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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The West Wing: "Galileo"/"Noël"

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The West Wing takes a long time to tell simple stories. Taken purely on their final few scenes, “Galileo” and “Noël” are quite easy to digest: People are smart, and friends are great.

For the first half of “Galileo,” I found myself growing tired of what I suppose I imagined Aaron Sorkin’s “schtick” to be. There was a story about green beans—Oregon produces them, the President doesn’t like them, and Charlie told the media as much. There was a story about stamps—can a guy who’s pro Puerto Rico-becoming-a-state be immortalized on one? There was a story about a Russian missile silo on fire. There was a story about an Icelandic orchestra, one about Sam and Mallory, and of course one about a spaceship called Galileo about to land on Mars. The episode bounces from one to the other—the President rehearses for the Galileo event, he’s briefed in the hall, then escorted into the Situation Room. It’s just like Aaron Sorkin, I thought, to throw all these balls in the air before I’ve got a grasp on one or two. I didn’t really know where this was going.


Regardless, “Galileo” peppered its plot—which despite its spontaneous nature had the President effortlessly moving from one thing to the next—with some fine situational comedy, mostly surrounding that Icelandic concert. The President is all psyched for his time off spent reading books on Mars (Maybe CJ is right, “Nobody likes a know-it-all”) but is informed by Leo that he must attend that concert because he blew off some other meeting and has to appease the Icelandic people. “Is this a joke?” Bartlet wonders. He winds up dragging Sam and CJ along with him, two of the show’s finest comedy purveyors. And after bending the ear of whoever will listen with his tales of “not even knowing what dating is anymore” as it pertains to Mallory (Toby: “That’s 20 seconds of my life I’m never going to get back”), it’s finally time to face up to Leo’s daughter. And of course, by that I mean see Mallory and throw his champagne glass into the garbage…or talk about her to her face while Josh is on the phone. (“You’re probably going to want to hang up now.”)

Meanwhile, CJ dreads attending because she’s going to have to face candidates she turned down for a job. And we all know how much CJ hates confrontation (or, rather, says she hates confrontation). So when she finally sees one of them, the conversation is hysterical in just how quickly it progresses from cordial surface-level BS into, well, a lot more. See, this guy thinks CJ didn’t give him the job because he dumped her, so he feels the need to call her out on it. But it’s not because she was bad in bed. Oh no. She’s great in bed. He wanted her to know that.


It’s amazing how little things like that—an unexpected compliment, for example—can change a person’s entire mood so swiftly. As much as I love CJ, she’s not usually one to give the American people too much credit. She deals with the press, after all, where perception is everything and the tiniest most throw-away lines have mammoth impacts. She said so herself earlier in the episode: “Everyone’s stupid during an election year.” Yet she’s the one who gives “Galileo” its unifying thread and much-needed perspective. Let people know the President doesn’t like green beans. Put the guy who pushes for Puerto Rican statehood on the stamp. Even if it’s heartbreaking, do the Galileo Q&A with the ship status unknown and no new Martian data to analyze with grade school kids. (And let the Russians…well, CJ didn’t really have much to say about that.) Her advice: Just tell it like it is. Let Bartlet be Bartlet, so to speak. People should compliment CJ’s love-making abilities more often.

Unlike “Galileo,” it was easy to see where “Noël” was going the entire time. Josh is brought in for ATVA counseling for a reason, spelled out plainly at the top of the episode. His coworkers are concerned because he’s been behaving strangely for three weeks, ever since a yet-to-be-defined incident involving a pilot. After a quick came of cat-and-mouse with the therapist (this ain’t the first rodeo for either one of them), it becomes clear that, eventually, Josh is going to spill the beans on what’s really been going on, and he’s probably going to break down. Now it’s just a matter of sitting back and waiting for the information to come out.


Just because I had a vague notion of what was going to happen didn’t make “Noël” any less engrossing. Josh fought the therapist at every turn, meaning the reveal of every tiny detail felt like a huge accomplishment. Josh noting he and the pilot have the same birthday…it’s a comment made almost in passing, but I really felt the weight of it because I knew there was something bigger coming. Same with the scene in which Josh yells at the President—in the Oval Office, no less: I knew he was going to yell, the therapist pointed out as much, yet the cutting back and forth between Josh recounting the story and the story itself lent suspense to the proceeding. Hell, the episode was mostly just a guy talking, but when we finally saw Josh pound that window, Yo-Yo Ma blasting in the background, every knot in my stomach released at once—the catharsis of a huge therapeutic release.

Those singularly focused West Wing episodes are my favorite. I can appreciate “Galileo” for the way it weaves together multiple storylines and character moments, but the thrill of discovery in the simple “Noël” struck a chord. The episode took an already established dynamic—Josh effortlessly deflecting things he doesn’t like to talk about—and hammered it until it broke. Suddenly he’s no longer the trooper who bounced right back from the shooting; his “What’s next?” from the end of “In The Shadow Of Two Gunmen, Part II” no longer means as much as it did then. We get a full-on picture of the madness running deep within the calm exterior, more so than the glimpses we catch in other episodes through the characters’ actions and occasional speeches. “Galileo” found order in chaos, where “Noël” exposed chaos in perceived order.


Taken simply as an isolated moment in the show, Leo’s story to Josh at the end—a man trapped in a hole is saved by his friend, ended with, “As long as I have a job here, you have a job here”—would have been powerful enough, if not a little sappy I suppose. But given how beautifully the rest of the episode came together, I nearly wept. Josh’s description of the glass breaking, followed by replaying the scene in his head and ending with the actual, window-shattering event, demonstrated just how devastated and broken Josh had become since the shooting. It took a long time to get to that final moment, but there’s an elegance to episodes of The West Wing. I guess if there really is a “schtick” to the show, it’s that the mundane has meaning, everyone is wise beyond their years, and even the simplest stories aren’t as simple as I’d think.

"Galileo": B+
"Noël": A-

Stray observations:

  • Also awesome: Donna offering to take Josh to the emergency room. Get together already! "I should put you on a stamp."
  • "Ask me how long a Martian day is." "I don't think I will."
  • "When we run for reelection, I'd vote for someone else." Zing!
  • The therapist's "no feelings" strategy seemed odd, but makes a lot of sense. Is that common for PTSD sufferers, does anyone know?
  • Also heartbreaking: Josh's realization early on that the other training therapist is partially there on suicide watch. Oy.