This week’s double whammy of administrative collapse started with arguably the most comedically impressive series of scenes thus far. “The Leadership Breakfast” finds CJ and her team spending (a mere) seven-and-a-half hours arranging seating assignments for a bipartisan meet-up—where no one will be listening anyways—as Josh and Sam try building a fire in the next room. The dialogue is ultimately meaningless: What kind of wood burns best? How do they stack things? Do they need paper? Parchment? How about some dry leaves? Donna, can you get them some dry leaves? Oh, she just has to run out to the forest? You think she was being sarcastic? Suddenly, CJ is done and the fire is roaring. Only she forgot to find a seat for, oh, the President. And as smoke billows into the White House, Sam realizes the flue has been welded shut for years. Calmly. Cut to Charlie knocking on the President’s door, waking him up. “Sir, you know how you told me not to wake you up unless the building was on fire?” he asks. Cut to credits.
What’s so amazing about The West Wing’s humor is its lack of eye-rolling. It’s deadpan distilled to its purest form: words and words alone. There’s no nudging the audience warning them a joke is about to occur, no groan from the inside indicating a joke just occurred. The show invites you to keep up without guiding your reaction. Actually the closest thing The West Wing does to pandering is having its characters repeat lines that end one conversation and begin another, providing double the character reactions to delight in.
The show does this, too, with its most grief-filled moments. This episode finds Toby dealing with health care (specifically the patient’s bill of rights or—excuse me—the comprehensive access and responsibility act), minimum wage, and tax relief by chatting up Ann Stark—the chief of staff for the Republican House Majority Leader with whom he vaguely claims to have had past dealings. It starts with a quick exchange that would be forgettable had it not been so, well, seductive. He pulls her out of a meeting and they barely say two words to one another, delivered like they were in a Bond film. Talk later? Yes. Breakfast? Yes. Tomorrow morning? Yes. What should I wear? I don’t give a damn. After fucking? Well, I thought so, until there they were seated and eating something that appeared breakfast-like.
There was so much elegant tension in that first scene that it made Toby’s soul-crush hit that much harder. The breakfast was merely the illusion of bipartisanship, a photo-op; Toby, though, truly crossed party lines by striking a deal with Stark—she’d bring up his talking points if she was allowed to have a post-breakfast press conference on Capitol Hill. All is well and good until the press conference is on the air, the Majority Leader is nowhere to be found, and the press has been fed a quote from Toby that was said in private, to a woman he ostensibly trusted. He’d been played. CJ’s on the other line demanding marching orders from Toby, and he just stands there, frozen.
It’s Sam’s turn to eat shit in “The Drop-In,” an episode perfectly following “The Leadership Breakfast” as a showcase of characters championing causes that go nowhere. Sam’s effort is sabotaged from within: The episode opens with Sam and his team, crafting the perfect speech for the President to deliver at a Sierra Club meeting. (In the world of The West Wing, global warming makes environmental as well as financial sense. What a fantasy—amiright, @SarahPalinUSA?) But I suppose Leo and Toby weren’t listening to CJ when she spoke last week about, among other things, not being that sensitive about things, because they’re both concerned about the Club's soft stance on eco-terrorists. Something must be said about how they don’t often say things about things.
So they schedule a “drop-in,” basically having the President feign going off-message and berating those tree-huggers. They clean things up with the press the next day, but at least the thing was said, and it doesn’t look like the administration is taking an official stance on anything. (Because I suppose you don’t stand on stances.) Now no one is talking about anything the President said before he did the drop-in, and Sam’s pissed. Then he finds out what really happened, that everyone was in on it but him. It’s like that episode of The Office where everyone finds an excuse to ditch Michael Scott after the improv class so they don’t have to hang out with him. Also like: most of my childhood.
This leads to a beautiful West Wing moment that once again demonstrates Sorkin’s mastery of restraint. Sam, who to my knowledge rarely gets flat-out pissed about anything, is seated at the bar drinking alone, seething. Toby approaches him, the two talk, but Toby realizes he’s getting nowhere. Problem is, he’s already ordered a beer. So as it arrives, he says, “Well I’ve got this beer, so I’m just gonna sit here and drink it. We don’t have to talk or anything.” Sam agrees to those terms. Toby sits; time marches on. It’s amazing that when you strip everything away, the smallest things garner the biggest reactions. At one point in the silence, Toby ventures eye contact, but looks away quickly like a guy caught ogling a hot lady on the subway. There’s loads of shame in that sideways glance—all .75 seconds of it—and also some sympathy.
Also striking is the sheer contrast found in Lord Marbury. There’s nothing subtle about him, his boisterous arrogance and dislike by Leo made even more infuriating by Donna’s inexplicable fascination with him. Actually, other than those few quiet moments with Sam and Toby, “The Drop-In” is far more Marbury than Seaborn in tone. The President tries to knock out a bunch of ambassador appointments all at once. CJ goes after a famous comic asked to speak at a dinner the President is attending, imploring him to bail because his last stint with the Prez didn’t go over well (even though Bartlet thought he was funny). Leo is so fanatical about a new anti-missile technology he shoehorns it onto the President’s agenda even though the test fails by 137 miles. These guys are all out to play ball as fast and aggressively as possible. Maybe it’s the mandate of the “Committee To Reelect President Bartlet”?
I do enjoy how flawlessly The West Wing can shift its pace multiple times in an episode, and at a moment’s notice. “The Leadership Breakfast,” besides Toby’s colossal fuck-up, is really just about finding as many trivial things for the government to devote its time to, checking them off the list, and moving on to the next. The right name for tax cuts, the right kind of maple syrup, the fear that moving the press across the street to a new briefing room will make them think the government is trying to hide things from them. (“But we are hiding things from them,” Sam points out.) Boom boom boom. Then Leo tells Josh to go to a dinner and apologize to Karen Cahill for insulting her shoes, and I thought, “So it has come to this.” Only the ridiculous sideplot was allowed to breathe, and the wackiness came out in spades. First Sam misattributed nuclear capabilities to the wrong country, then Donna tried to cover up his mess (“Sam was being just so cute”) and in the process accidentally slipped Karen a pair of her panties, thus inadvertently making a pass at the woman. In the episode’s Gulf of arbitrary bullshit, this premise was pushed deeper and deeper until it struck oil.
And the situation wasn’t “commented on” so to speak from the other characters. The sheer madness of it all sat there for us to take in. And sear in our brains for all of time.
"The Leadership Breakfast": A-
"The Drop-In": A-
- Poor Minority Whip.
- Wonderful to see Felicity Huffman on another Sorkin show. I've seen Sports Night, but now I feel more…complete.
- "Uh, sir, Kimu's a woman." (Spelling?)
- Leo and Toby talking about divorce = great scene. Leo's so open with the people he works with. Refreshing.
- "We can't govern if we don't win." Sums up "The Drop-In" pretty well.