I’m stepping in as an emergency replacement for Sandra, so no putting tacks on the sub’s chair while she’s gone. This afternoon we’re going to be discussing the seventh episode of the first season, The State Dinner. In this ep, we’ll meet one of my favorite long-term characters for the first time: Abby Bartlet.
“The State Dinner” covers one particularly busy day in Bartlet’s White House. In addition to a state dinner with the president of Indonesia (where Donna claims they “summarily execute those they suspect of being sorcerers. With a scythe.”), the staff is dealing with a massive hurricane headed for the coasts of Georgia and the Carolinas; a stand off between a well armed group (“They are exactly who you think they are.” – Toe Pick.) and the local law enforcement, FBI and ATF officers surrounding their house; and, just to top things off, the Teamsters are walking out at midnight if management doesn’t stop unfair hiring practices and exploiting part-time workers. Additionally, Josh and Toby have to “see a guy about a thing.”
The theme of this episode is pride and powerlessness, and we see all the characters struggle with the battle between the two themes throughout the episode. Toe Pick, anxious to get in the game, volunteers to be the point person on the situation in Iowa. When the situation escalates she wants to send in a negotiator against the advice of the law enforcement agencies. Bartlet agrees to try her plan, and the hostage negotiator is shot. Toby, after writing a toast which harshly criticizes the Indonesian government, asks one of the Indonesian president’s senior staffers to release a French friend of Toby’s from prison in Indonesia. The staffer refuses, chiding Toby for insulting him and then being bold enough to ask for a favor. When Sam encounters his friend Call Girl Cuddy on the arm of a slimy fund raising democrat at the dinner, he again turns from sweet, thoughtful Sam into jealous, prideful, insufferable Sam. When news of the hurricane broke, a fleet of ships housing around 12,000 sailors was moved out to sea as a safety precaution, but the storm shifted direction, putting the fleet in it’s new path. Bartlet, powerless to stop the storm or save the shot FBI agent, releases his rage on the labor fight, threatening to nationalize the trucking industry and draft all the truckers into military service. In the final moments of the episode, Bartlet is able to reach a young sailor manning the radio of a tiny maintenance ship, The Hickory, that travels with the fleet. Bartlet seems disappointed he can’t speak with the C.O., but it’s not snobbery. He thinks talking to the guy in charge will allow him to save the fleet. After the radio man explains that The Hickory is taking water over the sides, has a fire in the engine room and will likely be run over by an aircraft carrier that can’t see, Bartlet tells the young man he will sit with him as long as the radio works.
We do recap this show as part of our Ladyghosts series, so I’m going to do the rest of this recap Big Love style, with a focus on the women characters.
Donna – Early in season one, it was hard to like Donna the first time I watched this show. In my many subsequent re-watchings, I’ve grown to appreciate Early Donna more and Early Josh less. He’s really just awful to her, and she’s always scurrying around trying to do his bidding. In “The State Dinner” she’s asked to find a translator for Josh and Toby’s meeting with the senior staffer from Indonesia. Donna discovers Indonesian people speak well over 500 different languages, and manages to find a pair of translators who can take English to Portuguese to Batok and back again. In all of this scurrying, it never came up that the staffer speaks English quite well and doesn’t need a translator at all. When he reveals his English skills after a slapstick scene with both translators, Josh, Toby, Donna and the staffer; Josh derides her in front of the whole group.
Toe Pick – I was more sympathetic to Toe Pick in this episode than just about any other, but Mandy is still a terrible character. I will leave it to our witty commenters to analyze her this ep, I just can’t do it.
Abby – God, I love Abby Bartlet. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve had a girl crush on Stockard Channing since I saw Grease or because Abby’s such a delightful, well-rounded, nuanced Lady of a Certain Age. Regardless, my love for Abby is unconditional. She’s set up in this episode for the role she plays throughout the series – she keeps Bartlet grounded.
C.J. – In this episode, C.J. was mostly just handling and explaining things. Which she’s awesome at. She’s got some great moments in this ep with the reporting team from In Style, Danny and Abby, who tries to hook her up with a (cute!) cardiologist.
All in all, “The State Dinner” is everything great about The West Wing. It’s one of the banner episodes of both the first season and the series as a whole.