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Ladyghosts of TV Past: The West Wing s1x06 – Mr. Willis of Ohio

(My preferred episode title: And Toby’s Heart Grew Three Sizes That Day.)

It’s West Wing poker night and the senior staff plus POTUS are sitting around the table together as CJ deals. Check, everybody says, and “There is one fruit,” says Bartlet. Everybody groans. POTUS apparently includes even recreational card games in his opportunities to show off his internalised encyclopedia. “There is one fruit,” he repeats, “that has its seeds on the outside. Name it.”

“Is it the kumquat?” asks CJ, which doesn’t make much sense (the kumquat being formed like a tiny orange). It is not, and the game continues. Bets are called, Toby raises POTUS five dollars, and Bartlet reveals that it’s the strawberry. Ahhh, says everybody else. (Orange you glad he didn’t say banana?) Toby tries to get him to call the raise, but Bartlet would like someone to name the fourteen punctuation marks in the English language first. Between them, the staff get the first seven; it’s left to speechwriter Toby to come up with the other half. They are, if you’re interested, the comma, the period, the colon, the semi-colon, the question mark, the exclamation mark, the dash, the hyphen, the apostrophe, brackets, parentheses, braces and ellipses. POTUS doesn’t let on that he’s impressed, and instead informs everyone that there are three words in the English language that start with the letters “˜dw’. He would like someone to name them.

This scene is like Trivial Pursuit at Christmas with the most annoying uncle in existence. They’re still playing poker, mind, and before Toby’s head explodes, Bartlet keeps playing. Dwindle, dwarf, and dwell, are the words. Bartlet wins Toby’s money.

The game breaks up and Leo announces he’s heading home. “Kiss Jenny for me,” requests Bartlet, and Leo gives him a guilty look – he still hasn’t announced the news of their separation to anyone at work. Charlie is still working out at his desk, bless him. As the ladies prepare to leave, a phalanx of Secret Service guys burst in and make everyone stay still in the Oval Office. The staff seem unfazed; Leo grumbles that it’s pledge week at the fraternities in the nearby university, and the kids keep trying to jump the fence. Bartlet breaks out the trivia again, but luckily for everyone, the all-clear is given before their South American geography can be tested. The Secret Service let the staff leave, and as they exit, Mandy complains that this sort of thing didn’t happen at her old job. Well, yes – but she could probably say that about 99% of days in the Bartlet White House.

And boom! Credits. Isn’t Rob Lowe lovely in his credits clip? So is Dulé Hill.

Toby is looking for a copy of the Constitution and there is none to be found. CJ is in the bullpen to visit Sam, and being unusually cagey about it. It turns out that she’s been bluffing her knowledge of the census for weeks, and she’d quite like Sam to teach her what she should actually be saying. Sam winds her up a little, but he’s gratified to be asked, and assents.

Our second info-dump of the week is set up as Donna is asking Josh about the budget surplus. Can we have less of these awesome ladies asking men to explain silly things like the manly men they are? It’s off-putting. Anyway, Donna thinks it’s unfair that the government has too much money that they’ve collected from taxpayers, that they then won’t give back. She’d like her money back. Donna, here, seems to have forgotten that she’s a member of the Democratic party. Josh tells her that’s tough luck, essentially, and heads in to a staff meeting, where Leo is reading out details of additions to the appropriations bill they’re trying to pass. Mandy has set up a meeting with two of the Congressmen whose votes they need to sway; the third is described as “Janet Willis’ husband,” and the staff think he’ll do what he’s told by the party.

Toby figures that the meeting shouldn’t be any problem because the Congressmen will want to get things done early in order to make their holiday flights the next day. Leo hopes so, but warns the staffers not to screw up or embarrass him in any way. Oh Leo, you are such a grumpy father to them. It’s endearing.

Back in the Oval, Ron Butterfield is giving POTUS a security rundown on the fence-hopping frat boys. It turns out that the previous night’s incident wasn’t a college kid – it was a mentally unstable grown woman who was, shockingly, trying to assassinate Zoey. Bartlet blanches, and at this moment Leo walks in. Ron leaves to make a phone call and Leo tries to reassure Bartlet. They agree that Zoey doesn’t have to hear about it. Leo wants to talk about Jenny, but Ron comes back and POTUS cuts Leo off. Ron tells Bartlet not to worry, but the President has one last question: did the woman have a gun? Ron reluctantly says that yes, she did. Bartlet exhales, visibly slumping under the weight of his worry.

We’re in Josh and Toby’s appropriations bill meeting next, with the three swing-voting Congressmen. I did indeed type “swing-dancing Congressmen” there first, which I think is mainly a slip due to my intense admin-law flashbacks every time they start to talk policy stuff. Must. Stay. Awake. Anyhow, two of the Congressmen are your average Washington types: slick, cynical suits. Mr. Willis turns out to be quite lovely: his wife, the aforementioned Janet, has recently passed away, and he is filling in her seat until elections roll around. His day job is teaching eighth-grade social studies. One wonders how many Congressmen would pass eighth grade social studies, were they made to sit the exams.

Toby comes in, followed by three aides with a trolley, on which is riding the seven-thousand-page, fifty-five pound bill. He proceeds to list some of its more eccentric amendments, including five million dollars to research the uses of wood. “”˜I can think of some uses for it right now,” remarks Toby, looking at the Congressmen. Hee. I love when Toby gets snarky. Anyway, the gist of this meeting is: the bill will get passed only if the Commerce committee doesn’t add its census amendment, and the three Congressmen’s votes are needed to get rid of it. If the amendment isn’t scrapped, there’ll be a long floor fight and POTUS will have to veto. And, it’s implied, the Congressmen won’t be getting home for their holidays.

At this, Mr. Willis breaks in. He says that there’s no need to hurry on his account: he’s planning on staying in DC to visit Janet’s family, so he won’t be flying home the next day. Toby is taken aback both at the Congressman’s obvious newness to the White House games, and at his bluntness.

Back in the school of CJ Doesn’t Know The Darndest Things, Sam is all but jigging with glee that he gets to put his didactic hat on. He reels off the basics of a census, while CJ tries to steal his lunch. The US census is done by door-to-door head count, which is expensive, and tends to fail to count in homeless people and the immigrant population. So far, so obvious. “Ah,” says Sam, “but there’s more.”

Not that we’re getting to hear that right now though, because in Leo’s office, it’s time for more McGarry family trauma. Mallory has come by to drop off some of his things, and it’s revealed that Leo is currently living in a hotel. Leo tells Mal that it’s just until things with Jenny “blow over,” and Mallory has the difficult task of telling him that actually, it doesn’t look like things are going to do that at all.

Donna pulls Josh out of the budget meeting to go see POTUS, and on the way they have another argument over Donna’s economic complaints. Home spending good! Foreign spending bad! Democrats like taxing people! Janel Moloney can’t quite believe she has to pretend not to get this! I am really not enjoying these pointless info-dump storylines, can you tell?

Anyway, Bartlet wants to see Josh because he’s worried that Charlie isn’t making friends in the White House fast enough, and he’d like Josh to take Charlie out for drinks and give him a break from work that evening. I’m not sure Josh would be the first person I’d go to for a hip evening with the youths, but we’ll work with it. Charlie is slightly weirded out by Josh’s sudden invitation, but agrees to go to the bar with him that evening (to “speak as men do,” apparently).  As Josh is heading back to his meeting, Zoey and Mallory catch up with him and ask to come along. Mallory would also very much like if Josh brought Sam, too, but vigorously denies that it is for booty call reasons: she just wants to finish the conversation they’d been having previously. Yeah. And I’m Communications Director. As Josh walks away from the girls, we hear him say to himself, “The President’s daughter, the Chief of Staff’s daughter, a Georgetown bar and Sam. What could possibly go wrong?”

Also, apparently Josh likes hitting on grad students. Orderly queue, ladies.

Later, Sam and CJ continue their lessons in census talk in the briefing room. Sam is in favour of using sampling data to get the headcount, as statisticians have said it’s more accurate than a straight headcount. Sampling is unconstitutional, but Congress is trying to legislate against it again. I think? I’m not entirely sure of his point here. Sam asks CJ if it feels good to understand what she’s talking about, and I wish I did. Cut the attitude, Sam, too. You’re too cute to be a patronising ass.

The conversation ends when Josh sticks his head around the door to ask Sam to come for beers. “I like beer,” says CJ, and Josh gallantly replied that he figures it’d be okay if she came too. Is it women-are-invisible day around here or something?

We return to Unending Budget Hell, where the Congressmen are cranky and Mandy and Toby are fighting the good, pro-sampling, anti-Congressional-amendment-thing, fight. The two regular Congressmen point out that sampling is unconstitutional, and Toby says “Yes, but the article is arcane.” The Congressmen make confused faces, so Toby gets Mandy to read out the article.

MANDY: [reading] ‘Representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several states, which may be included within this union according to their respective numbers. Which shall be determined by adding the whole number of persons including those bound to service for a term of years.’

[Congressman] SKINNER: Well you said it right there. It says which shall be determined by the whole number of persons. The whole number of persons! Not the end of an equation that some statistician got off a computer. It says so right there!

TOBY: Actually that’s not what it says.

SKINNER: What do you mean?

TOBY: Mandy left out a few words. Didn’t she Mr. Willis?

WILLIS: Yes.

TOBY: Mr. Willis teaches 8th grade social studies, and Mr. Willis knows very well what the article says. It says which shall be determined by adding the whole number of free persons. And three fifths of all other persons. Three fifths of all other persons. They meant you Mr. Willis. Didn’t they?

Mr. Willis, it should be pointed out, is Black. I am neither a PoC nor American, so I’m throwing this one out to the floor: is it problematic that this plot twist essentially hinges on Mr. Willis’ race? I am guessing its intention was to point out the cluelessness and/or willful ignorance of the other, White, Congressmen. Is it a good idea, wrongly executed; a bad idea; or something else entirely? I would honestly like to see a discussion on this – I don’t feel qualified to comment, but something seems off to me about how Mr. Willis’ character is handled, and I don’t like that.

Mr. Willis decides to change his vote based on Toby’s argument that as it stands, the census does not count those who need to be counted the most. The other Congressmen are dismayed, but cannot change his mind; they huff out of the room, and Toby, with un-Toby-like humility, explains to Mr. Willis that he wasn’t totally upfront about everything involved in the issue. Mr. Willis says he doesn’t mind, that he respected Toby’s argument, and that he thinks it’s important to be able to state the very basic fact: “Here we are; these are our numbers.”

It’s a nice exchange, and it leaves Toby pensive. Toby doesn’t spend nearly enough time taking the viewpoints of others into account, in my opinion, so it’s pleasing to see the honesty of a stranger having such an effect on him.

And with that, the budget meeting is finally over! I quaff my tea in celebration. Bartlet is celebrating with a scolding from Mrs. Landingham. I love their relationship so much. I love that she’s his older sister and his mother and the only person who can put him in his place, all rolled into one wonderful little Kathryn Joosten. She exits, having organised POTUS’ life enough for one night, and Leo comes in to once again broach the sensitive subject of his pending divorce. He’s trying to explain, and Bartlet just steamrollers him with a tide of tactlessness. It’s painful. He’s essentially giving out to Leo for not having had time to fix his marriage at the same time as oh, you know, running the country. Leo snaps back, but as Bartlet whirls out of the room in a tide of righteous asshat, Leo’s expression is broken and angry. Poor Leo.

The Foo Fighters are playing in the bar in which Josh, Sam, Charlie, CJ, Zoey and Mallory are having drinks. Between the fact that “Learn To Fly” would’ve been a pretty current song when this was filmed, and Zoey’s stylish baseball-cap attire, I’m hit with a sudden realisation of how long ago this show started. Twelve years! It’s a long time in politics, and yet, plus ça change. The staffers around the table are gobsmacked by Zoey’s revelation that she knows about Sam’s “special friend,” but luckily for Sam, neither of the ladies’ fathers have heard about his escapades yet. Zoey announces that she and Mallory are going to start collecting IOUs. I love Zoey. Have I mentioned that recently?

The waitress comes over with their tray of drinks, and she’s forgotten CJ’s Grasshopper. This is another little character detail that I find wonderful – of course CJ drinks silly green drinks. She’s such a great balance of serious and whimsical. Anyway, Zoey volunteers to go to the bar because she wants to see how the cocktail is made. She leaves her panic button and wallet and such behind at the table, and great big Viewer Alarm Bells go off in our heads. While she’s gone, Josh tries to make sure Charlie is having fun, but Charlie becomes distracted by the sight of Zoey getting hassled by a gang of douchebros at the bar. They’re crowding her, getting up in her face and trying to get her to tell them her name, and she’s obviously intimidated. Charlie jumps up and goes over to her, stepping between Zoey and the boys. They switch their attentions to him, and things get nasty for a couple of minutes; some pretty horrible racist and homophobic things are said to Charlie and for a while it looks like things are going to come to blows.

Josh and Sam come over to help, and Josh is just thrilled to inform the douchebros that they’re about to have a really bad night. He has Zoey’s panic button in his hand, and just as the assholes are wondering from whence the trouble is about to come, a bunch of Secret Service guys burst in the door and order them to freeze. Ha! As they’re about to be dragged out, the head bro gets in one last racial slur at Charlie, and Charlie seizes the opportunity to step up and tell the asshat exactly what’s what. Hell yeah, Charlie. You’re ALL of our favourites. Then he turns to Josh and says “Now, I’m having a good time.”

Charlie Young, you’re the MAN.

Back at the White House, Bartlet is giving Zoey a parental lecture. He asks if Zoey was leading the boys on at all, and she rightfully tells him that she wasn’t, but that even if she was, it wouldn’t have been justification for their actions. He doesn’t argue that one. He does, however, tell her that he’s going to give her more Secret Service protection before she goes to college, and when she tries to argue, he goes off on a rant about the “nightmare scenario:” Zoey gets kidnapped and Bartlet becomes the victim of international terrorist extortion. Zoey starts to cry, and Bartlet realises he’s gone too far. He stops yelling, and they make up. It’s something that was on a lot of people’s minds when Obama took the White House – the protection of First Children, that is – and this scene is an excellent portrayal of the strain that must come from trying to be a politician and a parent at the same time, and balancing the needs of your family against the essential security of the office and the country.

Having gotten his shouting fit of the day over with, Bartlet realises he’s been awful to his best friend, and goes to Leo’s office to make up. Leo is sitting down scribbling on a piece of paper – I really hope he’s doing (and correcting) the New York Times crossword. “Before,” opens Bartlet, “when I was being an idiot “¦ ” Great line. He apologises, and asks for permission to retract his remarks. There’s a hint of a smile on Leo’s face.

Josh, Sam and Charlie are sitting in the outer office, discussing the row at the bar. Donna comes in with a box of takeout sandwiches, and Josh asks her for his change; Donna tells him that he gave her more money than was needed, so she decided to keep it and invest it for him. “That’s nice,” says Josh. “A little parable.” Even that isn’t sarcastic enough for how I feel about this stupid storyline. Before Josh can start on his dinner, however, POTUS calls him in to give out to him for taking Zoey to a bar. Bartlet also thanks Josh for sorting out the douchebro situation before there was any major trouble, and Josh gracefully hands all the credit to Charlie. Bartlet looks thoughtful and calls Charlie in; they shake hands, and POTUS asks his assistant if he knows how to play poker. Charlie says no, Bartlet says that that’s excellent, and invites him to take a seat. Charlie’s finally fully part of the family.

As the staff settle down to banter and deal the cards, Toby turns on C-SPAN to hear the end of the vote. “Mr. Willis? Mr. Willis of Ohio votes yea,” calls the announcer, and Toby closes his eyes, smiling.

This episode was a difficult one to write about for a number of reasons. Firstly, some bits of it are very uncomfortable: the names Charlie gets called in the bar are vile, especially. Secondly, it irks me when the West Wing men get their superiority complex on. In this episode, at least half the unfeminist feeling comes from the material given to the women, which is clunky, dull and stupid. However, some remarkably chauvinistic lines and sentiment are delivered by the men, and they’re not pleasant to hear. Thirdly, policy-heavy scenes always tend to be a bit plodding. I made this remark to a friend while writing this, and he replied that real government officials probably think so as well. At least I have a fast-forward button.

(thank you to TWWCaps for the image, and West Wing Transcripts for script excerpt.)

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