"Ways And Means"/"On The Day Before" (season 3, episodes 4-5; originally aired 10/24/01 & 10/31/01)
The White House deflects the Bartlet investigation to Congress, and throws its elbows around a bit.
When I was watching Battlestar Galactica for the first time, I found myself getting annoyed with the way Admiral Adama and President Roslin would discuss issues affecting the fleet. Say there was a man captured on suspicion of collusion with the cylons (or whatever): They’d freak out in the appropriate manner, then always add, “…and the press is going to have a field day!” Even in a bleak apocalyptic space future [[SPOILERRRRRRRR: or past]], the press was a powerful entity that, I guess, needed to be feared, even when there were seemingly more legitimate things happening.
These days I think about the press in the same way I think about marketing and advertising: There’s just such a concentration of crap that inevitably it all starts to sound the same. What’s the point of a press release, or really spin of any kind nowadays? There isn’t just one side of a story anymore; there are dozens—or in the case of Anderson Cooper 360, 360. There’s no point trying to control the message or how an event is perceived, because there’s always going to be someone, or many someones, taking contrarian viewpoints. It’s how the media thrives. It’s a shame that we have to siphon through the crap just to stay relatively informed.
The West Wing existed when the media juice was a bit more concentrated and pungent. A sizable article detailing CJ’s talking points would make much more of an impact than it would today, simply because each column inch was precious, and there were a finite amount of them. The blogosphere was scary; newspapers and TV stations were the trusted sources of information, and they were very influential.
In many ways The West Wing feels quite meta. It’s a show about the President of the United States that only occasionally touches on much actual President-ing. Most of what happens on this show exists either in the proactive realm (ensuring the pieces are in place so Bartlet can be Bartlet) or the reactive one (putting out fires after Bartlet is Bartlet). We really get into the nitty-gritty of what it takes to put on the production that is an efficient, honest presidential run—limited engagement. It’s a show-within-a-show; in 30 Rock terms, replace TGS with POTUS.
The characters of The West Wing always have a show to do, so to speak, and while there are many ways to go about that business, I’ve noticed a pattern over the last two seasons and some change. First, inevitably, the characters get marred in the bullshit of the day-to-day grind. Democratic congressmen are being whiny and making demands in exchange for votes that should have been a lock. The press is picking up on the faintest inklings of a story and CJ is snapping into damage control. Toby and Sam feud over the right way to phrase a sentence in the State Of The Union address. This all goes on for a while. Eventually though, the President—emerging at this point as Sorkin’s go-to BROAD BUT PRAISEWORTHY STATEMENT MACHINE—gives everyone perspective, and the united White House team boldly forges ahead with whatever it is they were attempting to do in the first place before they got distracted by the bullshit. A lot of this has to do with the way stories are reported, which directly affects how the White House is perceived. The media is a powerful force on The West Wing, and the characters are neatly positioned as its chief rival.
What I liked most about “Ways And Means” and “On The Day Before” is that the screws are coming loose. The episode formula is breaking down, and its variables—the White House communications department—exist in a constant state of frazzle. The stakes have never been higher, though I mean that in a purely narrative sense. Sure, I bawled my eyes out when Bartlet needed to overcome his figurative paralysis for the sake of the recently deceased Mrs. Landingham, or gasped when a wacko gunman threatened the safety of characters I’d grown to love. But storywise, this is the peak thus far. The President is attempting to simultaneously run a reelection campaign, and a current administration, having betrayed the trust of the American people, which includes every single person who works on Capitol Hill.
Tension is running high, and there are a lot of fires to put out in “Ways And Means,” including a literal one that has to take out a good chunk of the forest in order for something new to grow in its place. When the episode ends, the President has decided simply to let that fire burn, but the rest of West Wing’s characters have come to that conclusion much earlier. The special prosecutor handling the President’s case has been chosen, and now that he’s been handing out subpoenas, the administration is worried the American public is going to lose faith in its government; the word “subpoena” alone, CJ posits, is a scary one. Much like the raging forest fire, she decides not to take on the thing directly, but instead let it burn itself out—in this case, that means passing the investigation buck to Congress, where the President might have a better shot at redemption.
“Ways And Means” is one of the quickest and whip-smartest episodes I’ve seen. There’s barely any dialogue that doesn’t move the episode forward; there are barely any pauses for that matter, as early on, characters settle into a racecar of a groove. Over in the briefing room for example, CJ is able to slip in mention of Congress so flawlessly, I had to pause and rewind just to marvel at her mastery. While CJ spends the entire episode at an eight or nine (in terms of speed), Donna begins at a rapid pace, but the dial’s turned way down further along. The episode opening finds Donna digging through boxes looking for the piece of paper that was supposed to tell her which box to dig through. “I had a plan,” she mutters, and the line evaporates as she dives back in to her fruitless work, going on to herself about how she grew up near a farm. Later, Donna will go on a date with a Republican-leaning lawyer working on Government Oversight (in a week), thanks to an Ainsley Hayes set-up. Donna takes a deep breath, and the episode gives us all a chance to relish in her temporary happiness, before jumping right back into the race.
“Ways And Means” breezes by important moments—CJ’s passing of the subpoena buck, the President and Leo learning that two American students were killed by a suicide bomber in Israel—but manages to give them proper weight. “On The Day Before,” though just as frantic as “Ways And Means,” stops only to admire just how deep the Presidential quagmire has become. There are things that happen in “On The Day Before” that seem, at first glance, impossible. Josh discovers that Indiana’s governor is contemplating a run against the President in the primaries—a sitting President. And the worst part is that the administration is legitimately worried he’d be a contender, so much so that they’ve put out polls to gauge just how much of a shot he’s got. Meanwhile, the President has vetoed his first ever bill, one that would repeal the estate tax, and Congress is now voting to overturn his decision. It seems they might even have the two-thirds votes to do this, so Toby and Sam are frantically trying to get Democratic butts in seats. But even those guys are giving the team a hard time; one goes so far as to make demands about grazing fees and tougher FDA regulations on milk. The White House is in dire straits; they’re even required to negotiate with people on their own side.
Josh tells the Indiana governor that while he doesn’t think the guy has any legitimate shot at the Presidency, the White House is worried the governor’s superior health—running marathons and such—is going to make the President look even more feeble by comparison. There’s enough B-roll out there, apparently, to effectively end the Bartlet reelection campaign for lack of mobility. The governor thinks this is ridiculous (“You wanna see me do some push-ups?”), to which Josh replies, “We’re afraid of everything.”
This is probably the most succinct way I’ve ever heard The West Wing described. By the end of “On The Day Before,” Donna will be told by Josh that she should no longer see this guy, for fear a reporter might catch them together and snap a photo. CJ will be scolded on national television for changing her wardrobe, and will exile the reporter for leading people down a false path. The President will demand his daughter call him every single day. CJ will learn, and ponder, the chemical abbreviation for table salt, just to avoid any lull in conversation.
The West Wing has built its version of the White House on characters who, truly, are afraid of everything. But these same characters still do brave things. The President will still call the parents of the murdered students, even though he has nothing to say. Toby and Sam will still throw elbows (turning down the Democratic Congressman’s demands, but making the same offer to a Republican one who might swing more votes), even though they’re fearful it won’t work. Plus there’s the press—a nebulous monster consuming public opinion—that CJ tries desperately to control, even though it’s entirely uncontrollable. Characters on The West Wing are far from fearless, but the show is even more satisfying because its characters act despite their fears. There will always be something threatening to tear this whole thing apart; and because the press is ever-vigilant, that something might in fact be nothing—a slip of the tongue, an odd phrasing. The West Wing prevails. The chemical abbreviation for table salt is NaCl.
- Charlie is starting to become like Bartlet; he can speak in broad terms just like his boss. His refusal to take immunity is seen as stupid until he puts Leo in his place. He's so goddamn noble, that guy.
- "On The Day Before" is one of the episodes Janel Moloney submitted for Emmy consideration. She'd eventually lose to Stockard Channing, but she's great in this one, especially in how she effortlessly jumps from business mode to "Josh we need to have a serious personal conversation" mode.
- Another enjoyable moment I forgot about in the write-up: Josh's intimate knowledge of the elaborate things he can do to stall in Congress. Each is only about 20 minutes, but they add up.
- "You still don't know my name, do you?" "It's Gertrude." "It's not."