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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The West Wing: "Enemies"/"The Short List"/"In Excelsis Deo"

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If there's one common thread I'm noticing about The West Wing, it's that, deep down, everyone working together genuinely likes each other. There wouldn't be much of a show were that not the case—Josh makes a joke about CJ, who immediately slaps him across the face; repeat for seven seasons. So with that in mind, two things strike me most of all about episode number eight: 1) When there's a character gallivanting around who people genuinely dislike, that character stands out most of all; 2) these guys might like each other, but they have a really odd way of showing it.

The episode's standout moment comes early, during a meeting in which the President's presence is requested; the man's tied up, so Vice President Hoynes starts without him, telling all in attendance that the first order of business—and the President would agree—is to figure out a way to best work with Congress. That's as far as he gets before Bartlet bursts in (amazing how quickly the mood shifts in the room from one of putting-up-with-ness to one of genuine respect) and asks what's been happening. The minutes are read; Bartlet disagrees. Shouldn't the first order of business be serving the American people, he asks? Hoynes sits, ponders, and like a shamed little kid, agrees. The West Wing is such a verbal-heavy show, so this moment sticks with me not just for the sheer awkwardness that envelops the room, but for its powerful use of the pause. This is the first scene we see in the entire series between the VP and the Prez, and right away I can't believe they've managed to work together for so long.

It's even odder that the press picks up on this quick exchange, and begins digging into the root of the tension. Odd, because for me, the moment came from a place of deep-seeded disdain, not something that all of a sudden erupted. I wonder where they've been this entire time; Hoynes and Bartlet must be really good at keeping the whole thing under wraps. And given what they talk about later—that Bartlet needed a VP to win the South, he went with Hoynes and resents having to beg the man—this isn't going away any time soon.

Pure speculation, but I keep waiting for this season's "big bad" to drop (to put it in Buffy terms). Maybe this isn't that kind of show, but I'd imagine there's going to be some sort of central season one conflict. I wonder if this is it.

But let's talk about a few other so-called enemies—namely, the rest of the White House who ostensibly like each other, but drive each other bat shit. There's President Bartlet and his constant need to talk about national parks, even keep Josh late at work in the process; there's Leo, distressed about his impending divorce, upset his daughter isn't cutting him any slack; there's Sam Seaborn, who Leo decides to torment simply because his daughter asks him to go see the Chinese opera (known for "their soaring melodies").

The one that keeps coming up throughout "Enemies," though, is the work itself. The work is responsible for breaking up Leo's marriage, infuriating Josh as he tries to save Blue Sky, keeping Sam from finally going on that date with Leo's daughter even after Leo admits the whole "work on this birthday note" thing was a set-up. Josh's interesting-yet-again-somewhat-unearned sentiment at the end, "We talk about enemies more than we used to," is more of a White House love letter than he originally intended.

Stray observations:

  • Either CJ has the worst timing ever, or the Vice President is perpetually at press junkets.
  • I still don't fully understand why the President tormented Sam, and by proxy Leo's daughter. She's just going through the process of having her parents divorce. Why get in the middle of that?
  • Just something to note: Leo's the kind of guy who stays at hotels where the coffee's $6.50.

"The Short List"
Sometimes, when you're looking for a new Supreme Court justice, you think you've found the right guy. Really, he's perfect in every way. But you've forgotten all about Admiral Adama circa New Caprica, and why would you ever choose anyone else?

This episode was about doing the kinds of politics politicians always want to do, but rarely get the chance. (Democratic politicians, I guess.) In that sense, to me this was a near-perfect West Wing, at least in the ones I've seen thus far.

A few things are at play here. First, and most prominent, it's time to appoint a new Supreme Court justice; and after months of vetting, the White House has settled on their man: Harrison, a Harvard law grad with a middle of the road, though slightly left-leaning track record. And though it hasn't officially been announced, the press knows it's a done deal. But the problem is that the man is so predictable, it goes against everything Bartlet ran for President on. "I wanted a Democrat; instead I got you," says the former justice just before officially tendering his resignation, in the Oval Office. "Republicans have guts." And Bartlet could show guts of his own by bringing on Mendoza, who's less of a lock but at least stands for the left's policies with both feet firmly planted.

At the same time, notorious crank Lillienfield is going on and on about how one-third of the White House staffers are on drugs, or something. And as Josh finds out, he's talking about Leo—a recovering alcoholic, but one who dabbled in pills six years ago. (After he admitted that, I wanted to yell, Lisa from The Room-style, "WHAT KIND OF DRUGS DO YOU TAKE?!?") It won't be long before drug tests will start happening in the White House; in fact, Mandy is recommending that they start doing it, just so they have something to release to the press as a counter to Field's wild accusations.

The message here is that fear has become the biggest enemy to politicians. Bartlet doesn't want to ruffle any feathers, so he's going with a man who doesn't stand for many of the things Bartlet stands for, but someone who would sail through the press's own vetting without a problem. (It's baffling to think when Harrison even entered the radar, as Josh points out, "When did Harrison become our guy?" No clue.) Mandy and Josh are so afraid of what Lillienfield has unearthed that they want to attack the man head-on, fueling the paranoia fire he intended to start.

But luckily, Bartlet realizes his error just in time—due mostly to the fact that, as it turns out, Harrison doesn't think the Constitution guarantees the right to privacy—and Mendoza is appointed. And those random drug searches? Mendoza thinks they're unconstitutional. In the world of West Wing politics, people conquer their fears, and it makes for compelling TV.

Stray observations:

  • Charlie was Harrison's caddy? Wow.
  • Apparently, when Josh is upset, he gets drunk and goes to Donna's apartment. Iiiiinteresting.

"In Excelsis Deo"
After quite a great streak of episodes, this was the first one I really didn't like. On the one hand, we get a nice story about Toby, who after being informed of the death of a homeless Korean vet, decides to do all he can to get him buried with honor—even going out of his way to find the man's brother and arrange an honor guard. That much, I liked (for a time, it went on for a while); everything else, though, felt too put-upon, killing the spontaneous charm I've so enjoyed up until now.

It doesn't help that Mandy, one of my least favorite characters, is in her most annoying role thus far: overseeing the Christmastime press-tivities at the White House, and badgering the President for not allowing a photographer to attend his shopping excursion to a used book store. Aside from one of the better West Wing lines to date—"This might seem trivial, but the Santa hats are clashing with the Dickensian costumes"—Mandy did nothing for me this time around.

Then there's the awkward courtship of Danny and CJ; and when I say awkward, I mean even more so than you'd expect from a newspaper reporter courting the press secretary. Danny gave her a goldfish in the last episode—in a hilarious misunderstanding!—and now won't leave CJ, aka "flamingo", alone. But an openly gay youth was beaten to death this week, which has CJ pushing for hate crimes legislation that could punish those bullies even more severely; and Danny doesn't think that kind of law would fly. Good thing they have this disagreement, because Danny can take CJ out to convince her! It's a Christmas miracle!

Unfortunately, there's not much to say about Sam and Josh's plight either. The pair are getting distressed by Lillienfield's attack against Leo's drug use, so they decide to ask Laurie if she can reveal any names of high-ranking Republican government officials who, ahem, use her services. She's, of course, pissed. "You're the good guys. You should act like it," she shouts. What did they expect? Sam's made it his whole MO to go after Laurie as a friend, not to treat her like a call girl; but here he is, doing just that.

It's certainly nice to learn a bit more about Mrs. Landingham, and the sad tale about her sons is one that'll stick with her character throughout the show; and it's certainly nice to see her tag along with Toby to the funeral. And I sure do love Donna, and the whole "this is my regular face" exchange she had with Josh. (With me, you'd never wont for skis, Donna.) But a hiccup's bound to happen every once in a while.

Stray observations:

  • The President is allergic to eggnog? I didn't even think people could be allergic to such a thing.
  • I feel safer knowing Lt. Daniels is patrolling the streets.