These are two of my favorite episodes from season three: “Indians in the Lobby” serves as season three’s Thanksgiving episode and “The Women of Qumar” made me fall even more in love with our goddess, Ms. CJ Cregg.
The Wednesday before Thanksgiving is traditionally, in the Bartlet administration, the busiest day of the year.
For Thanksgiving 2001, President Bartlet is obsessing over turkey brine while the senior staff tries to wrap up loose ends before the holiday weekend. He’s surprised and delighted when Charlie lets him know that there’s a Butterball hotline that can answer all of his poultry questions.
Most notably, there are a two Indians in the lobby, who are standing there, in quiet protest. There are also 4 million new poor people thanks to a new formula that’s due to be rolled out. There’s also an issue with a teenage fugitive who has fled to Rome.
The Indians in the lobby are waiting for an answer from the Department of the Interior. They’ve been waiting for fifteen years, so they are happy to wait in the lobby, in full view of the press, for as long as it takes. CJ becomes their point person, and begins to champion their case. She comes up with a compromise as she realizes she’s not going to get them in with anybody before the holiday. Sam discovers that the current formula for poverty is based on a forty year old equation developed by a Polish immigrant. He sees that a change is needed, even if statistically it’s bad for the Bartlet White House. Josh meets with the Italian ambassador, who makes Italy’s case for not extraditing a minor to a state that has the death penalty for children. Leo explains the importance of not getting the Bishop of Rome (the Pope) involved in this, and outlines his own domestic angle. Josh then amends his travel plans to meet with the DeKalb DA.
“The Women of Qumar” stands out for CJ being, well, CJ. It also marks the beginning of Josh and Amy. It’s an episode that brings to light women’s issues around the globe. The senior staff also learn that the first case of mad cow disease may be confirmed in the US in the next 72 hours. The episode opens with President Bartlet getting the details about an arms deal the US has made with Qumar. He tells Toby that he feels like the women look at him funny whenever they make a deal with, “A country like Qumar.” Toby tells the president that CJ will be fine with it, but our dear Toby has never been more wrong. Ever. CJ spends the day bringing to light the plight of Qumari women at every turn, even derailing a meeting with WWII veterans. At one point, Toby tells CJ to cool it, and she responds, “If I was living in Qumar, I wouldn’t be allowed to say, ‘Shove it up your ass, Toby,’ but since I don’t, shove it up your ass Toby.” Immediately after that, CJ states her case about publicizing the mad cow scare for damage control in a room full of men (the president, Leo, Josh and Toby).
Sally J: The West Wing doesn’t have an episode for every holiday, but the Thanksgiving episode became an anticipated tradition during the run of the show. Thoughts on why the Thanksgiving episodes were always powerhouses (with a dash of fantastic humor)?
Selena: Thanksgiving is a perfect opportunity to show the Bartlet team being all-American. Like most of our American holidays, the origins of Thanksgiving have been somewhat glossed over, evolving into a holiday where we all eat a lot and watch sports. It’s not a religious holiday, and it’s yet to be politicized, so it’s a nice opportunity to be light-hearted. I do think this episode was more serious than the previous two Thanksgiving episodes, with both the poverty and Native American storylines.
Sally J: Toby and CJ go way back. Does it seem like it’s a little far reaching that Toby thinks that CJ will be ok with the Qumar situation?
Selena: You totally read my mind, because there’s no way in hell CJ would be okay with sending weapons to Qumar, and I have no idea how any of the men on this show would think she would, or, for that matter, think arming fictional Qumar is a good idea. This is the one place The West Wing continually lets me down. It seems whenever we see a marginalized group ask for just a little help from the White House, the Bartlet staff (minus our goddess, CJ) throws up their hands as if to say, “It is what it is.”
Selena: Amy Gardner is clearly one of the most feminist characters ever to appear on our teevee, yet she never self-identifies as such. In “The Women of Qumar,” she says, “I didn’t burn my bras. I like my bras. When I bring you something, it’s important.” Why do you think Sorkin felt it was necessary to deliberately steer her away from identifying as a feminist?
Sally J.: I do so love me some Amy. I think she isn’t written to be an identifying feminist because of this exact scene. In TWW world (and our real world), feminists can be seen as extreme, and they often get caught in the cross hairs of minor details. Amy does work on things that matter, and her work is taken seriously.
Selena: President and Mrs. Bartlet have a brief, good-natured spat during “The Indians in the Lobby.” Despite their respective and collective flaws, or maybe because of them, they’ve always been a very realistic couple to me. Bringing in another of your pop culture loves, compare and contrast the Bartlets with Coach and Mrs. Coach Taylor.
Sally J.: Oh! Oh! Oh! This could be a whole other series of posts: looking at the Bartlets and the Taylors of Friday Night Lights side by side. So. Comparisons. The Bartlets are a power couple. Can you get more powerful than POTUS and a cardiologist? In their world of small Texas towns, the Taylors are also a power couple. Dr. Abigail Bartlet loses her career power when her license is suspended. Mrs. Coach Taylor actually rises in status, by being promoted to high school principal (who, on paper, ranks higher than her husband’s rank as coach). Both women are committed to their own ideas, but also are there to support their husbands both on and off camera. Both couples are clearly committed to each other. They are unique among television couples in that the story lines often include arguments and disagreements, large and small. Well, arguing may not be unique, but coming to compromises and resolutions is. Both couples work through their differences throughout each series. There’s never a threat of divorce in either series, nor are there extramarital affairs. Both couples work through the mess of life, hand in hand.