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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The West Wing: "Let Bartlet Be Bartlet"/"Mandatory Minimums"

Illustration for article titled The West Wing: "Let Bartlet Be Bartlet"/"Mandatory Minimums"

"Let Bartlet Be Bartlet"
When losing is a daily occurrence, you just sort of accept it, no less than you accept what time your alarm goes off or what website you visit first when you get into work. Routine. And at this point in the Bartlet administration, the staff is pretty used to losing. Until recently, they had spent an entire year with a below-average approval rating, fighting Congress left and right for even the tiniest inch, only to find themselves pandering to get anything done. So when Sam forgets to swap out a line at the top of the President's speech in "Let Bartlet Be Bartlet," it makes for some humor, but also begins the episode firmly in the mindset of Bartlet's first year in office: Sometimes you lose, but if you move along briskly, no one's going to notice. And as one commenter astutely pointed out last week, this doesn't bother our guys, because it's all about the fight itself.

But at the beginning of the previous episode, the administration got a taste of victory with the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Mendoza; "Let Bartlet" is about how the realization that they can win a few of those battles seeps through the staff, ending the episode with the team not only reinvigorated for the fight, but for the first time with eyes squarely on the prize.

First, some losses. Mandy, who I don't care about nor do I think is any good at her job, has colossally fucked up yet again (as opposed to last week, where her Panda pandering was merely a colossal waste of time). A memo is leaked that Mandy wrote when she was working for the Congressman, which outlines, in great detail, Bartlet's weaknesses. I'm not quite clear how the memo itself could be all that surprising—surely some other analyst who observes Bartlet for an extended period of time could come to the same conclusions—unless Mandy had some super insider perspective. But the Bartlet administration has proven itself to be one that doesn't appreciate others seeing how the sausage is made. The staff members have cobbled together a ramshackle infrastructure and workstyle comprised of swinging by people's offices on a whim and walk-talk bitch out sessions; people might not be so kind after seeing that.

(Also, I kinda love watching CJ talk down to Mandy; she's so much more capable at her job than Mandy ever will be. Seriously, why hasn't she been let go? I haven't seen her do anything right yet.)

And as much as Bartlet comes across—at least most of the time—as a shoot-from-the-hip straight-talkin' liberal, this episode once again finds he and his team talking a big game, then getting bogged down with politics and möbius strip-like discussions. Even after all the groundwork Bartlet laid for gay rights, Sam is still met with difficulty negotiating legislation that would allow gays to openly serve in the military. Hot off the Mendoza confirmation, the team wants to get two Bartlet supporters on the committee for campaign finance reform, but the Republicans overseeing the nomination won't even consider the President's recommendations—even though one's a Republican. People on The West Wing who aren't White House people have such a short memory, and apparently an absolute disdain for anything remotely resembling selflessness.

The staff wades through a fair amount of bullshit, but finds its way to the other side when Leo decides, once and for all, that people just need to let Bartlet be Bartlet—that it's not just about the fight as we've seen all season, but it's about fighting while at the same time truly believing you can win. It's a lot more fulfilling and a lot more honorable, to look at the big political picture. And despite the somewhat sappy ending (Leo and Bartlet nodding knowingly to each other, after the staff energetically recites that they serve "at the pleasure of the President of the United States"), "Let Bartlet Be Bartlet" is a reminder of the power of taking the long view, of implementing a little pause in wearing, endless routine.

Stray observations:

  • This episode also finds Danny going for the win, publishing Mandy's memo and thus alienating CJ. Just like so many others, the job comes first. And can we please get that man a lamp or something for the press room?
  • Margaret fretting over the Internet failure proves Leo has the most anal retentive of all the assistants.
  • Fitzwallace has his turn as the deux ex machina of the week. Guess he's only going to show up when there's good or bad news.
  • Toby's funniest when he doesn't care about the people he's talking to. Which is often.

"Mandatory Minimums"
The story Bartlet shares during his opening speech is quite apt for the remainder of the episode. Bartlet mentions that a group of young lads used to travel until they found a wall none of them could conceivably scale, throw their hats over, and then have no choice but to follow. Then, only a minute later, he announces his choices for nominees to the committee on campaign finance reform, despite the Republicans' threats that if he did, they'd bring out tons of time-wasting legislation to discuss—starting with English as the national language. Only one minute after that, one of them calls Josh to complain, and Josh tells him to shove his legislative agenda up his ass. The caps have been thrown over the wall; now it's just a matter of figuring out how to get to the other side.

More than a major plot point or deep rumination on politics, "Mandatory Minimums" is a snapshot of the tactics the White House must now employ to get over that wall. CJ briefs the press just before Bartlet made his big announcement, readying them for the big piece of news yet to come; the rest of the episode is what that preparation looks like for the White House team.

And though we've been through a lot so far this season, this episode has Leo visibly freaking out for the first time. ("A nervous hooleelia," which is not really a word, but something Sam's mom used to say.) So he does what any panicking person would do: he starts making decisions, fast, and lots of them, leaving no room for screw-ups. Mandy is out of the inner circle—she can't be trusted. He calls Al Keifer, who last regaled them with terrible advice and slept with Josh's girl Joey, to regale them with terrible advice, somehow having to do with being on the playground at recess. He has CJ do damage control with the press, and under the pressure she slips up; in rare Leo form, he follows up with, "That's just the kind of dumb mistake we don't need right now." Then he sends Toby to meet with a Democrat with the committee for campaign finance reform, who just so happens to be his ex-wife. And they're going on a lunch date. Oh, and Leo essentially blackmails a bunch of prominent Capitol Hill guys, silencing them on a new drug bill using info about their boss's family's drug arrests. This is what Leo calls playing "the full nine innings"; he is truly, wholly, freaking out.

It's interesting to me how damn familial the whole thing feels. CJ screws up at the press briefing, and Leo, like the older brother tasked to babysit his younger siblings, leaps to verbally assault her, even though she already clearly knows she did something wrong and has learned her lesson. Sam and Toby's relationship, too, rings all too much like every younger brother/older brother dynamic I've ever seen, including my own: Sam's enamored with Toby and thinks he can do no wrong; he's even willing to walk for blocks in the wrong direction with Toby, just to continue a conversation they're having. But at the end of the day, everyone has to answer to dear ol' dad, and the staff's storming of Bartlet's bedroom is equal parts uncomfortable and comforting. They're obviously invading his personal space, but just being in his personal space puts them at ease, regardless of how scary it was to walk in and wake him up in the first place. The odd parental mapping of the episode lends it a strange air of tragedy; disappointment feels like it runs even deeper, the quest for approval that much more desperate.

But it's also interesting that the guy at the top of the "family", who should be taking things the hardest, is the only one getting any sleep—literally and figuratively. And when he sleeps, he dreams about discussion with experts, energy, great ideas, honesty, "and when I wake up, I think, 'I can sell that,' " he shares. I'd like to think Sorkin has created a fictional political world where those kinds of things happen not only in dreams, but that'd be making things easy on himself; even on The West Wing, it's a hell of a lot harder than that.

Stray observations:

  • Great to have Joey Lucas back, and to watch Josh fumble his way around her—handing off a coffee mug and dancing around his question of whether she's still with Kiefer. And he tells it all to the President like he's a 10 year old admitting a crush to his father.
  • It's always nice to watch the staffers admire the work of each other: Josh watching CJ do the briefing from his office, and laughing alongside her; Toby watchiing Sam work over his shoulder, "You gonna put in a verb soon?" "It's called imagery." "You say potato…"
  • "When you were married to her, did you call her Congresswoman Wyatt?… Sometimes I call my wife Dr. Bartlet."
  • It finally looks like the Laurie stuff is going to be important, with campaign finance reform sleaze dude Steve (played by The Aristocrats director Paul Provenza) hoping to use the info against Sam. Glad it's all coming back, but it sure did take a while.