of capital gains taxes, and the only economy that’ll stimulate is the Swiss one. It’s amazing to me that we as Americans never learn from history, and we’re having the same discussion today (not that The West Wing is reality, but it’s based on the very real, economy-destroying Bush cuts).
In any case, Will needs to be ready, and he has only a few days to work. Toby recommends he use his staff to write some of the lower-level remarks so he can focus on the big stuff, and Will’s hesitant. He gets the sense his staff hates him for level-jumping so quickly (he used a warp whistle). Toby assures him that’s… well, it’s true, but so what? He’s their boss. Then everyone promptly quits.
What follows is an extended writing weekend of sorts, with Will wrangling hot blonde interns by making them wear football jerseys and lecturing them on the power of prose. It’s the best he can do on short notice, and they’re merely coming up with flawless transitions such as, “Ambassador Stanis will help to build and sustain a new era of cooperation between the United States and Hungary. And let’s please all remember that cutting capital gains taxes is a bad idea.” Yeah, it’s gonna be a show-stopper.
But you know, despite the fact that the writing is crappy, and that Will has been left to dry by people who have worked for the president since the seventh grade (and still write like they’re in seventh grade), these scenes are unexpectedly charming. It’s a glimpse into what life under Will Bailey is like: He doesn’t so much demand perfection as quietly set you up so you have no choice but to succeed. He respects his team despite their shortcomings, and he’s willing to give up as much of his time as possible to make them better. Basically, he’s the kind of person who’s earned his title and rank, and it makes the other staffers’ decisions to quit seem extremely short-sighted.
Speaking of, the decision to hire Scott Holcomb seems like a massive mistake at this point. He has already accepted Sam’s defeat, and is now just covering his own ass by sending Sam to places he doesn’t belong. Plus, he’s asking Sam to come out against Bartlet’s tax plan, further distancing him from the president and likely giving Scott some sort of platform from which he can get another job. He’s definitely not the guy that Sam needs, but he’s the guy Sam has, so for a brief moment, Sam forgets that he’s worlds beyond this Scott guy in terms of class and smarts. Levels are mutable when confusion is present.
It reminds me of people who are in bad romantic relationships (not that I’ve ever known that feeling…). Sometimes your partner doesn’t treat you very well, but you forgive them because, hey, you love them. Then your friends hear about the things they’ve said to you, or the actions they’ve taken, and they take you out for drinks and say, “Dude, that’s fucked up.” You brush it off at first, but slowly but surely, the chorus of voices drowns out the lone voice of the perpetrator, and you stand up for yourself.
This happens to Sam on two levels. The first is the obvious one, which is that Toby and Josh are willing to take themselves off the White House payroll for a week to help Sam finish out his campaign, if it means losing Scott. That’s some solid friendship material right there. The second is that he realizes the president is covering for him—not unveiling the budget plan until Monday because doing so in California would hurt Sam’s chances. He knows the president is on a higher level than him. And like many who came before him (and in the case of Will Bailey, some who came after him), he speaks out of school, forcing the president’s hand. It’s a reminder that The West Wing can subvert traditional power dynamics, and a powerful reinforcer that Scott Holcomb is just the worst. How dare he weasel his way to a higher level?
“The California 47th” has some good old fashioned power plays, too. There’s a whole lot of subtle jockeying, sure, but also a scene where a drunk dude gets in Andy’s face for not being a great role model to women—with her wedlock twins who will probably be bearded and awesome. Toby gets in his face, Charlie steps in, and we cut to the police station where the two are getting arrested for assault (though he merely tripped). No punches were thrown, but on The West Wing, where fighting words simply amount to the word “fighting,” it’s pretty badass.
Then there’s Bartlet, who not only refuses to give into the Kundu leader’s demands, he calmly reminds the man that he has 36 hours to make his decision, or the U.S. will take immediate action. Updates come in during the day; requests are being made, and promptly ignored. “Let’s go,” Bartlet says to conclude the episode, knowing full well he’ll always have the upper hand—a level all unto himself.