Josh: It’s called the theory of everything.
CJ: Is it comprehensive?
The WH staff is riding high on Bartlet’s 81% approval rating, when the episode opens one week after the shooting and fourteen weeks from the midterms. The mood is lofty, but underneath the good humor and minutiae of the status quo, there is a lot of tension bubbling to the surface. The shock of the shooting has worn off, leaving many of our West Wing friends confused, angry and frightened. We can almost see Sorkin setting up the room full of dominoes he’s going to be knocking down this season, as the various cracks in the administration which were only hinted at in season one begin breaking open.
For the oldtimers who’ve been fans for a long time and over multiple watches of the entire series, the first three seasons of the show were obviously planned, down to the slightest nuance and bit of foreshadowing. I like shows that have a plan. I can’t imagine how hard it must be to write a story that’s sixty hours long without losing a thread, but gosh darn it, I respect the hell out of anyone who can.
Back to “The Midterms.” I have a working hypothesis that our goddess, CJ Cregg, serves as a satorial color chart for How Bad Shit Really Is. In this episode, she’s breezy and sophisticated in a sky blue suit with a lot of movement. In other episodes, when the shit is hitting the fan, she’s more structured and in more somber colors. When CJ wears black, things are Code Bleak.
The opening features her chatting with Josh from his hospital bed on the phone as she prepares to give the morning briefing. He tells her physicists are excited about something related to the Theory of Everything, which relates in some way to unified string theory, quantum mechanics and theoretical physics, but that’s mostly me regurgitating words. Wikipedia oversimplifies this as a potential way to predict the outcome of any experiment, in the broadest sense of the word “potential.” CJ jokes or malaprops “psychics” in place of “physicists” when she’s feeding the story back to him, then again in the briefing, which is hilarious. Between the two misplaced psychics, CJ walks and talks with Carol, Leo and Toby.
Bartlet opens a jovial senior staff meeting by asking if anyone knows what acaluclia means. Sam blurts out that’s the inability to do math. (It’s the math equivalent to illiteracy. Go education degree!) The purpose of this meeting is to discuss the midterms, where twelve House seats, two Senate seats, several governors and an assortment of local seats are in play. With Bartlet’s stellar (but soft) approval rating, the team think it will be a cinch for the Dems to run away with the midterms. They’re wrong.
Zoey finds Charlie, but he’s short with her, and more than a little chilly. She gives him some space, because she’s as great a college girlfriend as Charlie is a college boyfriend. Charlie meets Andrew MacIntosh (no relation) and his adorably son Jeffrey, when they come in to fix Mrs. Landingham’s computer at convenient intervals in the show.
Sam is tasked with asking his old friend Tom Jordan to run for the deceased congressman’s seat, and promises to throw the full weight of the White House, nay, the entire Democratic party, behind Jordan, his lovely wife and the baby they have on the way in the race.
Five Weeks Later
Toby is falling behind on his responsibilities because he’s spending all his time pursuing ways to stop hate groups, including a potential national registry. Sam explains how this could be construed as a violation of the constitution, Toby is unswayed. Meanwhile, Sam finds out Tom Jordan has a bad habit of picking all white jurors for black defendants as a prosecutor, and that he belonged to an all-white fraternity in college. The White House completely withdraws its support for Jordan, but doesn’t tell him, they simply stop the flow of money. Without the support, Jordan is sure to lose.
Toby tells Donna to get Josh on board with helping him fight hate groups, Donna makes up a Yiddish-sounding word to explain why she doesn’t want to.
Toby: Don’t bring the Yiddish unless you know what you’re doing.
Charlie is still ignoring Zoey, and he and Bartlet even snap at each other. Charlie has another fortuitous encounter with MacIntosh et Fille, IT dudes, who are returning to fix bugs on Mrs. Landingham’s computer.
Bartlet has hired his own people do do regular polls on his old rival, Roush, and makes him seem like evil incarnate. The rest of the staff tries to keep him from making public statements or helping his opponent, Bartlet wants to destroy him. When Bartlet asks CJ to drop some hints in the press room that Roush’s streak of pure evil might make a good human interest story, she draws a line in the sand. She tells Bartlet she’s sorry his rival is running and will likely win the seat, but:
CJ: In a democracy, oftentimes other people win.
Toby is distracted by his desire to use the shooting to push legislation against guns and hate crimes, Bartlet is distracted by a former campaign rival running for a school board seat in New Hampshire, Josh is distracted by physics and Sam is distracted by his loyalty to the job and the administration, Charlie is distracted by having been nearly assassinated by racist psychopaths and Zoey is distracted by Charlie, which leaves CJ as the clearest head in the room. CJ can’t win the midterms by herself.
Tom Jordan and his wife, Sarah, find Sam in his office and Sarah yells at him for leaving them high and dry, without even a phone call.
Sam: That’s how we do things.
Sarah: Any time in the future we have the opportunity to screw you? Count on getting screwed.
Wait until they find out about his hooker friend with the heart of gold and a law degree.
Toby goes to Bartlet and broaches the subject of Toby taking a leave of absence. Bartlet agrees, and gives him fifteen minutes off. Toby, ever self-aware, tells Bartlet he doesn’t think he can get to the other side of the shooting. Bartlet tells him it’s because they witnessed more than a shooting, they witnessed someone trying to lynch their friend. In the year 2000, the world was (and is) still so fucked up, things like lynchings can (and do) still happen. In spite of all the growing and evolving we’re supposed to be doing as humans, the status quo doesn’t change very often, even when it sucks. Toby seems relieved to have words for what he’s feeling, and goes along when Sam drags Bartlet to the talk radio reception going on in the Mural Room. Sam tells Bartlet there will be crab cakes, but not New England crab, as the president expects.
Bartlet: There is Alaskan crab in this White House?
At the reception, he runs into Dr. Laura Schlessinger, who has a different name here but it doesn’t matter, because they might as well have called her Dr. Laura. 2000 was a big year for her. Bartlet lays the smackdown when she refuses to stand for Bartlet’s remarks:
Bartlet: I like your show. I like how you call homosexuality an abomination.
Dr. Jenna Jacobs: I don’t say homosexuality is an abomination, Mr. President. The Bible does.
Bartlet: Yes it does. Leviticus.
Dr. Jenna Jacobs: 18:22.
Bartlet: Chapter and verse. I wanted to ask you a couple of questions while I have you here. I’m interested in selling my youngest daughter into slavery as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. She’s a Georgetown sophomore, speaks fluent Italian, always cleared the table when it was her turn. What would a good price for her be? While thinking about that, can I ask another? My Chief of Staff Leo McGarry insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly says he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself or is it okay to call the police? Here’s one that’s really important because we’ve got a lot of sports fans in this town: touching the skin of a dead pig makes one unclean. Leviticus 11:7. If they promise to wear gloves, can the Washington Redskins still play football? Can Notre Dame? Can West Point? Does the whole town really have to be together to stone my brother John for planting different crops side by side? Can I burn my mother in a small family gathering for wearing garments made from two different threads? Think about those questions, would you? One last thing: while you may be mistaking this for your monthly meeting of the Ignorant Tight-Ass Club, in this building, when the president stands, nobody sits.
Charlie has one more encounter with the MacIntosh men, when Charlie explains to Papa MacIntosh that his mother had been killed a little over a year ago, and with the added stress of hate and rage-fueled ignorant white men trying to kill him, like Toby and Bartlet, it’s just too much. Deus ex MacIntosh (If I ever write an advice column, that’s what I’m calling it) tells him that if they’re shooting at him, he must be doing something right. This makes Charlie feel better enough to go kiss Zoey and take her out for a vote and a malted.
The couple runs into Leo on the way out, and he reminds Charlie to take extra protection. There’s an awkward moment, and Leo nearly runs away screaming, but it all turns out in smiles.
Over at Josh’s place, Donna, CJ, Toby and Sam have come by to visit and drink beer on the stoop. Josh is modeling the pajamas CJ gave him, and Sam spills the beans about the results. After four months and 400 million dollars, the balance of red and blue is exactly the same as it was before. Nothing changed. The team looks briefly deflated, but Josh brings them ’round with some irony and a round robin of everyone saying “God Bless America.”