LadyGhosts of TV Past

The West Wing: “Enemies Foreign and Domestic” and “The Black Vera Wang”

Oooh, readers, we’ve got two fantastic episodes to talk about today.

Text reads "Two Questions about The West Wing."In “Enemies Foreign and Domestic,” we’re not only treated to a CJ-centric episode, we get Ian McShane, a Russian president who sends hidden messages, and Peter Scolari as Bill Gates-lite. Plus, Charlie, our hero, gets to make the day of a man who once wrote a letter to FDR.

When CJ learns that 17 Saudi girls were killed when their school was on fire and they weren’t allowed to leave because they weren’t wearing the right garments, she intends to speak her mind. She invites Sam and Toby to try to muzzle her, but they opt for getting a good seat instead. She attempts to deflect the questions from the press corp about the incidents, but when pressed about her own outrage, she says this:

Outraged? I’m barely surprised. This is a country where women aren’t allowed to drive a car. They’re not allowed to be in the company of any man other than a close relative. They’re required to adhere to a dress code that would make a Maryknoll nun look like Malibu Barbie. They beheaded a hundred and twenty-one people last year for robbery, rape, and drug trafficking. They have no free press, no elected government, no political parties. And the Royal Family allows the Religious Police to travel in groups of six carrying nightsticks and they freely and publicly beat women. But ‘Brutus is an honorable man.’ Seventeen schoolgirls were forced to burn alive because they weren’t wearing the proper clothing. Am I outraged? No, Steve; no, Mark; no, Chris: that is Saudi Arabia, our partners in peace.

And that’s why we love CJ Cregg.

Later, she begins receiving all the angry letters and emails, including a death threat. Donna, then Josh, then Secret Service Chief Ron Butterfield, then the President himself dissuade her from brushing it under the rug or not taking it seriously. She’s assigned a Secret Service detail, featuring silver fox Mark Harmon as Simon Donovan, Special Agent Sunshine.

Meanwhile, back in the Hall of Justice the White House, Sam negotiates with the brand-new Russian President’s people about an upcoming summit in Helsinki, which includes the following exchange:

Nikolai: It is freezing too cold in Reykjavik. It is freezing too cold in Helsinki. It is freezing too cold in Gstaad. Why must every American President bound out of an automobile like as at a yacht club, while in com…

George: Comparison.

Nikolai: Comparison, our leader looks like… I don’t even know what word is.

Sam: Frumpy?

Nikolai: I don’t know what “frumpy” is, but onomatopoetically, sounds right.

Sam:┬áIt’s hard not to like a guy who doesn’t know ‘frumpy,’ but knows ‘onomatopoeia.’

And that’s why we love both Sam Seaborn and Ian McShane. SOMEBODY PUT THESE TWO IN A SHOW TOGETHER.

In “The Black Vera Wang” we discover that CJ drives a baby blue ’65 Mustang convertible, because of course she does, that car is, to quote a friend of mine, “better than boobs.” We also learn that she’s a great aunt, even though I’m pretty sure we never learn whether CJ has a brother or a sister. (Correct me if I’m wrong, readers.) We also learn that there is a lot of Moose meat in Helsinki. Plus, terrorism and attack ads. Just another day on Pennsylvania Ave.

Selena: “Enemies Foreign and Domestic” features Charlie doing something cool and unselfish for someone else, which is pretty much the definition of Charlie. If you were to choose one word to describe Mr. Young, what would it be and why?

Sally J.: I pick endearing. Charlie has the biggest heart of anyone on the show. Throughout the entire series, he goes out of his way to do the right thing. He’s unique in that he doesn’t have to be political. He is simply loyal to the President above all else, and right under that, he’s personally committed to doing the right thing.

Selena: Simon Donovan makes us briefly forget that Danny Concannon is CJ’s lobster. Why do you think the chemistry is so intense between these two characters?

Sally J.: Oh how I love me some Simon and CJ. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it’s got something to do with the fact that she spends her days around powerful men, but Simon’s only job is to focus on her. But she’s not impressed or intimidated by him, because she’s C.J. Cregg. I don’t know. Maybe it’s because he’s for sure the only man she’s seen consecutively, day in and day out, since joining the Bartlet campaign. I just know I like it.

Sally J.: When Ron Butterfield talks to CJ about the death threats she’s receiving, he assures her that it has nothing to do with her comments about Saudi Arabia. Throughout season three, there are references to Middle Eastern regimes, Muslim terrorist cells and so on. Do you think (or do you know) how much of this was added in response to the September 11 attacks?

Selena: I don’t know any trivia related to this, but I’m not sure September 11 figured into these script details. We weren’t exactly allies with many Middle Eastern countries, and we knew about the Taliban well before the attacks. While I think you could be right, I can’t say so definitively.

Sally J.: In “The Black Vera Wang,” Toby fights with networks about television coverage for the Democratic convention. He’s shocked and appalled at the idea of summing up the entire convention in an hour the night of the nomination. Do you think network apathy in real life is as bad as it is portrayed in this episode?

Selena: I’m sure it is, because I’m sure audience apathy is as bad as it’s portrayed on the show. I’m politically active and I get bored with the conventions, but I like to think a Bartlet convention would be more fun than what we see in the real world, too.

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.

12 replies on “The West Wing: “Enemies Foreign and Domestic” and “The Black Vera Wang””

Season 3 was heavily influenced by 9/11 and foreign affairs. Aaron Sorkin is heavily influenced by current affairs. I have the CD’s (thanks to my lovely wife) in an interview he gave he spoke a lot about how as a child he and his family would sit around the dinner table and talk politics and current events. He believes in starting a discussion. Lawrence O’Donnell (now host of the ‘Last Word’ on MSNBC) was also a consultant on the show. He also played Bartlett’s dad.

I’ve sadly never heard the DVD commentary. I saw a copy of the boxed set at Best Buy or some such last holiday season for $75, and I almost scooped it, but it came out on Netflix a very short time after. (Related? Probably.)

I do think Sorkin is (and was) influenced by current affairs, but from a production standpoint, it would only be the episodes in the back half of the season which could have been influenced by 9/11, the first half (except, of course, I&I) of the season was likely already written and/or in the can when the attacks occurred. While that certainly opens up the possibility of these episodes we’re talking about above being influenced by September 11, I think Sorkin would have been talking about terrorism, religious extremism, and even Bin Laden had the attacks never happened at all. Pretend I said that wearing a mumuu and chain-smoking Parliaments.

And does also having Peggy Noonan as a consultant in any way tarnish the glory of having O’Donnell? (I never put it together that he was Bartlet’s dad. Nice catch.)

The Box set is great, the best part is the letter Sorkin wrote about how the West Wing became a show. He was in the middle of producing a show called sports night and he was hosting a dinner party at his house with his best friend. Can you guess who that best friend was? Yes it was Bradley Witford your friendly neighborhood Lemon-Limon. Sorkin related to Bradley that he was meeting with a producer the next day, that the producer wanted to pitch him a show. Bradley told him he should do a show based on his movie “An American President” starring Michael Douglas about white house staffers. Sorkin told him he didn’t want to do a show about that, that no one would be interested. Besides he expected the producer to pitch him a show, not the other way around.

Fast forward to the next day, Sorkin is having lunch with the producer. The Producer says he wants to do a show with him, and then asks Sorkin if he had any ideas. Sorkin said he was shocked, he thought he was getting pitched not the other way around and he had nothing. So he pitched the producers the first thing that came to his mind, what Bradley told him, to do a TV show about White House staffers. Hence the West Wing was born.

An even better story is how Martin Sheen was cast as President. Once it was clear Sorkin was writing a script for a TV show and the conversation goes something like this (paraphrasing):
Martin: Hey Aaron, it’s me Martin Sheen
Aaron: yes
Martin: Ya know, we did the American President together, I played the VP
Aaron: Yes Martin, I know who you are
Martin: I heard you were doing a TV show, and I wanted to know if I could be in it…

Too funny!

I finally got my boyfriend into watching The West Wing, and he has described as “The Gilmore Girls for politics”.
Which, by the way, is a term of high praise from him.

Aaaand CJ’s niece is of course Evan Rachel Wood, later of Thirteen, Across the Universe and True Blood.

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