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Two Questions about the West Wing: “We Killed Yamamoto” and “Posse Comitatus”

We are wrapping up season three of The West Wing this week, with some light-hearted story lines lighten things up as President Bartlet orchestrates an assassination and what the editors have dubbed, “the worst death in TV history.”
In “We Killed Yamamoto,” we find the White House contemplating what to do about a known terrorist, Abdul Shareff. Donna gets sent to read a statement in Bismarck, North Dakota, where there is a movement to drop the word “North” from their state name. CJ continues to flirt with Simon Donovan, giving us some of my most favorite scenes of the entire series. Josh and Amy go head to head when marriage incentives get put into a piece of welfare legislation.

Text reads "Two Questions about The West Wing."

We continue to see season three’s focus on terrorism, and there’s a great speech by Admiral Fitzwallace talking about the changing enemy. Bartlet continues to deliberate, and as he does, he unloads his frustrations on Josh and how Amy has mobilized.

In “Posse Comitatus,” Bartlet learns how, exactly, the situation with Shareef will go down. The staff is getting ready for a quick trip to NYC to see a Shakespearean mash-up, where Bartlet’s opponent, Richey, will also be in attendance. A lot happens during the actual performance the White House staff goes to see, including the killing of Shareef and Simon Donovan.

Sally J: As Bartlet deliberates over what to do about Shareef, Leo observes that, “This is the most terrifying part of your liberalism…you think there are moral absolutes.” How much influence do you think Leo had over Bartlet in this decision?

Selena: Honestly, I think Bartlet let Leo do most of the heavy lifting when it came to the moral gray areas of his entire presidency. Shareef, and the death penalty pardon he denied in “Take This Sabbath Day” are both times when Leo influenced Bartlet to take the more extreme road. I think that allows Bartlet to be the good guy, to himself, to his staff, and probably most of all, to the audience.

From the very beginning, when Bartlet goes from fuzzy, cuddly liberal to BURN ALL THE THINGS in “Proportional Response,” he’s painted as hesitant to do the really questionable things, while Leo convinces him (and the audience) that the right thing to do isn’t always the moral thing to do.

Sally J : Tell me why you coin this “the worst death in TV history.” Are you just sad for CJ or is there more to it than that?

Selena: I’m certainly sad for CJ, but I’ve decided it’s the worst death in TV history because the Simon Donovan the show has spent three and a half episodes introducing us to would not have died in that convenience store. Donovan, the elite Secret Service agent who spotted a sniper at several hundred feet at Rosslyn, the eagle-eyed gunslinger who showed off his fancy observation and deduction skills for Hogan, the dashing man from the gun range, would have used his many, frequently displayed, crime-fighting tools to notice the second shooter. Or the clearly distressed shopkeep who was telling him with every bit of his body language that buying a candy bar was a terrible idea. But no. Donovan had to let out one more witty comment and he ends up an incredibly good-looking, impressively well-staged corpse.

The use of Jeff Buckley’s lovely and ubiquitous cover of “Hallelujah” has never affected me more. As pissed as I am at how Donovan died, my anger is overshadowed by my grief for CJ every time. GOODBYE SPECIAL AGENT SUNSHINE. WE BARELY KNEW YOU, BUT WE REALLY LIKED YOU.

I sometimes wonder if Mark Harmon, dreamy Boomer, pissed off Sorkin, because Donovan’s death was as mean-spirited as Dr. Drake Ramoray falling down an elevator shaft.

Selena: Donna begs for more responsibility from Josh, and he sends her to be powerless in the Dakotas. Josh always has ulterior motives. Do you think he sent her on the trip to teach her a lesson about over-reaching, or to teach her a lesson about the tedious nuts and bolts of government?

Sally J : I’m going to go with the tedious nuts and bolts of government, because I don’t want to believe he willingly wants to hold her back. Except maybe he kind of does, because she is part of the reason he can do his job well. ANYWAY. While it was tedious, she carried herself gracefully, and made a good impression on the Dakotas.

Selena: We’ve talked about terrorism being a major theme this season, what other themes and arcs tie the episodes of season three together?

Sally J : Oh my. Am I being graded? I think a lot of things come to a head in these episodes as season three ends. One theme we see is the sacrifice of a personal life for the good of the White House. We see Josh and Amy coming unraveled as the welfare bill is up. CJ’s love interest dies in the line of duty. If you’re not Mr. and Mrs. Bartlet, you’re not getting any heading into season four. Another is that we see “the Two Bartlets” (aka “Dr. Fluffy and Mr. Hyde”) – I think we see Mr. Hyde in the last episode. There’s probably a lot of symbolism in the Shakespearean mash up they’re attending, but I’m not familiar enough with all of the history plays to draw the parallels.

One reply on “Two Questions about the West Wing: “We Killed Yamamoto” and “Posse Comitatus””

I do think that Josh holds Donna back; he refuses to consider her on her own terms. He is a fairly self-absorbed person (partly because of his job responsibilities, and partly because it’s just his personality), and he only looks at Donna for what she can provide him. He hasn’t yet accepted the role as her mentor, nor does he yet know what it means to mentor someone. He only commends Donna’s initiative when it directly benefits him.

Although Donna has a lot of growing to do (she has to find a new job and hasn’t accepted it yet), it’s not entirely her fault that she can’t get more experience from Josh. She doesn’t know how to demand more because he doesn’t treat her the same way that he would anyone else in her position. Josh is emotionally vulnerable with Donna in a way that he never allows himself to be with anyone else. And so rather than being impressed by her drive, he is almost annoyed by it because he sees it as a threat to his investment in her as his emotional sounding board. He likes that Donna is so in awe of him – he doesn’t want to risk her developing to the point that she will call him out on all the flaws he is trying to hide from everyone else. It makes him afraid of her potential and indifferent to it, in turns. He doesn’t realize she would be his strongest ally if he took the time to develop her at this stage in her career.

Ultimately, I think it’s better for Donna that he doesn’t recognize this. She is too willing to give herself over to Josh’s way of doing things. When she finally gets fed up with him, it’s going to be a transformative and defining moment in her life. And everything that happens after will be truly of her own making rather than his.

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