Previously on The West Wing: people did typical things. Leo dispensed wisdom. Toby was misanthropic. CJ was fierce in the face of Sam, who was in trouble. Josh tried to be a badass. Bartlet gave a lecture to Charlie, Charlie looked overawed. Cue title card.
The staffers and POTUS are playing basketball – at night, with copious amounts of Secret Service protection standing around, which gives the game an odd and vaguely war-zone-reminiscent feeling. Maybe that’s always what it’s like when POTUS shoots some hoops. Anyway, I digress. The important thing is: DulÃ© Hill in shorts. The game is paused while everyone gets their breath back, and Charlie suggests POTUS take a break. He asks why on earth he’d do that, and Josh says that everyone would be a little upset when they found out [the basketball game] had killed the President. I don’t know, Josh: I’m guessing Vice-President Hoynes might be at least somewhat pleased.
Toby taunts POTUS about his competitiveness, and comes out with one of the best lines of the season: ‘let [the poets] write that [Bartlet] had the tools for greatness, but the voices of his better angels were shot down by his obsessive need to win’. POTUS looks stung, asking Toby if he wants ‘to play, or write [his] eulogy’. Toby shoots back, ‘can I be honest with you, sir?’.
Next thing we know, POTUS is summoning a very tall man from out of nowhere to join the game. The staffers immediately recognise him as Rodney Grant, a professional basketball player, and there is an indignant chorus. Bartlet claims that Rodney is, in fact, Associate Director of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness. Toby accuses Bartlet of being ‘brazenly bad’ at cheating, and reminds him that in the past, Bartlet invited Steffi Graf to partner him in doubles against Toby and CJ. Predictably, Rodney scores as soon as play resumes, and Bartlet triumphantly shouts ‘Let the poets write about THAT, Byron.’
While the credits roll, I muse that time and repeated viewings haven’t made this scene much less ludicrous. It’s one of a number in this episode where characters are greatly exaggerated – to be expected, I’ll grant, in a series just finding its feet and its tone. On one hand, of *course* Bartlet keeps a list of professional athletes handy in order to beat his staff at games, and Toby comes out with sweeping, poetic statements at the drop of a hat. On the other, it still feels very blatant to actually show us that.
The episode itself opens with a gorgeous sunrise shot of the Washington Mall, and we meet the staffers on their way to the morning meeting. Donna tells Josh that he has a meeting with Mr Lacey, from the Nuclear Safety Council, after the staff meeting. She doesn’t know what it’s about, but Josh says ’”¦ this is the White House, so it’s probably not that important.’
(I had forgotten how early it was obvious that Donna’s crush on Josh was visible from SPACE.)
We follow Josh as he leaves Donna and runs into CJ coming around the next corner. CJ wants him to read an article about smallpox. ‘The disease?’ asks Josh. ‘No, the dessert topping,’ replies CJ.
The staff meeting is already in progress in the Roosevelt Room, and several staffers are tossing back and forth complaints about the upcoming day. It is Big Block of Cheese Day, one of Leo’s ‘pet office policies’. In brief: Leo wants the senior staff to take meetings with groups who would not normally get the attention of the White House. This is to be done in the spirit of Andrew Jackson, who put a two-ton block of cheese in the foyer of his White House for anyone who might be hungry. The staff don’t seemed overly impressed, and Josh sums up the mood of the room when he walks in and asks if it’s ‘Total Crackpot Day’ again.
Margaret hands out the Cheese Day assignments, as Leo and Josh leave to go meet the man from the NSC. Mr Lacey is there to give Josh his NSC card, which tells him where to go in the event of a nuclear attack. Josh seems confused. He asks if his staff are to go with him in the case of an emergency, or if they get their own cards. There is an uncomfortable silence, before Josh realises that his staff don’t get the same privileges he does. He looks peturbed, and gets out of there as quickly as possible.
This is one of the first glimpses we get into the gaping maw of Josh’s immense guilt complex, of which we will see more later.
The rest of the staff are in the press room, rehearsing a press conference with POTUS. Bartlet gives an answer that sounds like it comes straight from a textbook, and Mandy asks him if he could perhaps ‘see clear to not answer that question like an economics professor with a big old stick up his butt’. Bartlet gives her a stern look and replies that that’s exactly what he is.
After they finish the questions on the economy, Toby wants to talk about guns. Bartlet refuses; there is a brief argument and he agrees to take the question. Sam asks, ‘Mr. President, is there any reason to believe this victory, this weapons ban bill, will have any significant reduction in crime?’ to which Bartlet replies ‘Yes. Next question.’ Toby asks if POTUS plans on blowing off the question that quickly if he gets it in an interview, and the argument starts up again.
Toby wants Bartlet to admit that the weapons bill they just passed has its weaknesses; Bartlet, backed up by Mandy, is adamantly against this. Mandy calls it ‘taking a victory and declaring defeat’. Sam, CJ and Leo are watching the exchange when Cathy, Sam’s assistant, enters with a message. Sam’s first Cheese Day appointment is waiting for him. He and CJ try to convince Leo that the press conference is more important, but Leo’s not playing and Sam grudgingly leaves.
Sam’s guest is Ted-from-Scrubs. Wait – sorry, it’s Bob from ‘United States Space Command’, an organisation of which Sam has never heard. BobTed wants Sam to tell the President that the White House needs to pay more attention to UFOs – one of which, he says, was seen in Hawaii this morning. Sam says no, that POTUS would ‘either laugh at [him] or yell at [him]’. He dismisses Bob politely but hastily.
CJ and Mandy discuss Hollywood fundraisers. CJ doesn’t sound overly enthused; at the last one, she got pushed into a swimming pool and ended up ‘a six foot wet girl in a Donna Karan dress’. Man, CJ is the best, isn’t she? Every so often I get reminded of how fantastic she is. Also, Allison Janney’s delivery is utterly perfect about 99.9% of the time.
Bartlet and Leo are taking a meeting on the economy when Charlie arrives with a message for the President. Zoey, Bartlet’s youngest daughter, is in Washington and is coming for dinner that night. POTUS announces that he’s going to make chili for everyone to celebrate. Leo looks amusingly sceptical at the thought of Bartlet’s cooking.
The senior staff file into the Oval Office and Bartlet announces his dinner plans. The staff are nonplussed. Bartlet instructs them all to look at the Presidential seal in the middle of his office, and then to listen to his pronouncement again. This time, they react happily, and he’s satisfied. I don’t like this exchange. We’ve already established that Bartlet has a planet-sized ego and it feels like it’s being laid on unnecessarily thick. I do like his reaction, though – ‘You see how benevolent I can be, when everyone does what I tell them?’ There’s the Jed Bartlet Presidential Philosophy, summed up in a sentence.
The meeting is on the subject of the Hollywood fundraisers. It’s an occasion for another argument between POTUS and Toby, over whether or not the President should morally oppose movies with gratuitous sex and violence. Toby and Bartlet are getting increasingly tetchy with one another over the course of the day. Leo tries to draw the meeting to a close, but not before Toby informs Bartlet that ‘nobody ever looks like Joe McCarthy, that’s how they get in the door in the first place.’
Sam and Josh walk back to his office, discussing Bob the UFO guy. Josh interrupts Sam to ask how he felt when they gave him an NSC card and didn’t give one to Cathy, who is like Sam’s little sister. Sam doesn’t know what Josh is talking about, and the revelation that none of the other senior staff have one – and therefore, that none of them would be saved in the event of a nuclear emergency – hits Josh like a ton of bricks. He stutters his excuses and exits the office, leaving Sam looking blankly after him.
Next, CJ has her Cheese Day meeting. Her appointment is with a group of animal-rights activists who want to build a ‘wolves-only roadway’ in the Pacific North-West. They illustrate their plan with the story of a wolf named Pluie, who had in recent years been trekking up and down the westernmost states despite the obstacles she faced. CJ keeps trying to lighten the atmosphere of the meeting with jokes, but the wolf people aren’t amused. She tells them that there is no way that the White House is going to back their plan, especially because it would cost nine hundred million dollars. Ranchers don’t want wolves returned to the west, and she would rather have them angry at wolves than at the government, so unless Pluie registers to vote… At this point the lady activist interrupts her angrily, saying that Pluie was shot by a rancher the previous year. Oops. One of the men suggests they move on to the grizzly bear. CJ looks resigned.
Mandy drops in to Toby’s office to try to make peace with him, but instead accidentally drops the bombshell that Toby wasn’t Bartlet’s first choice for his post. Toby’s jaw drops at Mandy’s last statement and we realise that he wasn’t aware of this.
CJ is on her way to the briefing room when Toby catches up to her, obviously agitated. He demands to know why CJ hadn’t told him about David Rosen, but she doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He then does something very unusual, for Toby: he asks CJ for help talking to the President about the gun issue. CJ doesn’t know what to do with his sudden insecurity.
In the next scene, Josh has left the White House and is standing uncertainly in his therapist’s office. The therapist is called Dr Stanley (oddly, not the same Dr Stanley we meet in series two). Josh spirals wildly from the smallpox, to the music playing in his head, to the NSC card. He lists his friends who haven’t received a card, and accidentally includes his late sister’s name, Joanie. Stanley interrupts him there and asks why Joanie has been on Josh’s mind. Josh says that the music he’s been imagining is Schubert’s Ave Maria, which Joanie used to play a lot. Stanley tries to push Josh to talk about the NSC card, but Josh can’t as it is classified information. Stanley asks him if it’s not strange that they have never discussed how Joanie died.
Josh demurs, saying that they must have discussed it already. With further questioning, he reluctantly reveals that Joanie died in a housefire while babysitting for Josh. Their popcorn maker had caught fire, and Joanie tried to extinguish it, while Josh ran out of the house. He fades out, looking pensive. Stanley tells him, ‘You were just a little boy, Josh. That’s what you’re supposed to do.’
Later, Josh is in his office, listening to a recording of the Ave Maria, when CJ comes in to call him to dinner. Josh can’t seem to stop himself blurting out his concerns about the NSC card, and having to leave his friends behind. He sounds very upset, very vulnerable. CJ kindly tells him that it’s okay, that she’s aware that press and communications wouldn’t be a priority in such an emergency and that it’s to be expected that Josh and Leo are the only ones who would receive the card. She also tells him that he’s very sweet sometimes. CJ is the best.
The music swells suddenly and Josh hushes CJ to listen to it. He says that the piece is miraculous, and that Schubert was crazy. He asks ‘Do you think you have to be crazy to create something powerful?’
This scene is dark, especially in the oppressive half-light of Josh’s office. The music carries on, hauntingly, as CJ reaches to reassure Josh that there won’t be a nuclear attack. He snaps, ‘God, C.J. It’s not gonna be like that. It’s not gonna be the red phone and nuclear bombs.’ He sounds terrified and upset. ‘It’s gonna be this. It’s gonna be something like this. Smallpox has been gone for fifty years. No one has an acquired immunity. Flies through the air. You get it… you carry a ten foot cloud around with you. One in three people die. If a hundred people in New York City got it, you’d have to encircle them with one hundred million vaccinated people to contain it. Do you know how many doses of smallpox vaccines exist in the country? Seven. If 100 people in New York City get it, there’s gonna be a global medical emergency that’s gonna make HIV look like cold and flu season. That’s how it’s gonna be, a little test tube with a-a rubber cap that’s deteriorating. A guy steps out of Times Square Station. Pshht – smashes it on the sidewalk. There’s a world war right there.’
CJ doesn’t know how to respond. She tells him, ‘We’ll make more vaccine,’ before gently asking him again to leave this stuff behind and come to dinner. Josh is visibly shaken by his outburst and says he’ll follow her in a minute.
The staff are chatting and relaxing before dinner when Toby spots POTUS by himself and goes to sit opposite him. He asks ‘We haven’t been getting on too well lately, have we sir?’
Bartlet concedes that they have not, that Toby has been irritating him. Toby asks hesitantly if David Rosen was the first choice for his job. Bartlet answers, ‘Yes,’ and looks away, and Toby, put off by this, tells his boss he’s glad they had this talk. There is a pause, then they both laugh, and the mood is broken.
There follows a lovely exchange, which acts as a perfect balm to the tense and irritated mood of their previous scenes. Bartlet seeks to reassure Toby, saying ‘We were up all night on that one, Toby. Me and Leo and Josh. They were screaming at me, ‘Governor, for God’s sakes, it’s got to be Toby. It’s got to be Toby.’ When I held my ground, and we went to David Rosen, and Rosen said he wanted to take a partnership at Solomon Brothers, thank God… I couldn’t live without you Toby. I mean it. I’d be in the tall grass. I’d be in the weeds… I know I disappoint you sometimes. I mean I can sense your disappointment. And I only get mad because I know you’re right a lot of the times, but you are not the kid in the class with his hand up and whatever it was you said to C.J. You are a wise and brilliant man.’ Toby remains in silence, head bowed. Bartlet pauses, then asks ‘The other night when we were playing basketball, did you mean what you said? My demons were shouting down the better angels in my brain?’
Toby says that he did, and Bartlet concedes resignedly that he’s probably right. ‘Tell you what though, sir,’ replies Toby. ‘In a battle between a President’s demons and his better angels, for the first time in a long while, I think we might just have ourselves a fair fight.’
The President is visibly moved by this. He thanks Toby, then fondly tells him to go away. It’s a really pleasant piece of dialogue to witness, touching without being mawkish. The balance of respect and tension between the two men is played very well: they are both big egos in a small space, but their friendship is still evident. I maintain that ‘demons and better angels’ is both one of the most beautiful, and accurate, ways of describing the struggle of inhibitions and good instincts I’ve ever heard.
Out in the kitchen, Josh sneaks up behind Zoey as she is cooking a large pot of chili. They hug and catch up – Josh tells Zoey she looks well, and she tells him he looks like ‘death on a Triscuit’. She’s not wrong – he looks worn out from the day. Charlie comes in to give Zoey a message from her father. He addresses her as ‘ma’am’ and Josh laughs at him. ‘This is a girl, Charlie. You don’t have to call her ‘ma’am.”
Charlie is embarrassed, and Zoey giggles as she introduces herself. It’s adorable, setting a good basis for the continuing adorability in their relationship.
CJ is trying to tell Bartlet and Leo about the wolves when Josh finds them. She leaves, and Bartlet surveys the room like a proud father, saying that nothing pleases him more than colleagues enjoying one another’s company in their free time. Josh asks what they were talking about, and the older men say they were discussing ‘these women’. Bartlet describes CJ as ‘like a fifties movie star, so capable, so loving and energetic.’ Leo points out how Mandy is still arguing with Toby over the Hollywood issue, even though she’s already won over the President. Mrs Landingham is chatting to Margaret, and Bartlet tells Josh that even though Mrs L. lost two sons in Vietnam, she still serves her country with an amazing dedication.
Josh has been gathering courage, and at this point he interrupts to tell his boss that he cannot in good conscience accept the NSC card. ‘I think [accepting the card is] a white flag of surrender. I want to be a comfort to my friends in tragedy. And I want to be able to celebrate with them in triumph. And for all the times in between, I just want to be able to look them in the eye. Leo, it’s not for me. I want to be with my friends, my family, and these women.’.
POTUS looks proud, but your reviewer has a couple of points to make about this scene. Firstly, Josh serves at the pleasure of the President, but also on his orders. Surely if, in the event of a nuclear emergency, something happened to Leo, then Josh as his deputy would have to step up, whether he liked it or not? It doesn’t seem to be the kind of position one can opt out of. It’s just a minor qualm, but it’s something I’ve noticed before.
Secondly, and more importantly, there is a certain amount of debate over the appropriateness of Bartlet’s and Leo’s speech about the women of the West Wing. From our viewpoint as feminists and younger women, it reads as unnecessary and patronising. Why would Bartlet highlight the women, in particular? It shouldn’t be a surprise to him that they are as capable, dedicated and personable as the men. After all, he works with them every day – he picked most of them for the positions, as with all his senior staff.
I do agree that it’s galling, but I offer the following in defence of the scene: firstly, let us be quite certain that these are the characters speaking, not the writer. I’ve seen this offered as evidence of anti-feminist bias in Sorkin’s writing, and I don’t accept that – the voice of the character is not the voice of the creator. Secondly, Bartlet and Leo are from a background and a generation where politics was a man’s game, to a much greater extent than it is today. Leo in particular is used to a male-dominated world, being an ex-army officer. To them, seeing the younger women rise up the ranks and perform the same tasks as the men seems to be like watching their own daughters growing up – not quite incredulity, but a certain awe that they have never managed to shake off. It’s not a particularly good or enlightened character trait, to be sure, but it’s also not evidence of a massive character flaw. It’s conditioning and background, and it reflects well the attitude prevalent in the higher echelons of power. If it makes you angry – good. It should make you angry – but with the world, rather than The West Wing.
Anyway – enough meta, back to the fictional world. Charlie signals to the President that the chili is ready, and Bartlet calls for silence to make a toast. He sums up the day jokingly, before finishing, as the Ave Maria plays behind him, ‘You know, when smallpox was eradicated, it was considered the single greatest humanitarian achievement of this century. Surely, we can do it again. As we did in the time when our eyes looked towards the heavens, and with outstretched fingers, we touched the face of God. Here’s to absent friends, and the ones that are here now.’
He raises his glass, and so do the staff. ‘Cheers.’
(thank you to TWWCaps for the image)