Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The West Wing: "H-Con 172"/"100,000 Airplanes"

Illustration for article titled The West Wing: "H-Con 172"/"100,000 Airplanes"

"H. Con-172"/"100,000 Airplanes" (season 3, episodes 11-12; originally aired 1/9/02 & 1/16/02)

The President takes a public censure to avoid Leo being litigated, and Sam is questioned by a Vanity Fair reporter.

When A Few Good Men was eyeing a return to Broadway a few years ago, Aaron Sorkin took a few meetings with producers who could make it happen. My girlfriend was working for one of those producers (keepin’ it vague to not get anyone in trouble), and knowing she’s a big fan of The West Wing, he asked her, “So, which character on that show do you think Sorkin most resembles?” She racked her brain. Josh, right? Nope. Oh, then surely Toby? No. Bartlet? Heh, nah.

“Sam Seaborn,” he replied.

Yes, Sam: The guy cracking jokes from the corner, all the while letting his mind simmer about the next quippy soundbite to end an episode on. Or, maybe he’s off on some weird tangent—like figuring out the relative importance of the penny—with deepening obsession. But that’s just Sam: He manages to be a part of everything and nothing at the same time.

Important note: Obviously, you can take this guy’s opinion with as much salt as is recommended by your doctor. Your blood pressure’s high, after all.

The thing about good ol’ Sam is that episodes rarely have him at the forefront. Certainly there have been a few (he slept with a prostitute, he discovered the infidelity of his father), but for my money, they’re not the most emotionally nuanced episodes in West Wing history. Specifically in “Somebody’s Going To Emergency, Somebody’s Going To Jail,” Sam worked extra hard just so he wouldn’t have to face reality for a few minutes. That’s about as nuanced as it gets when Sam’s the center of attention. Perhaps that’s because when Sorkin is writing for Sam—for, ostensibly, himself—he has trouble separating himself from the character, and can’t see the forest for the trees. It’s not a huge deal, because obviously Sam is still beloved. His headstrong nature often means he’s supplying the perspective of the viewer’s gut reaction; for example, eliminating the penny is totally an idea worth coming around to. And, let’s face it, he gets a ton of funny lines. It’s just that whenever Sam’s the center of an episode, I dunno, I find it lacking—he’s too affected, or not affected enough, or something.


I’m getting a little ahead of myself, so why don’t we talk about “100,000 Airplanes” first. So forget the fact that no self-respecting editor for Vanity Fair would ever assign a story to a writer who used to be engaged to the interview subject. (Unless that subject is Hugh Hefter, because who hasn’t?) Plus, no self-respecting administration would let someone be interviewed, if the person doing the question-asking had, you know, some way to get privy information like, I dunno, being engaged to the interview subject at one point.

But in any case, Lisa Sherborne is interviewing Sam Seaborn during the State Of The Union Address, and will be shadowing him for two weeks as he goes about his business. At first it’s a minor annoyance—she asks Sam to explain how the approval tracking is done, and continues to pester him as he obsesses over every little blip on the happiness radar. Sam becomes more and more annoyed as the evening goes on, for two reasons: 1) Sam’s disappointed the speech didn’t include a bit he wrote about curing cancer within 10 years—a promise the Bartlet administration could keep to the people, and 2) Because Lisa is sitting there in his office, he is forced to confront and question his decision to leave his law job and work for the President. The promise to cure cancer could have been his big contribution, to make him feel like it was all worth it. But without that part of the speech, he’s just as disillusioned with politics and the feeling of treading water as I am. Again: He’s just like us all.


The thing that bothers me is that when the spotlight is on Sam, he lacks some of the humility that makes other characters—and really Sam in just about every other situation—so likable. Sure, these guys are running the free world, but there are moments when they understand just how silly their lives have become (debating about wolf habitats, and all that). Sam in “100,000 Airplanes” becomes obsessed with putting the curing cancer line into the speech, as if nobody would cure cancer unless it was said. He puts the written word up on this impossibly high pedestal, and that would have been fine if someone else in the episode were to say at any point, “You know, doctors are still working to cure cancer, and our government can help in other ways.” They didn’t, though, and instead fuel his anguish. It’s no longer the beliefs of this one character we’ve all come to love, it’s a belief that blankets the entire show for an episode. And it seems to only happen with Sam.

I’m finding it hard to explain what I mean once I’m removed from the actual viewing experience of The West Wing. In my three years covering this for The A.V. Club, I’ve come to view The West Wing as a show that can be endlessly unpacked after watching, even if the viewing experience is seemingly straightforward. So when I say that “100,000 Airplanes” felt like it was too emotionally blunt, it’s the kind of thing I’m having trouble qualifying on paper. I suppose that’s just going to happen sometimes. The West Wing is certainly a show worth intellectualizing, but the beauty of television—to put it in the most obvious way possible—is that it hits us in our brains as well as our hearts. And “100,000 Airplanes” keeps us at a distance from Sam Seaborn, normally an open vessel to receive much love from us viewers. It’s the opposite of the magic that brought me to tears when Bartlet put his hands in his pockets at the end of season two; sometimes, the magic just isn’t there.


The Sam-centric plot of “100,000 Airplanes” felt too calculated. On the other hand, the Josh/Amy storyline in both that and the earlier “H. Con-172” is Aaron Sorkin at his breeziest. I’ve mentioned before that Sorkin women remind me of each other, and I see a lot of Rebecca from Sports Night in Amy. Specifically, the implication that Amy thinks she knows it all—makes a habit of countering Josh’s many arguments—but there’s this one thing that Josh thinks he knows that Amy just can’t admit has any truth. It starts in “H.Con-172”, when Josh invents an excuse to get Amy on the phone, then out for a late drink. She sees right through Josh’s thinly veiled attempt to spend time with her, puts him in his place, but shows up at his doorstep anyways. It’s a fantasy come to life, but Josh isn’t one to ever leave well enough alone. He learns that Amy is dating a Congressman up for reelection in a district where the women’s vote can turn the tide. So rather than be the knight in shining armor to sweep Amy away from this other guy, he instead decides to be the magical imp on her shoulder (to continue some weird RPG metaphor) and inform her about the Congressman’s sinister motives—use Amy as a way to curb favor with women voters. Of course, she’s pissed at Josh, and spends the entire night in “100,000 Airplanes” telling him not to speak. But after the Congressman insists Amy join him in a photo-op that should just be for him, something snaps, and she sees what’s happening.

I’m excited for the Josh/Amy romance for a few reasons. Josh is capable of some real hefty scenes on The West Wing, and they usually come around when he’s most vulnerable, whether it’s talking about his dad or, you know, having just been shot. He’s obviously infatuated with Amy, so the part of me that likes compelling television is thrilled there’s this new person who can cut right to his core. The part of me that’s realistic, knows Mary Louise Parker isn’t a regular character, and understands the limits of television knows it’s doomed. But hey, it’s all about the ride, right?


A few final things about these two episodes before I stop making sense entirely (which has probably already happened): I haven’t spoken much yet about the plot of “H. Con-172,” which was a strong West Wing episode for the structure alone. The episode takes place relatively soon after the trials of “Bartlet For America” were cut short—and in real time, after the Christmas break. Leo is about to submit himself to further questioning, but Cliff Calley wants to do what he can to avoid White House embarrassment. Why? He’s just that nice of a guy. And a fuckin’ keeper, Donna.

So basically the White House has the option of accepting a deal with the Oversight Committee that will offer a public censure to the President, but end the hearing. This will tarnish the President’s legacy in whatever capacity, but Leo is more than willing to fall on his sword if it means Bartlet isn’t officially reprimanded/embarrassed in front of the entire country. The entire episode involves various staff members telling the President to please, for the love of God, take the deal, and it ends with a heart-to-heart where Bartlet tells Leo he’s going to do it, and thanks Leo for trying his darndest anyways. Toby uses a quote from The Lion In Winter—well, he says “your favorite film” to Bartlet, who fills in the rest—to illustrate his point; Sam tells the President, possibly inadvertently, that the truth is important and shouldn’t be ignored. See, he’s dealing with this ex-communicated White House photographer who wrote a tell-all book that Sam is preparing to refute. Every single line. Eventually, he relents, letting the guy miss his shots from the court, rather than taking foul shots he’s probably going to make. This also marks the second consecutive time basketball has made it into a West Wing episode.


Basically, “H. Con-172” boils down to the fact that you can’t control what others are going to say and write about you, so there’s no sense in trying. It’s odd when paired with “100,000 Airplanes,” when every sentence the President says is run through a focus group, the data analyzed and extrapolated, and a mammoth celebration occurs at the end of the night when the results are shared. But I guess if the White House can’t control what others say, it might as well say and do whatever the hell it wants, and not only promise to cure cancer, but actually do it. There’s as much power in words as there are in actions on The West Wing—and a whole lot of Aaron Sorkin, whatever character or storyline he may be.

  • "So many women; so little charm."
  • "Not so much for you with the talking."
  • "Did you not get married because she'd have been Lisa Sherborne-Seaborn?"