As morbid a thought as this is, I love episodes of television just after something tragic or painful occurs. It's simple human nature to actively avoid having harsh thoughts, so often characters (and, really, people) unhealthily fixate on something, anything, whatever's around, until there's nothing left. It's heartbreaking to watch the simplest things invoke the strongest collapse. The most salient example that springs to mind is from, forgive me, Friday Night Lights and its latest season. I know, it's not The West Wing, but I've been thinking about this one episode in particular because it recently reaired on NBC (I'll try not to spoil much of anything): Matt Saracen deals with a lost loved one by pretending everything's fine, then showing up late to the Taylor's house for dinner only to pick at his food. He doesn't like carrots, he says, twirling them around on his plate. Carrots. Not having 'em. Carrots, carrots, carrots…
Of course, I just find it fascinating the way people deal with uncomfortable moments in general, even if lighter-hearted. My friend Jon loves to tell the story of when he was in high school and he accidentally left a condom wrapper in his parents' car—you know, from the night before. His dad walked into the living room, set the wrapper in front of him, and said, "I think this is yours." There was a slight pause. "Thanks," Jon replied, then he watched TV more intensely and focused than he's ever watched anything before in his entire life.
I enjoyed these two episodes of The West Wing because they gave our characters a chance to work out their inner demons surrounding the shooting. The first two episodes this season demonstrated what they're doing consciously, now it was time to watch them tackle the subconscious effects. The first one takes place over a 12 week span, so much of this is devoted to the slow build of tension. Charlie, of course, bears the brunt of the load, so riddled with guilt he distances himself from Zoey. (Confused, Zoey seeks out guidance from other staffers, and one of my favorite moments is when she says to Leo, "Have you noticed how Charlie—" before getting swiftly cut off.) Toby becomes fixated on leveraging the shooting as a way to pass a cocktail of policies—gun control, hate group registries within the FBI, and so on. The President has his own fixation, on a silly little school board election in which his former opponent is heavily favored. So he holes himself up in the residence and makes some calls, sticking his nose where it doesn't belong with such dedication, he can't even distinguish anymore when a phone call is on hold or, in fact, over.
The solution to Charlie's dilemma comes from an outside source, which I've noticed is a favorite little device of Aaron Sorkin's. The technician on call, after weeks of casual conversations with Charlie, offers up some quick advice only a bystander could muster: "If they're shooting at you, you know you're doing something right." The apex of the episode, I found, is actually what happens between Toby and Bartlet, as they're able to take a baby step towards healing together. One brilliant moment begets another. Toby, finally allowed to talk his plan through with the President, breaks down, the false backbone he built on prospective policy finally giving way. "We witnessed a lynching," Bartlet says. The President, meanwhile, finds his own backbone in the wake of this moment, letting Dr. Jenna Jacobs (aka Laura Schlessinger) have it at a White House radio function, quoting scripture even more ridiculous than the Dr.'s chosen passage condemning homosexuality.
Watching that moment happen, a thought crossed my mind that I had to immediately put in check. "This is sort of cliche," I thought, which of course is ridiculous, but also telling. This was a primetime network TV show, and these sorts of issues hadn't been discussed this way before. In fact, the format of the argument had only appeared in the form of an anonymous open letter to Laura Schlessinger. Inclusion in the episode fanned the flames of the antigay movement, but certainly doused their impact overall. The moment seems cliche because it was so substantial, it has been repeated over-and-over since. But hearing the argument from the (fictional) President of the United States was certainly the most memorable I've ever heard it. (As my friend and colleague Genevieve Koski put it a few days ago when we talked about this scene, "Imagine if Obama did that.") It's a moment that demonstrates the power television can wield: putting into words a feeling existing in the collective conscious, and get it to a wide audience.
Despite everything I've said thus far about the episode's "very serious" tendencies (new TBS slogan), "The Midterms" also contained some of the funniest moments I've seen on The West Wing, most of them thanks to Sam Seaborn. When giving a tour to his old law school friend and his wife, Sam is asked what he knows about "the mural room," to which he replies, "It's called the mural room." Later, frantically in the middle of the midterm elections, he steamrolls through the office shouting, "I want to see everybody on telephones," at which point there's a pause as, simultaneously, everyone turns to reveal they're already on the phone. He also betrays his roots and eats a non-New England crab puff, but as he points out, "It was clear in the way I ate the crab puff that it was a gesture of protest." Of course, this is also the episode where Sam inadvertently betrays that law school friend by promising support for his congressional campaign, only to have Leo pull the rug from under their feet because of some past vaguely racist transgressions. Many years from now, TV scientists will reverse engineer this script to figure out how Sorkin was able to pull off both a deeply sad and uproariously funny Sam Seaborn in the same episode.
Sorkin saves Sam Seaborn's flummoxed moments for the following episode, "In This White House." Enter Ainsley Hayes, a Republican pundit who's like Ann Coulter but actually smart and modest. She bests Sam on the Capital Beat political talk show, impressing the President so much that he demands Leo offer her a job. (Imagine Obama doing something like that.) She bests Sam yet again when they face off in the White House; and, later, she impresses CJ with her restraint and clearheaded advice on a sticky situation, rather than leverage it for her own personal gain (more on that in a moment).
As much as I enjoyed the "outsider provides much needed perspective on events" angle (Sorkin, you've done it again), two things bothered me about "In This White House": 1) This was not a well acted episode for Emily Procter, and 2) She also wanders around aimlessly and does things she's not supposed to, like chat with reporters at press briefings and witness a high-level meeting in the Oval Office first-hand. Would that happen, ever? C'mon, Margaret.
Though keeping a loose eye on Ainsley meant she did find herself in a sticky situation involving CJ. A rookie reporter had asked CJ about an issue with Iraq, and CJ had replied that a grand jury was weighing in. Unfortunately it was too late: CJ had spilled the beans and was terrified she had committed a crime. Much as she fixated on the necklace a few episodes back, she fixated on this gaffe until it literally had her up all night.
Meanwhile, the President of Equatorial Kundu is in town talking to Josh, Toby, and reps from pharmaceutical companies about a way to reduce the cost of AIDS antiviral medication. And just when a solution is somewhat reached (despite no parties being at all optimistic), Bartlet summons the African prez to his office and tells the man Equatorial Kundu has undergone a coup. Should the President return to his home country, he'd surely be executed. And it turns out, he doesn't make it past the airport parking lot.
It's astonishing that even though these characters are still coming to grips with what happened a few months prior, The West Wing simply hasn't slowed down. Those last words spoken by Ainsley in this episode, though a bit sappy, ring true. Call politicians—whatever their stripe—whatever you want, as long as you don't question their loyalty to the job and their country. But we all do, all the time. We don't know these people, but I suppose there's something comforting in believing certain politicians push policies you don't agree with because they are horrible people. (Might be true sometimes.) Josh, just now recovering and being put back into the fold, puts it best actually at the end of "The Midterms": Politicians work hard to protect the rights of everyone, be them ungrateful or actively belligerent. God bless America indeed.
"The Midterms": A
"In This White House": B+
- "The theory of everything." "Is it comprehensive?"
- "Did you poke him?"
- "You work for the White House, we were counting on your support either way."
- "Why does it feel like this?" Toby, you're breaking my heart.
- "That's how I beat him."
- CJ joking that her friends go to Pakistan for the spring fashions…Sex And The City 2-ish, anyone?
- "Being in power means everyone else sits out for four years." Geez, the Bartlet administration…
- "The second pill was four cents, the first pill was 400 million."