Two Questions About The West Wing, 4×05 and 4×06

The Bartlet White House is well on its way to election night. What madcap adventures will our ragtag ideologues get into this week?

Sally J. is still on our version of FMLA leave, so I’m joined once again by Mr. Hillary, otherwise known as Neil. We’re chatting about episode 4×05, “Debate Camp” and episode 4×06, “Game On.”

Text reads "Two Questions about The West Wing."Selena:  “Debate Camp” uses a TWW standby, the flashback, to help us understand how the characters have grown and evolved, as well as offering a little comic relief. What parallels did the show create between the flashbacks and the scenes set in the present?

Neil: Once again Sorkin, in using the flashback, is trying to give background to present day conflict and tension between the characters. I think a part of it had to do with giving background on characters, but mostly I think it was because Sorkin was fishing for story lines. He created a terrible Republican adversary and with the exception of Qumar there was very little going on. In an effort to push new story lines he needed to manufacture background material for present day conflicts. The parallel is that as much as we all change and grow over the years, Sorkin wants to show that we continue to fight the same battles over and over again.

Selena: In “Game On,” which may be the winning episode for “Most Dated Title in the Series,” Hal Holbrook as lovably Republican kook Albie Duncan tries to explain the complexities of international trade with China, and bemoans having to try to simplify the message to ten words or less. Railing against oversimplification is a common theme in Sorkin shows, from Sports Night to The Newsroom. Can you think of specific examples in this season where Sorkin himself was guilty of doing the exact thing he rails against?

Neil: The best example of oversimplification is the Qumari story line, without a doubt. He portrays Qumar and the Bahi as just some terrorist organization hoping to do evil on the world. The Bahi obviously being another name for Al Qaeda. He never once discusses the idea that maybe the Bahi is an organization with legitimate gripes against the U.S. in any way. I too always found it odd that Sorkin rails against oversimplification but on many issues does the same thing.

Selena: Bonus round. “Game On” introduces us to another recurring female character, Elsie Snuffin, who seems to have been created from a dart board of quirks. (“Comedy writer, funny name, former child star. WIN! Get me Candace Cameron! She’s what? Get me Winnie Cooper!”) How does Elsie help or hurt Sorkin’s “women problem”?

Neil: Love this question. Once again Sorkin perpetuates his woman problem. In Elsie we get another Donna, smart, funny, and quick witted, but short on strong substance. I never understood why Sorkin never had a strong woman speech-writer. He portrays Elsie as not being able to write anything other then good jokes. So again, Elsie does not help Sorkin’s woman problem. The funny thing is Danica McKeller is brilliant. She graduated Summa from UCLA and has written numerous math books.

Neil: In “Debate Camp” we are introduced to the idea that Toby and his former wife, Congresswoman Andi Wyatt, are trying to have a baby, despite having divorced some time shortly after Bartlet was sworn in. However, in an earlier episode it was noted that Toby was a drunk who had a long streak of losing elections. The question I have is why would Congresswoman Wyatt ever marry him in the first place?

Selena: First, be careful, that’s my imaginary television boyfriend you’re talking about. Toby is, in fact, a master at the “some play hard to get, others play hard to love” school of relationships. He broods, he obsesses, he’s got a temper, he never leaves work, he’s the Chief of the Grammar Police. Underneath that bundle of unlikable quirks is someone else entirely. The same core qualities which make him impossible also make him loyal, passionate, driven, and the one man you’d always want on your side. He’s the one person who insists, with an iron fist, that the team not only reach, but exceed the already impossibly high bar in front of them. Those are good qualities, and I could see a woman like Congresswoman Wyatt finding those qualities very attractive, until she had to live with the other side of the coin.

Or it could just be his kind, sad, deep brown eyes. *swoon* We likes what we likes.

Neil: In “Game On,” Sorkin seems to be obsessed with neck ties. Why is this? He spends the entire episode having Charlie run around looking for a tie because he destroyed his lucky one at the cleaners. Then Abby, the First Lady, cuts the tie right before President Bartlet goes on stage so Josh would have to give him his. He also has Sam give Will Bailey his tie before doing another speaking engagement telling Mr. Bailey his tie doesn’t go with his suit. When Will tries to give him the tie back Sam refuses and says keep it. What’s the symbolism of the tie Sorkin is trying to convey throughout this episode?

Selena: That is a terribly interesting observation. Let’s parse this out! A tie can be a symbol of many things, a man of a certain background may be judged by the quality of his tie, or if he wears a tie to work at all. It could be  a symbol of the responsibilities of public service, which seems like a metaphor Sorkin would embrace. Likely, it’s a combination of both; a stand-in (however man-centric, this is Sorkin we’re talking about, we shouldn’t expect miracles in his metaphors) for the responsibility of power and a symbol of privilege and position.

Odd Trivia: “Debate Camp” is where we first hear a reference to the fictional government organization the CTU, Counter Terrorism Unit. The CTU would later become the setting for Jack Bauer in the TV show 24.

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[E] Selena MacIntosh*

Selena MacIntosh is the owner and editor of Persephone Magazine. She also fixes it when it breaks. She is fueled by Diet Coke, coffee with a lot of cream in it, and cat hair.

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