The West Wing, One By One: “He Shall, from Time to Time…”

As is mightily apparent, I’ve pretty much stopped posting on this blog. Rather than let it go to waste, I’m going to use it to house writeups of my longtime whim to watch all the episodes of “The West Wing” and write about them. Sounds fun, I hope?

Note: I’m not sure yet whether I want to watch all the episodes in order or hop around through seven seasons and try to make sense of them that way. I’m starting out from the beginning for now, but I’m not ruling out the possibility that I’ll get restless and stray at some point.

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Episode Title: "He Shall, from Time to Time…"

Season 1, Episode 12

"A" Story: The President is due to deliver the State of the Union in 48 hours, and what at first appears to be the flu actually turns out to be something much more serious. After watching Abbey race back to D.C. to tend to her husband, Leo presses her to level with him, and she does: the President has multiple sclerosis.

"B" Story: The story about Leo’s Valium addiction is going to break the next day (actually, CJ tells Leo it’s already on the internet, but back in Aaron Sorkin’s 1999, nothing is real until the print media picks it up the next morning). Sam wants to write a statement of support on behalf of the President, Leo forbids it (“if I go down, I’m not taking anybody with me”), Sam does it anyway, Leo flips out. But who can really blame Sam for being a good guy? Certainly not Mallory, who plants one on him by episode’s end. 

"C" Story: Toby meets with the Democratic leadership in order to haggle over SOTU language with regard to work-vs.-welfare and the idea that “the era of big government is over.” Prime “idealistic Toby” material.

Runners: 

  • Oh, right, that small matter of India and Pakistan and nuclear brinksmanship. Lord John Marbury is still around, and he advises the President to essentially buy India off by offering them assistance in building infrastructure for their tech industry.
  • CJ finds herself feeling jealous when she sees Mandy flirting with Danny, so CJ ends up working herself up to the point of a proper kiss with Danny.
  • The President’s staff needs to find a Cabinet member to hang back at the White House, so in case the State of the Union is bombed, there will be someone to pick up the line of succession. That rather grim possibility is handled with a good bit of morbid humor and leads to a heartwarming scene.

Guest Stars of Note: Besides Roger Rees, John Amos, and Stockard Channing all returning, we get Harry Groener (a.k.a. The Mayor from “Buffy”) as the cabinet secretary chosen to hang back. The scene where Bartlet puts the wide-eyed Groener at ease with some humor becomes a bit more when Jed takes the opportunity to turn a bit of subjunctive advice should Groener ever have to actually assume the presidency into a statement of love and appreciation (overheard by Leo, of course) to his chief of staff.

Also of note: Groener’s character’s last name is Tribbey, continuing Sorkin’s long tradition of recycling character names (or at least it will once John Larroquette’s Lionel Tribbey shows up).

The Road to Mandyville: The rare moment of sympathy for Mandy, as CJ starts acting like a dick to her for no good reason. Mandy’s “CJ! WTF?” reaction was pretty much the right one. 

Sorkinicana: Oh, quite a bit. We’re gonna need some bullet points.

  • It’s great that Toby’s fighting the good fight for the virtues of “big government,” of course. And this is the first of several times we’ll see Toby going to bat for the National Endowment for the Arts in particular. But we get a classic Sorkin strawman, with the DNC suits being dolts who mix up Rodgers & Hammerstein/Rodgers & Hart and mistake Arthur Murray for Arthur Miller, not to mention handing Toby a layup in that Arthur Miller used the WPA to write “Death of a Salesman.” This is exactly like how the bible-thumper in the pilot didn’t know the names of the commandments. Sometimes the other guys can still have their facts straight, Aaron.
  • I’ve already expressed my reservations about CJ and Danny. I get how it’s more of a mitigated courtship than other sexist Sorkin pairings. But even when CJ decides to take the bull by the horns and kiss Danny, she still dithers screwballishly for long enough that Danny gets to be the one who kisses her. It’s not insidious, but that aggressive old-fashioned-ness is annoying.
  • Mallory grabs Sam and makes out with him in front of everybody after she learns that he wrote the President’s statement of support for her father. A beautiful woman kissing a man just for being a great writer. It does not get more Sorkin than that.

Odds and Ends:

  • "Is it possible I’m taking something called euthanasia?" If I can’t get a good ginko biloba joke, I’ll take an echinacea joke.
  • While he’s laid up, Jed watches some “Passions” and complains about the conventions of daytime TV, placing him in the company of (among others) Spike from “Buffy” as TV characters who have watched “Passions” for comic relief.
  • Toby is the recipient of this week’s Inspiring Music Cue when he makes the case to the President for the virtues of big government.
  • Lord John actually calls Leo “Leo” as he wishes him the best of luck in weathering his scandal. Aw!

The Verdict: Even just as an episode about putting together the State of the Union and standing behind Leo and CJ and Danny’s dance of wonky seduction, this would have been a solid episode. Two scenes, and their attendant plot development, put it way over the top. The first, where Abbey ultimately confesses the President’s M.S. to Leo, is one of those indelible West Wing scenes, where we she’s barely holding her shit together and about three or four things dawn on Leo in succession. Later, the scene where Jed and Leo, the oldest of friends, come clean with each other, and Jed’s scared and sorry and crying, and Leo’s hurt but resolute, and it’s all so well acted and written and amazing. (By the time Jed gets to telling Leo he was proud of him at his press conference about the Valium thing, it’s all incredibly touching.

Moreover, the decision to throw M.S. into the mix at this stage of the series was a such a bold one. The temptation for The West Wing to hew as much as possible to events and issues that were based in history must have been huge. To introduce an angle that would take U.S. politics in a direction they’ve never gone before was a gutsy decision. Was this all a way for Sorkin to re-litigate the Clinton scandals in a far more sympathetic light? Perhaps. But The West Wing rarely, if ever, took the easy way out with M.S., taking a hard line with Bartlet on honesty and the politics of candor, and actually letting him deteriorate over the course of the series. It’s a development that both deepens and complicates the show, and it gets a great kickoff here. 

Next Up: "Take Out the Trash Day," where Aaron Sorkin gets to talk about fathers and sons, and I get to holler about gay shit. 

The West Wing, One by One: “Lord John Marbury”

As is mightily apparent, I’ve pretty much stopped posting on this blog. Rather than let it go to waste, I’m going to use it to house writeups of my longtime whim to watch all the episodes of “The West Wing” and write about them. Sounds fun, I hope?

Note: I’m not sure yet whether I want to watch all the episodes in order or hop around through seven seasons and try to make sense of them that way. I’m starting out from the beginning for now, but I’m not ruling out the possibility that I’ll get restless and stray at some point.

Episode Title: "Lord John Marbury"

Season 1, Episode 11

"A" Story: So there’s this small matter of a potential military conflict between India and Pakistan, the crux of which is India flexing its nuclear muscles. This is all rather troubling for the President and his State Department and Joint Chiefs, particularly once a chat with the Chinese ambassador reveals that China might intercede on Pakistan’s behalf. In order to help the young administration’s understanding of the subcontinent crisis, Bartlet calls in the eccentric Lord John Marbury, British diplomat and thorn in Leo’s side.

"B" Story: In the immediate aftermath of the troop movements in India, Leo wants to keep the story away from the press, and Toby advises him not to tell CJ about it for her briefing. So she goes in uninformed and looks like an idiot in front of the press, and later like the President doesn’t trust her with important information. This leads to a rather serious CJ/Toby fight, where he makes the argument that she’s too chummy with the reporters (i.e. Danny), and she saying that she’s either a trusted member of the team or she’s not.

"C" Story: Josh is subpoenaed by a Rep. Claypool, who is running the investigation into drug use in the White House, which is in actuality a fairly transparent witch hunt into exposing Leo’s past Valium addiction. Josh takes in one rather tense session with Claypool, followed by a second one with Sam as his attorney, which gets fantastically punchy, almost literally.

Runners: 

  • Zoey asks Charlie out on a date, leading to much comedic, paternalistic consternation from the President. Though when Leo calls him out on maybe having a racial base for his discomfort, Jed objects: “I’m Spencer Tracy at the end of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” The absolute apex of race relations in American history, to be sure.
  • Mandy wants Sam to help her to convince Toby to let her take on a Republican Congressman as a client. Sam is sympathetic at first — the Congressman is a moderate, one of the “good ones” — but after accompanying Josh to the second deposition, he’s fairly well radicalized against the Republicans and shoots down Mandy’s request rather harshly.

First Appearances:

  • Roger Rees as Lord John Marbury. There’s no more problematic West Wing character that I absolutely love than Lord John Marbury. Sorkin presents him as this boozy, womanizing old cad but ultimately lovable. Even Leo’s objections to him take a weird 1950s paternalistic tilt (“You’re going to let him loose in the White House where there’s liquor and women?”). There are not a few times where it seems like Sorkin thinks he’s writing one of those screwball comedies that so inspired him, and Lord John is one of them. And yet … Roger Rees is so incredibly winning in the role! I met Roger Rees once, and he gave me a giant hug because he thought I was the boyfriend of a friend of his. I love Roger Rees. 
  • Ed and Larry! Bill Duffy and Peter James Smith make their West Wing debut as the interchangeable White House staffers, in this case trying to watch senior staff through the basics of India/Pakistan.

Guest Stars of Note: Oh, lots. Notable Hey! It’s That Guys Erick Avari, James Hong, and Iqbal Theba play the ambassadors from Pakistan, China, and India, respectively. 

The Road to Mandyville: For once, Mandy gets to be the least cynical member of the team. Too bad it comes in an episode where the audience sympathy is being heavily weighted towards those assuming partisan battle positions. When even Sam is ceding the idealistic high ground, you know Mandy picked the wrong week to quit being a ruthless operative. 

Odds and Ends:

  • Lord John constantly referring to Leo as “Gerald” and mistaking (“mistaking”) him for the butler is one of my favorite running gags in this series.
  • This episode really speaks to and more clearly defines the division of power in the staff, particularly that Toby is CJ’s direct supervisor and that when it comes to foreign policy, the need-to-know chain of command runs Leo > Josh > Toby > CJ and Sam.
  • Mrs. Landingham has a cookie jar on her desk, naturally. 

The Verdict: Lord John is a delight, but the real power of the episode comes from the senior staff. The CJ/Toby conflict is a great combination of the professional (CJ’s chumminess with the press would naturally come into question) and the personal (CJ thinks of Toby as a friend, so being lied to by him must sting). And Josh and Sam’s deposition scene with Claypool is incredibly tense and rousingly partisan. It’s tough not to come out of it hoping they crush Leo’s accusers.

Next Up: "He Shall, from Time to Time," where we learn a rather important thing. 

The West Wing, One by One: “In Excelsis Deo”

As is mightily apparent, I’ve pretty much stopped posting on this blog. Rather than let it go to waste, I’m going to use it to house writeups of my longtime whim to watch all the episodes of “The West Wing” and write about them. Sounds fun, I hope?

Note: I’m not sure yet whether I want to watch all the episodes in order or hop around through seven seasons and try to make sense of them that way. I’m starting out from the beginning for now, but I’m not ruling out the possibility that I’ll get restless and stray at some point.

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Episode Title: "In Excelsis Deo"

Season 1, Episode 10

"A" Story: On the day before Christmas Eve, Toby is called by D.C. police, because a homeless man died of exposure with Toby’s business card in his coat pocket (Toby had donated the coat to Goodwill). Toby spots a Marines tattoo on the man’s arm and thus begins to tumble down the rabbit hole of this man’s life. Suffused with a spirit of holiday melancholy, Toby arranges for a military funeral for the man, pulling his White House strings to do so.

"B" Story: Josh is tired of waiting for Lillienfield to drop the bomb about Leo’s former Valium problem. (We learn that said Valium problem occurred while Leo was Secretary of Labor, which: yipes.) Josh wants to approach Sam’s call-girl friend (Laurie), and despite Leo’s vociferous objections, he does, with Sam in tow. The interaction goes … rather badly, with Josh basically calling her a whore and Laurie ultimately shaming the both of them for acting like the bad guys.

"C" Story: A Matthew Shepard analogue is attacked and tortured in Minnesota, eventually dying the next day. Thus, the West Wing must gear up for a debate on hate-crime legislation, only they’re not sure where they’re ultimately going to come down on it (they have to test the political waters), so strong reactions like CJ’s have to be tamped down.

Runners:

  • It’s Christmas week, so there’s a bunch of holiday-related business to get to. Leo grumpily signs a mountain of holiday cards and bitches to an impassive Margaret. Mandy organizes a tree-lighting event that involves children wearing Dickensian costumes and/or Santa hats. The President hams it up at a photo op with school children. Also, Mrs. Landingham informs us that the President is allergic to eggnog. 
  • Toby, Sam, and CJ engage in that least tiresome of all debates: does the millennium begin in 2000 or 2001?
  • Most importantly, Mrs. Landingham tells Charlie the story of why the holidays tend to get her down: her twin sons died in Vietnam on Christmas eve. Kathryn Joosten did a lot of great work on this show, but I’d be hard pressed to find a better moment than when she tells Charlie, “It’s hard not to think that right then they needed their mother.” Of the zero guest acting Emmy nominations The West Wing received in its first season, Joosten’s snub for this episode feels the most egregious.
  • Danny continues to flirt with CJ. This time, she flirts back a bit, and when it’s the both of them flirting on equal footing, it’s really something.

Guest Stars of Note: Our old pal Lance Reddick shows up for a one-off as the D.C. cop who calls Toby.

Sorkinicana: This of course was the episode for which Sorkin and Rick Cleveland won a writing Emmy, which Sorkin accepted and filibustered and refused to even acknowledge Cleveland. This was followed by an embarrassing downward spiral for Sorkin, and ultimately ended up with him naming one of the hacky Studio 60 writers after Cleveland. Almost all of the ill feeling towards Sorkin on the internet (and eventually beyond) began here.

The Road to Mandyville: Aside from assessing the merits of santa hats versus Dickensian costumes, Mandy raises a (fairly playful) fuss over the President not allowing her to send press along on his secret Christmas shopping trip to an antique book store.

Odds and Ends: 

  • The debate over hate-crime laws that takes place was somewhat ripped from the headlines (Matthew Shepard’s death was only a year past) , and it’s interesting to see the show take a center-right position on it. CJ is vehemently for hate-crime laws, but both Leo and Danny make principled cases against thought-crime. Which is kind of a load of horseshit (premeditation is also a thought, and we certainly take that into account when prosecuting crimes), but it’s more notable when answering critiques about how allfire liberal this show was.
  • In addition to the writing Emmy, this episode was also one of two submitted (along with “Five Votes Down”) for Richard Schiff, who won Outstanding Supporting Actor that year.
  • CJ’s Secret Service code name is “Flamingo.” Sam’s is “Princeton.”
  • Toby’s discomfort with his position of power in the White House when faced with “regular” people is something of a recurring theme.
  • Josh buys Donna a book and writes a very nice inscription for her, that we are not privy to. Fine, Josh/Donna shippers, have your moment. I’ll be opening another door on my Amy Gardner Advent calendar.

The Verdict: The overt sentimentality of the Toby subplot has always kept me at arm’s length from this one, but it’s a very good episode, especially as Christmas episodes go. The Laurie scene is excruciating, but at least this time that seems to be the point. And the scene with Leo hollering at Josh and Sam for doing it, then forgiving them like a kindly dad, is pretty great.

Next Up: "Lord John Marbury," that fabulous Brit.

The West Wing, One by One: “The Short List”

As is mightily apparent, I’ve pretty much stopped posting on this blog. Rather than let it go to waste, I’m going to use it to house writeups of my longtime whim to watch all the episodes of “The West Wing” and write about them. Sounds fun, I hope?

Note: I’m not sure yet whether I want to watch all the episodes in order or hop around through seven seasons and try to make sense of them that way. I’m starting out from the beginning for now, but I’m not ruling out the possibility that I’ll get restless and stray at some point.

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Episode Title: "The Short List"

Season 1, Episode 9

"A" Story: The not inconsequential task for the week is to announce the President’s choice to fill a vacating seat on the Supreme Court, and all the other stories flow through this one. The choice: Peyton Cabot Harrison III, the consensus pick of the staff, mostly because his pristine credentials will make for an easy confirmation process. As you might imagine, things begin to complicate from there, starting with the grumpy outgoing Justice putting a bug in the President’s ear about him not being courageously liberal enough and specifically not giving enough consideration to one Judge Mendoza. And so, as a troubling detail emerges about Harrison (he wrote an unsigned opinion in his law school days indicating that he doesn’t believe in a Constitutional right to privacy), Bartlet asks his staff to look further into Mendoza.

"B" Story: A Congressman Lillienfield calls a press conference in order to hurl accusations that one in three White House staffers are on drugs, a wild and baseless claim that CJ nonetheless can’t categorically deny (lotta White House staffers; drugs are fun), and so the whole thing threatens to ruin the Harrison media cycle. Mandy advocates drug testing the staff in order to get the story over with; Josh in particular vehemently objects to any sort of witch hunt. But after some half-hearted interviews, Josh figures out that Lillienfield isn’t after some podunk staffers. He’s after big fish. And a conversation with Leo reveals that in addition to Leo’s past as an alcoholic, he did some time in rehab for a pill addiction. Leo insists those records are sealed, but Josh knows Lillienfield must have them.

"C" Story: Danny continues his mainsplaining-themed courtship of CJ. This is the episode where Josh gives Danny the hot tip that CJ loves goldfish, so Danny gets her a fish in a bowl (named Gail), at which point CJ cracks up, as she’s a fan of the crackers, not the fish.

Errata: During her press briefing about the Lillienfield accusations, CJ fields a question from the reporter we know as Katie and calls her Chris. Katie is the blonde one who looks like if Lisa Kudrow and Christina Applegate had a daughter. Chris (Kris?) is the somewhat flintier brunette who looks like Adrienne Barbeau’s bookish cousin. 

First Appearances: And so the dominant story of the middle section of this first season, the Leo McGarry Witch Hunt, begins. It makes sense, Leo being the father figure for the rest of the staff and a natural rallying point for the other characters. And John Spencer pretty well nails it — the terrified look on his face when he admits to Josh that his pills addiction could be coming to the fore is riveting.

Guest Stars of Note: 

  • Holmes Osborne shows up as Peter Lillienfield.
  • Lou Grant's Mason Adams plays the INCREDIBLY grouchy Justice Crouch, a character whose name is so onomatopoetically on the nose, he might as well be in Harry Potter.
  • Ken Howard plays Judge Harrison, perfectly haughty and combative in a scene where Bartlet has Sam and Toby grill him over privacy rights.
  • Edward James Olmos is Judge Mendoza. In a smart decision, Olmos is kept offscreen for 90% of the episode; the second we see it’s him playing Mendoza, we know he’ll end up as the President’s nominee. 

The Road to Mandyville: True to her character, Mandy is monstrously cynical about literally everything. She jumps all over the idea of drug-testing the staff, even tossing off the idea that staffers on drugs will simply quietly resign. She also makes a big fuss about how Mendoza’s the wrong choice, since he’ll be a difficult confirmation and “isn’t America’s idea of a Supreme Court justice,” a plainly racist statement. That it takes any of the White House staffers any time at all to imagine how they could sell a working-class-hero angle on Mendoza is, frankly, baffling. Subsequent Mendoza episodes will paint the confirmation struggle as Mendoza being a particularly prickly individual, which was the wiser course of action.

Sorkinicana: This is the first time we see a Supreme Court justice give Bartlet the business for being too moderate and unable to get a staunch liberal on the Court. It won’t be the last. And speaking of things that will recur in Sorkin’s writing, Bartlet complains to Crouch about having to deal with a “bitchy media,” the very same term he’d throw around in the Studio 60 pilot during Judd Hirsch’s big Network meltdown. 

Odds and Ends:

  • The cold-open sequence, in which Josh, Sam, and Toby hoot and holler “Who da man!” throughout the West Wing, even roping Mrs. Landingham into their shenanigans, is seriously the most obnoxious thing I have ever seen in my entire life.

  • Also, not to rain on anybody’s parade, but how difficult is it really to get a judge to accept a nomination for the Supreme Court?
  • Donna’s incredulity at the prospect of Justice Peyton Cabot Harrison III (“Jewish fella?”) is the most I’ve liked her all season.
  • Toby: “We’ve been doing this for a year, and all we’ve gotten is a year older.” Keep this in a drawer for later this season. 
  • Sam predicts that privacy will be THE judicial issue of the 21st century. Not a bad call there, Aaron.
  • Harrison recognizes Charlie from his days as a caddy at Harrison’s country club, subtly coding him as a WASPy elite. Yet another motif that will recur (much less subtly) later this very season.
  • Congratulations to Judge Mendoza, the first Latino to receive the West Wing Proud of Black People score music.

The Verdict: Good episode, tightly focused, well plotted. It’s the starting point for a few storylines, but it feels like much more than mere table setting.

Up Next: "In Excelsis Deo," which I recall liking a bit less than everybody else does.

The West Wing, One by One: “Enemies”

As is mightily apparent, I’ve pretty much stopped posting on this blog. Rather than let it go to waste, I’m going to use it to house writeups of my longtime whim to watch all the episodes of “The West Wing” and write about them. Sounds fun, I hope?

Note: I’m not sure yet whether I want to watch all the episodes in order or hop around through seven seasons and try to make sense of them that way. I’m starting out from the beginning for now, but I’m not ruling out the possibility that I’ll get restless and stray at some point.

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Episode Title: "Enemies"

Season 1, Episode 8

"A" Story: A slam-dunk win on an impending banking bill gets sullied at the last minute by two seemingly insignificant Congressmen, Broderick and Eaton, who have attached a land-use rider (basically, so their campaign donors can strip-mine Montana). The staff is split between those who say swallow it and take the bill (Sam, Mandy) and those who want to crush Broderick and Eaton and send a message that they’re not to be pushed around (Josh, Toby), each fighting for the President’s ear.

"B" Story: The bickery Mallory/Sam courtship really kicks in here, with Mallory inviting Sam to go to the opera with her. Leo finds out and is un-thrilled so he and the President conspire to tie Sam up writing a birthday card (birthday MESSAGE) to someone or other. (Mallory’s also been giving Leo a bit of a cold-shoulder in the wake of her parents’ separating).

"C" Story: The President and Hoynes get into a bit of a tense exchange in a cabinet meeting, the details of which are leaked to the press, and once again it’s Hoynes vs. the West Wing, this time with CJ and Jed himself having separate shouting matches with the Veep.

Runners: 

  • Toby and Sam are in writing slumps and can’t seem to stop talking about it. 
  • Danny’s courtship of CJ truly begins here, taking the shape which it will mostly maintain for the course of his time on the series: Danny tells CJ what she’s doing wrong, pats her on the head, tells her she’s gorgeous/beautiful/beguiling, asks her out on a date, gets rebuffed. This would be repeated in a more condensed fashion and even more troublesomely on “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.”

First Appearances: "You’ve gone ‘round the bend," says Mallory to Leo, a folksy little phrase that Sorkin was quite fond of, if memory serves.

The Road to Mandyville: Mandy’s actually fairly on point this week. When pressing Josh to swallow the land-use rider, she accuses him of getting overly competitive with his opponents and riling the President up. This kind of win-over-benefit thing with Josh is kind of one of his defining characteristics. 

Character Consistency: Okay, not to make a huge deal about it or anything, but Sam makes more than a few cracks about going to the opera with Mallory. This coming from the guy who, not one season from now, will out himself as the recording secretary for the Princeton Gilbert & Sullivan society? I know they’re not the same thing, but they’re  damn close.

Sorkinicana: i could be wrong about this, but it really feels like Sorkin’s on Bartlet’s side during the cabinet meeting when he gives Hoynes the business. Sorkin does this semi-often, writing something as a high-five moment when it really makes his characters look like jerks. Bartlet being all O RLY at Hoynes’s statement that their first order of business should be working with Congress is one thing. I can see Jed being annoyed that Hoynes is so willing to cross the aisle for the Republicans’ benefit. But retorting, “Don’t you think the first order of business should be serving the American people?” is too much. Get off the pedestal, Mr. Prez, there are no cameras around.

NOTE: Turns out I am wrong about any kind of Sorkin intention, as this is the first episode of the season without any kind of Sorkin writing credit at all. Which now makes me wonder about the Sam plot, and how he’s an insane perfectionist who passes up a date with a beautiful woman in order to get a birthday message just so. The episode doesn’t exactly demonize Sam/Aaron for his perfectionism, but it has a good bit of fun with him for it too.

Odds and Ends: 

  • We get our first look at Jed Bartlet: National Parks Buff this episode. And our first instance of the President boring one of his staffers to tears by gasbagging on about something or other. This motif persists, for sure.
  • Great Sam/Mallory moment, as she explodes at him to get on with the birthday note and he replies, “What are you, Ralph Kramden.” Also good: Mallory sighing that Sam is just so like Leo, and Sam taking it as a compliment. 
  • The source of the Bartlet/Hoynes beef revealed: Hoynes didn’t say yes to Bartlet’s offer of the VP slot right away. Jed thinks he made him beg.
  • Donna inspires Josh’s Antiquities Act-based solution to the land rider problem in her typically ass-backwards Donna way.

The Verdict: A bit of wheel-spinning in terms of the season’s greater plots, but the Sam/Mallory/Leo stuff is worth it. 

Next Up: "The Short List," wherein any number of mid-season plots get set in motion. 

The West Wing, One by One: “The State Dinner”

As is mightily apparent, I’ve pretty much stopped posting on this blog. Rather than let it go to waste, I’m going to use it to house writeups of my longtime whim to watch all the episodes of “The West Wing” and write about them. Sounds fun, I hope?

Note: I’m not sure yet whether I want to watch all the episodes in order or hop around through seven seasons and try to make sense of them that way. I’m starting out from the beginning for now, but I’m not ruling out the possibility that I’ll get restless and stray at some point.

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Episode Title: "The State Dinner"

Season 1, Episode 7

"A" Story: This is kind of an episode where a lot of smaller stories are the “A” story, since they contribute equally to what is the major theme of the day: that sometimes stuff happens that the President is powerless to control or make better, and that’s very frustrating and a total bummer. For simplicity’s sake, let’s say that the A story is the impending state dinner with the prime minister of Indonesia, who is by all accounts a total good-time Charlie and an utter cut-up. Just kidding, he’s a humorless slog (and human-rights abuser) who is neither into cello music nor salmon. Really, the only good news about the state dinner is that the First Lady will be there.

"B" Story: There’s a Ruby Ridge-style stand-off brewing in Idaho, which crosses paths with Mandy’s yapping to a resistant Josh about getting more involved in active decisions. She convinces the President to instruct the FBI to send a mediator in, and of course it’s doomed to failure, because a) Mandy and b) look where I wrote “Ruby Ridge-style.” The mediator gets shot, and  … well, we kinda never get a resolution on that. 

"C" Story: Sam is once again at it with Laurie, having lunch with her, which in this case takes the form of bugging her about quitting hooking while she’s trying to study for her law exam. This storyline cannot go away fast enough, much as I enjoy Lisa Edelstein just fine. She ends up at the state dinner on the arm of a glad-handing DNC donor who has no idea that Sam knows his date “Brittany” is a call-girl. Sam introduces her to the First Lady (begrudgingly) and then offers to pay her not to sleep with the guy. My kingdom for an Amy Gardener to smack Sam upside the head right about now. (My kingdom for an Amy Gardener for lots of reasons.)

Runners: 

  • There’s a teamsters strike a-brewing and management is in the Roosevelt Room trying to hash it out.
  • There’s also a hurricane bearing down on the Eastern seaboard, and when it abruptly changes direction, it ends up headed straight for a group of navy ships.
  • C.J. ends up on the business end of a lot of Danny Concannon flirting, which is the first time Danny’s crush on CJ has come up.
  • There’s a whole annoying rigamarole involving Donna and finding an interpreter, all of which adds up to a non sequiter about Toby trying to get a French protester friend of his freed from an Indonesian prison. Too bad he’d just written a speech wherein the President slaps Indonesia’s P.M. on the wrist for human rights abuses. 

First Appearances: Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Stockard Channing as Abbey Bartlet, one of my favorites even when she’s being written poorly (which is not un-often). She gets a nice entrance, seamlessly shifting from the personal to the professional with CJ (trying to set her up on a date, then giving her a quote for the press about a controversy over White House decorative objects). She also establishes herself as a kind of Jed Whisperer, intuiting why Jed’s taking such a hard stance in the Teamsters meeting (because he feels helpless on the hurricane and Ruby Ridge fronts) and providing a crucial bit of moral support and guidance at the end when Jed’s on the phone with the Navy signalman who’s about to die.

Guest Stars of Note: Lots in this one. John Kapelos (janitor from The Breakfast Club) and William Lucking (Piney from Sons of Anarchy) play the warring labor/trucking leaders. David Rasche (a Hey It’s That Guy of some vintage) plays Laurie’s john. Steve Rankin (Tara’s repressive dad from Buffy, among other things) plays one of the FBI guys.

The Road to Mandyville: Tough week for Mandy, sincerely. I do get a fair number of pangs of guilt when it comes to the Mandy pile-on. True, she’s written atrociously and played almost as poorly by a Moira Kelly who never seemed to realize when her character needed to preserve a modicum of steel. Still, she’s a character I very much wanted to work, both because the Bartlett inner circle should have more than one woman, and because I liked the media-advisor angle. Still and all: ugh, Mandy this week. Her angling to be a bigger part of the decision-making is reasonable, but she does it by sass-talking the Feds who are trying to run an operation, and then by making everything about how Josh is jealous of her being on the inside. Which he is, but maybe stop volunteering yourself to play the ex-girlfriend role so often? Anyway, when it all goes bad, she can’t even roll with it and instead leaves the state dinner to go barf. I don’t begrudge a character some moment of panic at the moment she first realizes that her little decisions have big-time consequences at this level, but this kind of thing also happens to Ainsley Hayes in season two, which once again brings up the tendency of Aaron Sorkin to infantilize his female characters far more than the male ones.

Sorkinicana: Speaking of which, CJ spends the whole cold open fielding questions from style reporters about the particulars about the upcoming state dinner. What food will be served, the china it will be served on, what the respective first ladies will be wearing, et cetera. She repeatedly bemoans having to do this, having to lower herself to speak with InStyle and with reporters who are, at base, just doing their jobs. I’m sure Dee Dee Meyers and Peggy Noonan had more important ways they could be serving the world than by playing advisor to The West Wing, too, Aaron, so maybe quit being so smug? (Well, maybe not Peggy Noonan.)

Odds and Ends:

  • I like the recurring bit where Leo keeps advising people to return to the party because whatever situation they’re discussing is out of everybody’s hands. It’s not glib and it’s not overly grim, it’s just … all there is to do.
  • It should be noted for the record that Donna gets the blame for fucking up the translator(s) thing, when it sure seems like Josh and Toby should have known that the Indonesian diplomat they wanted to speak to spoke English.

The Verdict: One of the essential great early West Wing episodes that contributed to The West Wing becoming what it became over the course of its first year. Obviously I love it best because it introduces Abbey, but I also thought it was by far the most structurally tight of the first seven episodes, as each storyline builds into the other, without things seemingly like a cosmically-ordained Bad Day. The President feels increasingly powerless, and most of his subordinates — Toby and Mandy in particular — feel ineffective at best, actively harmful to the process at worst. The final scene, with Bartlet on the radio with the signalman, talking him through what are likely his last moments, is powerful and incredibly well-filmed, with a wide shot (wherein Josh puts his arms around Mandy in comfort in an unshowy and kind of lovely way) pushing in on Jed, until it’s just him, with Abbey’s steading hand on his shoulder, as his voice quavers just a bit, just once. That’s your Tommy Schlamme at work there, and good on him for it.

Next Up: "Enemies," where CJ and the Veep square off, and I believe where the Leo’s-addict-past storyline kicks off in earnest.

The West Wing, One By One: “Mr. Willis of Ohio”

As is mightily apparent, I’ve pretty much stopped posting on this blog. Rather than let it go to waste, I’m going to use it to house writeups of my longtime whim to watch all the episodes of “The West Wing” and write about them. Sounds fun, I hope?

Note: I’m not sure yet whether I want to watch all the episodes in order or hop around through seven seasons and try to make sense of them that way. I’m starting out from the beginning for now, but I’m not ruling out the possibility that I’ll get restless and stray at some point.

Episode Title: "Mr. Willis of Ohio"

Season 1, Episode 6

A Story: Something something about an appropriations bill. Something something about an amendment to that bill about changing the way the census is conducted. The White House wants the former to get passed smoothly while leaving the latter in committee, so Toby and Mandy are sent to a meeting with the swing votes from the Commerce committee, including one Mr. Willis, who is running out his late wife’s term.

B Story: A disturbed woman with a gun hops the fence onto the White House lawn, which has people somewhat on edge, particularly when the President learns Zoey was the target. Later, Josh rounds up Charlie, Zoey, Mallory, Sam, and CJ for a few rounds at a Georgetown bar and some idiot bros necessitate a bit of a scuffle, drawing an even bigger arrow towards concerns for Zoey’s security.

C Story: Leo finally tells Jed about the dissolution of his marriage to Jenny, and Jed doesn’t take it very well at all. He blows up at Leo about letting it happen, though he eventually realizes he was being a doofus.

Runners: 

  • There’s an after-hours poker game that recurs, where we learn that CJ is a delightfully chatty dealer and Jed is (somewhat less delightfully) fond of quizzing his staff on random facts before making his bets. He’s a real character, that one.
  • Meanwhile, Donna won’t stop bugging Josh about the fact that there’s a budget surplus and the Democrats aren’t going to be turning that surplus into tax breaks. This counts as the first of many times Donna will serve as the Duhhhhh Explain Basic Shit to Me, Josh audience surrogate. A summary of the things that Donna would have to not understand in order to support this runner: budget surpluses; budget deficits; the Democratic Party’s general philosophy towards taxation; the Democratic Party’s general philosophy towards government; why she works for the Democratic Party to begin with; the fact that $32 billion refunded to around 135 million taxpayers works out to around a couple hundred dollars apiece. [It could also be noted that Donna wants to buy a DVD player with the refund she’s not getting, which is, I’m pretty sure, the exact same thing Charlie wants to buy with the tax refund he’s not getting in, I think, Season 3. I really hope somebody bought Aaron Sorkin a DVD player at some point.]

First Appearances: Michael O’Neill debuts as Secret Service agent Ron Butterfield, one of the best guests there were. Ron’s calm demeanor in the face of what is always rather dire (he’s only around where there are threats made against the President or his loved ones, really) is about the most comforting thing on this show. 

Guest Stars: Oh man, this is so great. Remember when Eric Balfour was in every single TV show you watched? That was a couple years before Denis O’Hare was in every single TV show you watched. Anyway, guess who shows up as the scummy, racist, homophobic frat douche who harrasses Zoey (and eventually) Charlie at the bar. JUST GUESS. 

The Road to Mandyville: Mandy mostly plays legislative wing-man to Toby during the census/appropriations meeting, and she’s largely unproblematic. Good for her.

Sorkinicana: So CJ needs someone to explain to her the finer points of the census. For example: the census. So she comes to Sam, hat in hand, and asks to be able to sit at his knee and learn. Now. A few things: 1) Earlier in the episode, it’s noted that Sam is heading back to Josh’s office to explain the census to him, so Sam’s status as the census sensei is decently established. However, 2) CJ is the one who gets the subplot about needing to be taught and emphasis matters. 3) Throughout the course of the series, CJ is shown to be one of the more intelligent and capable members of Bartlet’s staff, but 4) by episode six we didn’t entirely know that yet. 5) Sam is the character most often used as a Sorkin surrogate, and as we know, 6) Sorkin is never happier than playing the teacher to his audience. This is not the most egregious example of Sorkin’s (most often benign) sexism invading into the storyline — more annoying is Jed’s “You’re the man. Fix it.” bit of chauvinism to Leo re: his divorce — but it’s a good example of how Sorkin often just didn’t think to imagine how something would look. It looks bad to have your highest-ranking female character ask a male character to explain basic shit to her. 

Odds and Ends

  • This is, most notably, the episode where the President accidentally lays out the entire scenario for what ends up happening to Zoey at the end of season four. I like being able to imagine Sorkin filing that one away for future use.
  • I’ve always been somewhat baffled by the display of racism and homophobia from Balfour and his boys in this episode. Is calling Charlie “Sammy” supposed to be a reference to Sammy Davis Jr.? From a 20-year-old? Meanwhile, the one guy is having something of a epileptic fit trying to make as many variations on “Ice Cube” and “Dr. Dre” as he can, like he’s on some racist version of the $64,000 pyramid (“things that make you sound like a prejudiced 50-year-old!”). Clearly, Sorkin got network clearance for at least one “faggot,” providing the scene’s one realistic-sounding slur, but then Balfour transitions back into calling Josh and Sam “fairy boys,” so I honestly don’t even know what.
  • They got the music rights to Foo Fighters’ “Learn to Fly” for the bar scene. It wouldn’t not be the Foos’ last — or most embarrassing — appearance on this show.
  • I think I said Sam went to Harvard last week. I’m pretty sure it’s Princeton. My b.
  • I’m also pretty sure the Congressman Skinner in the budget meeting is the same guy who turns out to be Josh’s Gay Republican Friend in a future episode.
  • The episode ends on yet another White People Being Proud of African Americans music swell.

The Verdict: The stuff with Mr. Willis, and with CJ for that matter, can trend towards the patronizing, and I still want to know what planet Eric Balfour and his shithead chums beamed in from (“Fairy Poppins”? Really?), but I’m a sucker for episodes where this whole group acts like a family, and this one had that in spades, from Mallory and Zoey little-sistering onto the bar excursion to Jed taking Leo’s divorce too personally. Good stuff.

Next Up: "The State Dinner" and one very welcome debut.

The West Wing, One By One: “The Crackpots and These Women”

As is mightily apparent, I’ve pretty much stopped posting on this blog. Rather than let it go to waste, I’m going to use it to house writeups of my longtime whim to watch all the episodes of “The West Wing” and write about them. Sounds fun, I hope?

Note: I’m not sure yet whether I want to watch all the episodes in order or hop around through seven seasons and try to make sense of them that way. I’m starting out from the beginning for now, but I’m not ruling out the possibility that I’ll get restless and stray at some point.

Episode Title: "The Crackpots and These Women"

Season 1, Episode 5

A Story: It’s “Big Block of Cheese Day” in the West Wing! This is the day when Leo, inspired by Andrew Jackson’s example, has senior staff take meetings with citizens representing causes that don’t get heard from very often. So you can see why Josh calls it “Total Crackpot Day.” CJ and Sam bear the brunt of these meetings, with the latter getting grief about the White House’s inattention to UFOs, and the former pitched on the idea of a wolves-only highway.

B Story: Toby and the President have been going round-and-round all week, Toby needling the President about everything from that weak gun bill they passed in the previous episode to their upcoming speech chiding Hollywood for morality concerns to his flagrant cheating in pickup basketball games. Bartlet, for his part, is feeling awfully defensive in the face of Toby’s persistent dissatisfaction.

C Story: Josh is given a card from someone at the NSC, telling him where to go in the event of a nuclear attack. Once Josh realizes that not only do his assistants not get cards (sorry, Donna), but Sam and CJ and Toby are similarly doomed to perish in nuclear fire because they’re not as important as the deputy chief of staff, he starts to feel incredibly guilty.

Runners: Mandy wants the President to attend a fundraiser at some bigwig movie producer’s home when they’re in California next month; Toby thinks it’ll look bad. Jed’s daughter Zoey is down from Hanover to visit, and he wants to make chili for his staff to celebrate. 

First Appearances: Elisabeth Moss makes her debut as Zoey Bartlet, the first of the First Family to show up. Immediately, Zoey and Charlie meet cute, over a pot of chili. Also: this is the first episode that the theme music settled into the fuller version that would last through the run of the series. Also: the first time we hear about Josh’s childhood trauma, where his sister died in a house fire while babysitting him. 

Guest Stars: Sam Lloyd, better known as Ted the doo-wop singing guy from Scrubs, plays the UFO loon. Nick Offerman, of all people, plays one of the wolf-highway advocates. Pro basketballer Juwan Howard plays Bartlet’s ringer in the pickup game; he’s playing a fictional baller, and most strangely he says he went to Duke, which had to have been a bitter pill for Michigan Wolverine Howard to swallow.

The Road to Mandyville: We get a fairly competent Mandy this week; she’s right about the President not walking back the gun-bill victory, and she’s right about the California fundraiser. I’m actually not sure if Mandy was being passive-aggressively cruel to Toby when she tells him she’s glad that the President’s first choice for Toby’s job turned him down.

Sorkinicana: Here we go. This episode was doing so well! And then: that ending. For some reason, in the middle of the chili get-together, Jed and Leo scan the room and start marveling at “these women.” It’s intended to be a kind of appreciation — of CJ, of Mandy, of Mrs. Landingham and the others — but it plays as monstrously condescending, even more so as they tell these stories of appreciation to Josh, like two old uncles telling their brash nephew about the ways of women by reciting the lyrics to “Try a Little Tenderness.” Particularly when CJ’s appeal is summed up in her looking like a ’50s movie star. What’s even stranger is that it comes so out of nowhere, having zero to do with any of the episode’s storylines up to that point. Just a random pat on the head from Papa Sorkin, telling these women what a super job they were doing. 

Odds and Ends 

  • In relation to the UFO guy, both Sam and Josh mention their headaches owing to “the First Lady and her Ouija board,” something that seems way out of whack with the Dr. Abigail Bartlet we’ll eventually meet. It’s always funny to hear about characters the show hasn’t decided to draw yet.
  • Hanging on the wall in Sam’s office are a Los Angeles Lakers t-shirt (he is from Orange County, fine) and a Muhammad Ali magazine cover turned poster. We get it, Harvard, you’re an egghead but you like sports (and hookers) too.
  • Roberto Benigni pushed CJ into a pool once during a fundraiser while they were running for President. As if I didn’t hate him enough.

Verdict: I love Big Block of Cheese Day (they only did it one more time, to my remembrance, but it feels much more like an institution). The Toby-Jed strife is one of the show’s strongest recurring elements. I don’t even mind Josh’s weird “I can’t accept this nuclear-bunker card because I want to die with my friends” business, self-aggrandizing though it may be, because his and CJ’s scene where they talk it out is so kindly written and performed. Really, it’s just that left turn about “these women,” but honestly, it’s so late in the game, you could just stop the episode after Zoey and Charlie make chili and you’d never miss it. 

Next Up: "Mr. Willis of Ohio," featuring the introduction of one of the best recurring characters and one of the most WTF one-off guest stars.

The West Wing, One By One: “Five Votes Down”

As is mightily apparent, I’ve pretty much stopped posting on this blog. Rather than let it go to waste, I’m going to use it to house writeups of my longtime whim to watch all the episodes of “The West Wing” and write about them. Sounds fun, I hope?

Note: I’m not sure yet whether I want to watch all the episodes in order or hop around through seven seasons and try to make sense of them that way. I’m starting out from the beginning for now, but I’m not ruling out the possibility that I’ll get restless and stray at some point.

Episode Title: "Five Votes Down
Season 1, Episode 4

A Story: After giving a speech in front of a gun-control group, Team Bartlett finds out that they’ve lost five votes from their side, and now the bill is in trouble. The rest of the episode, then, becomes about marshalling forces and getting these five representatives — Katzenmoyer, O’Bannon, Tillinghouse, LeBrand, and Wick — back in line. Josh takes point and proposes that he take the aggressive approach, bullying Katzenmoyer, for one thing, and slapping Wick upside the head. He walks the line between righteous crusader and giant asshole pretty well.

B Story: In all the vote hoopla, Leo forgets his anniversary, and his wife isn’t mad, she’s just disappointed. He plans an elaborate make-it-up-to-you dinner, but it’s too late, and she leaves him. I’m kinda glad they got this one out of the way early. With the exception of the Bartletts, this show always stumbled when it stepped into the family lives of the main cast (CJ’s dad, God love him, but no). The show is clearly weighting things on Leo’s side, but when he tells Jenny that his job is, for these few years, more important than his marriage.

C Story: It’s more of an evolution of the A Story, but Hoynes doesn’t show up until the final third of the episode. Leo doesn’t want to ask the Vice President for help in securing fellow Texan Tillinghouse’s vote, so much so that he makes an ill-fated plea to the leader of the Congressional black caucus (who objects to the bill because it’s way too watered down). When that fails, rather spectacularly, he comes crawling to Hoynes, who is rather sweet to Leo, who’s reeling from Jenny leaving him. But when he goes to meet Tillinghouse, he talks him into voting for the bill … and publicly giving him the credit. Tillinghouse, and the other four rogue COngressmen, are bruised enough by Josh’s strong-arm tactics to gladly give Hoynes the win over the President. 

Runners: In an effort to distract the press from the wonky gun-bill vote, Mandy and CJ start seeding out stories from the financial disclosure reports, which include Josh getting any number of gifts from a lady admirer for the slightly more thorny matter of Toby reaping a $125,000 windfall off of a tech stock that skyrocketed after a friend of Toby’s testified before Congress. Much fun is had at Toby’s expense, which is great.

The Best Runner: It’s easy not to notice the seeds planted about the President needing to take his back pills, but it comes to fruition in this wonderful scene that you could watch once a week if you wanted. 

First Appearances: Seeing that Leo is having a hard time, Hoynes tells him about the secret intra-governmental AA meeting he attends. And so we’re introduced to both Leo as recovering alcoholic as well as Hoynes, both of which will come up again (Leo’s most prominently).

Also, we’d seen NiCole Robinson’s Margaret before, but this is the first week that she gets to be the full, persnickety Margaret that we know and love, annoying Leo with her logistical queries and even ribbing Josh about his smoking jacket.

Guest Stars: Total Hey It’s That Guy Jillian Armenante as Leela the White House counsel who talks to Toby about his stock. I always thought the guy who plays Tillinghouse was the same guy who plays the lawyer who gets eaten by the T-Rex in Jurassic Park but I guess not?

The Road to Mandyville: Mandy picks “Happy Days Are Here Again” to score a speech about how kids are constantly getting killed by guns. Mandy gets all bent out of shape about this woman who gave Josh gifts while they were still dating. Mandy is awful.

How the Sausage Gets Made: The ins and outs of trying to get this bill passed are a great example of what The West Wing does best, and this episode was the first time we’re really seen that happen. It would’ve been better if Sam, Toby, and CJ could have gotten in on the action too, but it’s a good start. 

Team Toby: The cold open sees Toby neurotically reacting to the President’s speech. In a classic West Wing walk-n-talk, Toby harps on Bartlett for screwing up “the D section.” He says the words “D section” literally nine thousand times (literally!), because Aaron Sorkin read that chapter about repetition in his screenwriting textbook a loooooot.  The Bartlett/Toby banter is far more lighthearted than it will be in subsequent episodes, but it’s nice to see that particular character runner to get started this early.

Odds and Ends: Josh goes to Hoynes at the end to give him the ol’ “I See You” re: his power play, but there’s no hint yet of their shared professional past.

Verdict: Okay, this is the best episode yet. It’s always nice when Team Bartlett grandstands (fun for us to watch) and yet is smacked down for it (good for the narrative). Hoynes is allowed to be antagonistic while actually seeming like a complicated, real person. Toby being comically beleaguered is always a fun time, and the Bartlett-lite nature of the episode is more than made up for by the Percocet scene. 

Next Up: “The Crackpots and These Women.” Oh, brother.

The West Wing, One by One: “A Proportional Response”

As is mightily apparent, I’ve pretty much stopped posting on this blog. Rather than let it go to waste, I’m going to use it to house writeups of my longtime whim to watch all the episodes of “The West Wing” and write about them. Sounds fun, I hope?

Note: I’m not sure yet whether I want to watch all the episodes in order or hop around through seven seasons and try to make sense of them that way. I’m starting out from the beginning for now, but I’m not ruling out the possibility that I’ll get restless and stray at some point.

Episode Title: “A Proportional Response”

Season 1, Episode 3

A Story: In the aftermath of the Syrian attack on the army helicopter (killing Bartlett’s magical army doctor), everybody is on edge waiting for the imminent military response. Bartlett in particular is a total nightmare to deal with, snapping at the (off-screen) first lady and especially the Joint Chiefs, whose plan for a proportional attack on four high-value Syrian targets doesn’t feel like a strong enough deterrent for Jed. Leo and everybody else realize the Prez is taking this all far too personally, so the whole episode becomes an attempt to nudge Jed into calming the eff down without actually telling him to calm the eff down. And when the nudging doesn’t work, Leo pulls him into his office and does tell him to calm the eff down.

B Story: CJ has found out about Sam and the call girl, and she is livid, not only about how vulnerable Sam has made both himself and the White House, but also about how Sam took his problem to Josh and Toby but not her, despite the fact that dealing with this stuff is pretty much her job. We get one blow-up between CJ and Josh and then a second, more serious blow-up between CJ and Sam. Ultimately, CJ is able to kill the story (for now) and stands up for Sam in the process.

C Story: Josh is hiring a new personal aide to the President, and he’s settled on one Charlie Young, who thinks he’s here to interview for a messenger job. Spoiler: Charlie gets the personal aide job. 

Runner: Some dipshit Congressman ran off at the mouth while at an army base about how Bartlett is weak on defense and had better not come visit said army base, as he may not make it out alive. This riles up Toby something fierce, it being technically a threat on the President’s life by a member of his own party, but since the White House can’t comment on it without looking petty, Toby leaks some speculation about Secret Service action to the press instead.

First Appearances: Dule Hill debuts as Charlie Young, and the diversity-hire nature of his casting (after the pilot got picked up, the uniform whiteness of the main cast looked real bad, and adding Charlie to the cast was widely seen as an attempted corrective) is reflected in the story, where Josh is uneasy about the potential visual of a young black man carrying the President’s bag. Leo, and then Fitz, assure Josh/the audience that it’s all about finding the right man for the job, yada yada, stop yelling at us. 

Other firsts: John Amos as Admiral Percy Fitzwallace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, one of the all-time best recurring characters, so much so that you really rooted for international disaster at every turn so that Fitz could come back into play. Timothy Busfield as Danny Concannon, whose high-octane flirting with CJ would get turned up later; for now, he’s got a lead on Sam and the call-girl, but he lets CJ talk him off of it because he’s a Good Guy. Also, secretary of defense Hutchinson is mentioned and is likely in the Sit Room during the plans for the Syria attack, but he’s not yet played by J. Walter Weatherman, so you can’t recognize him. 

Growing Pains: The best thing about this episode is that it takes that oddly triumphant tone from Bartlett’s “I’m gonna wipe ‘em off the face of the earth” sabre-rattling from last week and shows the darker side to that. It’s the mark of a show that’s deepening and complicating its characters. Bartlett’s unease with foreign policy and the Joint Chiefs in particular (he doesn’t trust them and further doesn’t think they like him, egghead New England economist that he is). It’s a nicely specific piece of character that feels less trope-y than Leo’s drinking or even Bartlett’s MS (both of which yielded great story results, don’t mistake me). Leo’s come-to-Jesus with Jed about how just because America could obliterate its enemies doesn’t mean it should is kind of rudimentary (you’d think someone as bright as Jed would have worked this out by now), but it also feels like the kind of thing a relatively new President would need to experience firsthand. Not to mention how the show positively crackles when Leo and Jed are fighting.

Speaking of fights, the CJ/Josh fight feels not quite right. Too cartoony, too obviously engineered to give us backstory on the characters (“you paranoid Berkeley shiksa feminista” / ”you elitist Harvard fascist missed the dean’s list two semesters in a row yankee jackass”). Better is CJ and Sam’s fight, which is organically revelatory, uncovering how Sam’s idealism often comes across as willfully, childishly naive, not to mention CJ’s insecurity over not being warrior enough for the team (Sam’s accusation that she doesn’t have the guts to stand up to the morality police really hit hard). 

On the Road to Mandyville: It looked for a minute there that we might have a Mandy-free moment, but no, she swings by Josh’s office to lightly tease him but mostly to tell him they’re all doing a good job managing the Syria thing. A calm before the obnoxious storm. 

Sorkinicana: The sheer number of times that Charlie mentions that he’s here for the messenger job might set a record for Aaron Sorkin Obtuse Repetition. Two different characters use the word “moreover,” which sounds fine on paper but hella awkward when spoken aloud. Once again, the music obnoxiously swells upon the occasion of President Bartlett being nice to a black guy (Charlie, in this case). Let’s hope that doesn’t have much more juice in it.

Odds and Ends: Which is more dated: CJ’s use of Hard Copy as shorthand for tabloid attention (this is what we had to work with before TMZ) or CJ’s clunky as hell Gateway laptop?

Verdict: The best episode to date and a necessary deepening of the characters. Bartlett is ornery to the point of being unlikeable in this episode, but it’s a great chance for the staff around him to step up. The politics are becoming more specific and idiosyncratic, and the cast expansions are uniformly excellent.