LadyGhosts of TV Past

Retro Recap: The West Wing 5.17 “The Supremes”

After the election, I sent Stephens to learn about some of the men and women who may be considered if the two projected seats open up on the Supreme Court during Obama’s second term. In honor of her posts, one ran yesterday, one will run tomorrow, I thought we might revisit an old friend, The West Wing, and how they handled a similar decision. This recap is, as you might expect, filled with spoilers. 

“The Supremes” is one of the better episodes of the series, even though it fell during what can be argued as the show’s weakest season. Aaron Sorkin famously quit at the end of season four, leaving the show in the hands of John Wells and John Sacret Young, who were responsible for the once-gripping NBC drama, ER. While Wells and Co. eventually found their footing and reclaimed some of the series’ earlier glory in the seventh and final season, the fifth season as a whole can best be described as wobbly. Characterization was lost, plotlines were ret-conned, and the energy and pacing that established The West Wing as one of the greatest dramas on television were nowhere to be found. Until we hit episode 17.

To sum up: Previously, on The West Wing, Zoe was kidnapped, Josh was thwarted, Donna got good hair, Dan Conner was briefly President, and Chandler Bing discovered Vice President Hoynes had been putting the Vice Presidential seal on things he shouldn’t, like ladies who aren’t his wife. Plus, one Supreme Court Justice is about to resign, and one died. Then a helicopter cut someone’s arm off. Wait, wrong show.

In a rush to appease everyone, the White House gang interviews two placeholder judges, extreme lefty Evelyn Baker Lang, played by the the delicious Glenn Close, and extreme righty, Christopher Mulready, played by the under-appreciated William Fichtner. We also meet Judge Shelton, played by Robert Picardo from Voyager, who is a little too moderate for Bartlet’s taste. The dead Justice, Brady, was a moderate conservative, which means the Senate Judiciary Committee isn’t going to hear of anyone more liberal than the dead guy taking the spot.  Josh has a J0sh-epiphany, and begins to wonder if the Bartlet administration can convince the ultra-liberal Chief Justice, Ashcroft, to step down and cede his seat to Lang, while offering Brady’s seat to the Republicans, to do with as they wish. The entire plan comes about after Josh eats cookies from Donna’s mom, which were packed in a tin with a photo of Donna’s parents’ cats. The Moss family couldn’t choose between the two kitties, so they took them both. Josh thinks the same folksy Minnesota wisdom will be the answer for the Court.

Actress Glen Close as Judge Evelyn Baker Lang on "The Supremes", episode 5.17 of The West Wing.
Actress Glenn Close as Judge Evelyn Baker Lang on “The Supremes,” episode 5.17 of The West Wing.
Actor William Fichtner as Judge Christopher Mulready on "The Supremes", episode 5.17 of The West Wing.
Actor William Fichtner as Judge Christopher Mulready on “The Supremes,” episode 5.17 of The West Wing.

Everyone but Josh, however, hates the idea. Toby yells, CJ rolls her eyes, Josh’s republican counterpart in the selection process tells him it’s a great idea, as long as Bartlet lets the Conservatives pick Mulready. Mulready is painted as a combination of all the worst parts of Reverend Billy Graham, Rush Limbaugh and One Million Moms.

Lang is electric, and the clear choice the liberal audience is supposed to get behind. She knows how to handle herself in tense situations, she’s unflappable, and she’s brilliant. As Josh says, “I love her mind. I love her shoes.” Problem is, she both overturned a parental consent law for minors seeking an abortion, and she had an abortion herself. CJ frames it as a tabloid headline “Nominee wanted for the deaths of 15 million American children.”

Mulready, when we meet him, isn’t nearly the devil he’s been made out to be. Through a scene with Toby and a later scene with Judge Lang, he proves to be as whip-smart, thoughtful and nuanced as Lang. The two judges get into a heated discussion that both of them seem to enjoy a great deal. Ultimately, they’re both appointed, and we see the announcement in the closing scene.

As always, The West Wing wants us to learn something, and the lessons of this episode are pretty clear. While Wells and Co. may do more telling than showing, a fault Sorkin has been guilty of more than once, this episode is a clear indication of the potential the team had to turn the show around in the final seasons.

While I don’t think we’ll see anything like this episode in the real life battles for seats we’ll see in coming years, I think this episode provides good discussion fodder, at the least.

By [E] Selena MacIntosh*

Selena MacIntosh is the owner and editor of Persephone Magazine. She also fixes it when it breaks. She is fueled by Diet Coke, coffee with a lot of cream in it, and cat hair.

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