“Twenty Five” (season four, episode 23; originally aired 5/14/2003)
Well, now I’m just angry. Angry for plot-related reasons, of course. But mostly angry because that was an incredible hour of television that set up so many wonderful things that I know, despite never seeing The West Wing until this viewing, are not going to be resolved in a satisfactory manner. This is the final Aaron Sorkin episode of the show, and by all accounts, season five suuuuuuuuuuucks!
Will the resolution of Zoey’s kidnapping be a clumsy carbon copy of what The West Wing has been? Will Bartlet’s inevitable return to power be told via montage? Will NBC start selling “Leo will know what to do” T-shirts? Perhaps the show will become a musical and sell albums on iTunes, or kill off its entire cast and then reboot the story, setting it in an insane asylum?
Whatever. Honestly, if the show ended here, I’d be okay with it. Because there’s an arc that’s been building throughout these last four seasons that finally comes to pass in “Twenty Five.” Something so simple that I’m embarrassed to say it took me until the episode’s final moments to realize what it was.
See, Bartlet never has a private moment. Every evening in with his wife, every night out with the boys, every time he hugs his daughters—all of that is either captured by the media, scrutinized later by said media, or interrupted by business at hand. Hell, the process of making whoopie to Abbey after he was elected took longer than it takes Paul Ryan to get to the point of whatever it is he’s trying to say, ever. That’s the cost of being the President of the United States, I suppose: When Barack and Michelle Obama had their wedding anniversary, going to the ice cream parlor that was the site of their first date, a photographer for AP Newswire was there. The photo cycled the Internet. Privacy means nothing when you’re the freakin’ POTUS.
By invoking the 25th Constitutional amendment, Bartlet finally gets his privacy. Without a vice president, Bartlet gives up his post to Glen Allen Walken, his chief rival, the House majority leader and staunch John Goodman. As Walken is being sworn in, Bartlet looks over at Leo, who dismisses him. The doors open, Bartlet exits the Oval Office and the camera stays on Walken. Bartlet now has all the privacy in the world. And he’s going to use it to cry.
“Twenty Five” is insanely emotional, though there’s literally no other way it could have been. Zoey is missing, and Leo has to deliver the bad news to Bartlet in the middle of a party; Bartlet then looks over at his wife, who reads his face and immediately knows something is wrong. Meanwhile, at the scene of the crime, Josh and Charlie are taking a different tack, violently pushing their way into the club, roughing up Jean-Paul, and demanding answers to a problem that has no answers. And the hits just keep on coming! Later, Donna will find a fax from Zoey’s kidnappers, demanding the release of three prisoners and an American withdrawal from Qumar in exchange for Zoey’s safety. Remember all the witty things Sam’s said over the years?!
It’s not all terrible news: Toby and Andy gave birth to healthy twins, Huck and Molly (named for the fallen Secret Service agent). But Toby’s not in much of a mood to celebrate. Sure, there’s a lot of serious shit happening, and I’m sure that has a lot to do with it. But I suspect it’s also a deeply rooted fear he has yet to articulate. See, Bartlet is freaking out about his daughter, and Toby’s wondering, in his very core, if there will ever be a point in his future where he’d do that for any of his kids. To be fair, he does articulate a bit of this to Leo, but I don’t think we get the whole picture. It’s not so much that Toby worries he won’t be a good dad—he worries he won’t be the best dad. And because Toby had what he’d deem to be the worst dad, he’d consider himself a failure if he wasn’t rocking it out with flair every single day of his life.
But we are never more ourselves when we are alone, and when Toby is at the hospital, looking down at his babies, he might as well be alone. He holds the hands of his children, looking up at the television and watching Bartlet wipe Zoey’s face just as he did for Huck moments earlier. In the panic of having this child, Toby was doubting himself. Because of the way he was raised. Because of the challenges he faces every day. Because of the incessant way everyone asks him how the house presentation went, and how everyone was counting down the 10 days till pregnancy induction before Andy went ahead and had the kids ahead of schedule. Now he is alone, and in that silence realizes he’s so much more than what others tell him he is.
Bartlet needs that realization. He is the President of the United States, but he is also a father. He is a husband, he is a boss (to some very loyal cabinet members, I might add). Those are all things that happen in relation to others, how society views him and how his family views him. But what Bartlet hasn’t had since he entered the Oval Office—really, what he hasn’t had since he started in politics—is a moment, ever so brief, to realize who he is. In silence, when all the cameras are off and all the eyes looking elsewhere.
It’s easy to see Bartlet’s passing of power as a moment of vulnerability and weakness—he’s not strong enough to face this threat without letting his emotions get in the way, so therefore he steps down as president. But I see it as a moment of immense strength. It’s easy to forget that in order to be a powerful person for others, you have to be a powerful person for yourself. And the final moment of the Sorkin years is Bartlet leaving the Oval Office to do just that. Yes, he’s probably going to cry. But he’s going to emerge stronger than ever, more capable of being the father, husband, boss and POTUS we all need. And he needs.