Is The West Wing still The West Wing even when the show doesn’t take place in the West Wing? If “The Long Goodbye”—the best episode of the show written by someone who’s not Aaron Sorkin so far—is any indication, the answer is “Yes.” Episodes of The West Wing normally feel like the writers stacked three scripts on top of each other and the structure collapsed into one wonderful, claustrophobic piece. “The Long Goodbye,” however, is slow. And by that, I mean it’s at the pace of normal television.
But what’s intriguing is that even though the episode tells a singular story, it’s a hell of a story. Watching the episode, going through my notes, and sitting down to write this review, reveals a surprisingly straightforward plot: CJ goes to Dayton to attend her high-school reunion, and comes to terms with her father’s rapidly advancing Alzheimer’s. The magic of The West Wing is that its episodes play out like accordians—small and unassuming, until they fan out.
CJ begins the episode with a press briefing, fielding questions mostly from reporters who want to make fun of her for actually showing up. She was supposed to go to that reunion and deliver a speech entitled, “The Promise Of A Generation,” but has decided to stay back—she didn’t tell anyone she’d changed her mind, and would you look at that, she’s missed all the flights out. Not so, says Carol, who informs CJ that she’s booked on a 7:50, and Toby has to practically push her out the door.
Even on her way out, CJ can’t extricate herself from work (despite everyone assuring her 100 times that they’ll be fine). She talks on her phone all the way through airport security, even maintaining a call as she waltzes through the metal detector. Then she keeps talking after she lands, right up until she runs into an old classmate, and again as she’s pulling up to her father’s house—the thing that finally dislodges her.
The place is a mess. There are dirty dishes everywhere and an overwhelming silence fills the halls—a fact to which her father, who has the speech pattern and scattered eloquence of a Hogwarts teacher, is completely oblivious. Suddenly the West Wing is a distant memory. As the weekend progresses, calls come in, but CJ ignores them, or brushes off their urgency. All that matters is what’s in front of her: a morning fishing; a quick tryst with another reunion attendee as they kill time before her speech; a trip to the house of her father’s ex-wife. And much like the watch Papa Cregg (“Tal”) insists on carrying around with him even though it’s broken, CJ is struggling to hold on to a childhood that simply doesn’t work anymore.
A lot of why I like “The Long Goodbye”—despite it being, as a friend so eloquently put it, “too sad”—has to do with Allison Janney. The plot of the episode repeats itself a fair amount, particularly when CJ comes face to face with her father’s failing mind and his stubborn refusal to get help. There’s never a sense that CJ is reacting the same way. She shows anger in the car when her dad refuses to let her drive, and she slinks off with overwhelming sadness later that night, admitting he can’t identify a photograph of a young CJ. In the doctor’s office, where Tal wonders why his old pal the brain doc would give him such terrible news, CJ hints at nothing but pure, unflattering acceptance.
There are certainly parallels to draw between Tal Cregg and President Bartlet: They ask those around them to forgive a whole lot in exchange for brilliance and charm. And of course, this isn’t the first time White House staffers worked out some of their daddy issues with Bartlet. Toby’s father refuses to see the world through the black-and-white filter of his son’s eyes, but Bartlet sometimes will. Josh’s father is now sadly absent, but Bartlet is always there to dole out insight into Josh’s psyche. Now we see that CJ’s father thinks he knows better than anyone else what’s best for himself. Bartlet has that, too, unless he demonstrates a rare moment of humility. I’d imagine CJ chases those moments, because they either don’t come now, or because of Tal’s condition, they simply can’t.
There’s also the matter of time. “Time matters,” Tal tells CJ at the end of the episode, referring to how time matters in a manner of time. Have I written the words “matter” and “time” too much? Not enough times (matter). On The West Wing, time is a fluid construct. There are points when it’s staring the characters in the face, taunting them with the simple fact that it keeps marching on. It’s funny that in just the last episode, Josh started a giant clock and had to get a senator on his side by the time it ran out. But, mostly, the idea of time doesn’t really exist on the show. Everything has to be done yesterday; decisions have to be made in the moment; the mere fact that Donna would be making plans with douchey Christian Slater is laughable—that’s the future!
Yet here CJ is, talking to a man who wants just a little more time with his consciousness and identity as he watches those things fall slowly away, like sand inside a cracked hourglass that’s about to burst. Time is not fluid to Tal. Time is the entire construct for his life. He taught math, after all—which included lots of word problems about how far people drive after a certain amount of time—and is writing a book he’s desperate to finish so future generations can know the power of time.
CJ handles it deftly for a while. Then she has to give her speech, about the promise of a new generation, and let’s be honest: It’s terrible. It’s full of lines that sound really deep, like “America is a terribly difficult idea filled with promise and impossible to live up to,” but you can tell CJ’s not in it. She speaks with less personality than I think I’ve ever heard her speak. She talks to her fish with more heart. Then, she looks up and sees her father.
She’s wasting her time with this silly little speech. The man who kept perfect time with his father’s watch is unconsciously shouting at CJ to get back to work, to fight in a way that he no longer can. It’s in that moment when the phone rings and CJ actually answers it. She lets the West Wing back in because her father has given her permission to give herself permission.
“I’ll see you next week,” she says to Tal as she hops in the car, on her way to the airport. She won’t really be back in a week, though—it’s just that no matter how long she’ll be away, it’ll feel like a week to Tal. And, really, isn’t our perception of time far more important than actual minutes and seconds themselves?
Yep, even without Bartlet or Leo, The West Wing is still The West Wing.