You know what’s more fun than watching The West Wing by yourself? Watching it with a friend who loves it just as much as you do. For this week’s recap, Selena and I broke out the blender, had some delicious snacks and sat down for a girls’ night in.
This is the Season One finale, and it’s interesting because the story is actually played twice. Once, in a skimmed over version, all before the opening credits, and then once more, in a longer format. In the opening sequence, you see Bartlet at a Town Hall meeting, you learn something that was worrisome gets resolved (by a hand gesture), and you hear gunshots as the president is walking the rope line. But how does it all fit together?
We find out after the opening credits.
The short version: the staff is getting the president ready to answer questions at a Town Hall meeting, Toby’s brother is on a space shuttle mission that’s hit a crisis, and there’s an American pilot who’s been shot down in Iraqi airspace. Josh needs to get the vice president on board with their campaign finance agenda, and the president convinces Zoey to attend the meeting that night.
As the longer version plays out, all of the pieces that were shown in the opening sequence begin to make sense. It all fits together nicely, and there’s so much happening that you almost forget the gunshots that sound as the opening credits role.
Until you get to the rope line again. Then the camera focuses on the kid who stands out a little in the crowd. It focuses on Gina, Zoey’s security detail, who knows something is off, but she can’t quite pinpoint it, until she sees that kid look up at a building across the street.
Then you hear the gunshots.
And that’s it. The Season One finale of The West Wing.
Selena here, getting ready to get all long-winded on your Friday afternoon/evening, because bitches love verbosity. At least this one does.
This is the first episode in which Sorkin plays with the chronology of the story to build the suspense, and like Sally said, when we jump back to the events preceding the shooting, it’s easy to forget what we know is going to happen at the end. The chronology shifting will come up again, a couple of times, as will a favorite technique of most TV writers once they hit a second season, the flashback. It’s the perfect device for TV, where we’re often dropped into characters’ lives without a lot of background information, to tell us something about how these people came to be the people we know, without having Josh explain it to Donna in a feather duster scene.
In this time shift, we see how all the major plot points of this episode will resolve. Nearly every line of dialogue is resolution, and as the rest of the story unfolds we can tick off the bits we received in the opening scene.
- The president shares information given to him by Charlie during the town hall, and after hearing it and grinning, Charlie tells Josh, “You’re right, it never goes away,” shouting back to Charlie’s first moments as part of the White House team. Later in the show, but earlier in the day, Zoey had to convince Charlie to get over his nervousness to even broach the subject with the president.
- Sam takes a call for Toby, which from his reaction is obviously good news, and runs to give him the hand signal Sally spoke of above. Toby looks relieved, then gives the signal to Josh. Josh grins, and gives the signal to Leo, who’s confused.
Josh: It’s the signal, for the thing.
Leo: I thought that was for the other thing.
Josh: It’s for this thing now.
- Leo gives the signal to the president, who gives him a slight nod and appreciative raise of the eyebrow in return.
- CJ, once she’s in the loop, goes to Danny and gives him a tip. He needs to call his science editor because there’s a story about the space shuttle Columbia. So we know they make up, after their feud of the past several episodes. Aw.
- We learn the president gets his geek on for women’s softball. Which, of course, would never be allowed in the real world, because a Beck, Palin, Brietbart, Limbaugh, Malkin or O’Reilly would imply he was too womanly to be Commander-in-Chief.
In the first scene after the credits, we learn how each of these plot bits started. Bartlet has a lengthy walk & talk with Charlie about women’s softball, claiming he wants to unwind at the end of the day with a beer and a sporting event, and it’s either women’s softball or Scotland v. Bermuda in cricket. Bartlet makes it clear he’s not a fan of cricket. Leo tells Josh about the fighter pilot, and sends him off to Hoynes to start working on the deal. Bartlet walks and talks right into a rehearsal for the town hall, where he asks Sam why the Columbia didn’t land. He sends Sam to ask Toby, because Toby’s brother David is a payload specialist on the shuttle. David is doing an experiment with newts, to measure how gravity affects their inner ears.
Bartlet: And do you know what he calls them? CJ?
Bartlet: 100% right.
Leo asks CJ to stretch the truth with the press about the extent of the mission in place to rescue the downed pilot, which she does. He reminds her they had a problem with her not wanting to lie to the press before, and she reminds him that her issue was with him lying to her, so she couldn’t guide and control the story, lie or otherwise.
Josh meets with Hoynes, jogging ’round the Potomac, and accuses him of palling around with Democrats who are opposed to the campaign finance reform Bartlet is attempting to push. He, as he does, puts his foot in his mouth when he tells Hoynes that the president’s approval rating is going to go up several more points if they bring the downed pilot home alive. More on that later. Hoynes, meanwhile, asks Josh if he ever thinks about what would have happened if Hoynes had listened to Josh two years ago, and Josh tells him he doesn’t wonder, because he knows for certain Hoynes would be president today.
A couple of side notes, I got sucked into a TV Tropes tornado of procrastination recently, where I learned or re-learned a few facts about TWW. For example, Sorkin uses the title of this episode, “What Kind of Day Has it Been?” as a title for a season finale on all three of his broadcast series, The West Wing, Sports Night and Studio 60. Additionally, I knew Josh was based on Rohm Emmanual, Sam was based on George Stephanopolous, Santos was based on Obama and Vinnick was based on John McCain (which gets a little freaky, later). I did not know Hoynes was based on John Edwards. I’d always assumed he was loosely based on Al Gore, but Edwards makes a lot of sense. Back to the story…
Zoey and Charlie interrupt the prep, and Bartlet convinces Zoey to come to the town hall. She chides him for not taking care of himself, and tells him Charlie has something he’d like to say to Bartlet during prep. Later, when Bartlet asks Charlie, Charlie brushes him off.
While the president is finishing up his town hall prep, Sam tells him he’ll give him a signal if the downed pilot is rescued during the speech, which leads to a cute scene with Bartlet subtly making fun of him, which is sort of Bartlet’s thing this episode.
Josh pops into Leo’s office, where Leo tells him Hoynes is in for campaign finance reform, then chews him out, Leo-style, for trying to politicize the rescue of the pilot. Get ‘im, Leo. At the end of his speech, he opens his arms in a gesture of finality, which Josh interprets as Leo wanting to hug him.
Leo: Oh man, did you read that one wrong.
Josh fills him in on the gesture for the town hall. Leo, much like Bartlet, thinks it’s kind of ridiculous.
Charlie is angry that Zoey spoke for him, telling her he doesn’t have the same relationship either she or the staff has with Bartlet. They’re fighting in Josh’s office when Josh comes in to get something, and just as Charlie tells Zoey he works in a building with the smartest people in the world, Josh goes to sit in his chair. Since his chair is in the shop with Donna’s cousin for a wobbly wheel (“I’m throwing him a little work!”) he falls right on his ass.
Charlie briefs Bartlet in the Oval, and Bartlet presses him about why Zoey said Charlie had something to say. Charlie, after hesitating, tells him it’s about a report from the Center for Policy Alternatives about youth participation in the political process. Charlie tells Bartlet the report really hit home with him. Admiral Fitzwallace comes in as Charlie is leaving, and Bartlet asks Charlie to put the report in his briefcase.
Fitzwallace is awaiting news of the pilot, and asks if it’s okay to wait in the Oval with Bartlet, who agrees. While they’re waiting, Fitz points out that the eagle on the rug of the Presidential Seal in the center of the office is holding arrows in one talon and an olive branch in the other. During peacetime, the eagle looks towards the olive branch, but during wartime, the eagle looks at the arrows. He wonders aloud if a team comes in and replaces the center of the rug when war is declared, like a basketball court. Because Fitz is awesome. Bartlet, annoyed and unsure of the answer, is a little curt. Then the phone rings, and it’s good news, the pilot has been rescued and both he and the rescue team are fine. Bartlet is able to speak with him on the phone. He’s so happy, he’s going to find out the scoop on the carpet for Fitz. And I’m going to use my Google-fu and see if I can find the answer, too.
After CJ fills in the press, Danny follows her to her office, angry that she lied to him in the earlier briefing, about pursuing a diplomatic solution with Iraq. He asks why she’d call on him, knowing anyone she called on would have given the same question. She tells him she’ll sleep fine having perhaps giving the Republican Guard a bit of the old subterfuge. Their fight turns a little flirty, but he remains angry.
Now that we know the pilot is safe, we can be pretty sure the “safe departure” gesture is for Columbia, although it’s looking grim for the crew at this moment in time. The NASA employee, Peter Jobson, who’s been communicating with Sam wants to speak with Toby directly, because things are grim on the shuttle. The astronauts disconnected the motor from the cargo bay doors, and now they are unable to open them again. Toby tells Sam he was short with him when Sam first asked about the shuttle because he had forgotten David was up there.
On his way out the door to the town hall, Bartlet takes a moment to tease Mrs. Landingham, and to tell Toby he spoke directly with the mission commander on the Columbia. He reassures Toby that there are endless redundancies built in to prevent things from going horribly wrong, and that the Atlantis is warming up to go dock with the Columbia in a worst case scenario. Toby explains that the first thing they do on a mission is open the cargo doors, after they’ve passed through the atmosphere, to release the heat. If the doors don’t open, he says, the entire shuttle can overheat. Bartlet is kindly, and then tells Toby to take a little time off, stop being a jackass, and go see his brother when he lands. As Sally J astutely observed earlier in the episode, after yours truly called Sam impossibly attractive, Toby is very much like Eeyore. In spite of Bartlet’s assurances, Toby is very concerned, and it seems he and his brother have some uncomfortableness between them.
On to the town hall, where we see several shots from the pre-credit opener. It goes off without a hitch, and like we mentioned above, one by one the major plots of this story were resolved. On the way out, Bartlet decides to work the rope line at the last minute, and Zoe is chatting to Gina about Charlie’s moment as Gina is scanning the crowd, convinced she saw something. We see a few shots of the boy in the hat, then one where he looks up to a darkened window, behind which we see two young men loading handguns. Gina sees the gun right before they open fire. She pushes Charlie out of the way and to the ground as she’s shoving Zoey in the car. Bartlet’s detail is surrounding him in an instant, with two really big fellows flanking him as he looks shocked. There’s chaos and gunfire for several seconds. One by one, we see all the senior staff (except Mandy, who’s on the bus to Mandyville) react and attempt to get to safety. As the good guys are firing back, we hear Ron Butterfield, Secret Service Superstar, shouting “Shots fired! Who’s been hit?”
Fortunately for you, if this is your first go ’round with The West Wing, you can find out the answer to that question in two weeks when we start recapping Season Two. Next week, we’ll be looking back at Season One as a whole. See you then!