The West Wing S01E06: Mr Willis of Ohio


Finally the anthemic opening score has been bedded down by Snuffy Waldren: the show no longer begins like an ad or ends like a cartoon filler.
With the other elements of the show hitting their stride a couple of episodes back, this is now the package I remember expecting for each episode.

Card game …

The gimmick of the card game was a little too informal; I don’t think the campaign trail camaraderie can survive for long in the White House. But it does make our characters seem like chums, allows the president to demonstrate hi sometimes annoying smart-arsery, and offers the common experience of being threatened by lunatic(s). I wonder, again, whether Sorkin already had a kidnapping/shooting scenario in mind when he came up with the lone deranged woman that has the secret service rush to smother the staff, and that introduces agent Ron Butterfield (Michael O’Neill) who seems reassuringly older than most other people on the show.

It also served to ‘admit’ Charlie to the inner circle.

Georgetown arseholes corner Zoey (almost obscured in the cap) with Charlie stepping in.  Is that Eric Balfour at the front?
Georgetown arseholes corner Zoey (almost obscured in the cap) with Charlie stepping in. Is that Eric Balfour at the front?

… bar incident …

Probably a series highlight is the after-work- drinks-in-a-Georgetown-bar sequence, again showing our protagonists to be likable and chummy, but also establishing Charlie as a guardian angel with the cojones for standing between Zoey and some idiot football player/Alpha male thug types.

After Sam and Josh step in, and Josh activates Zoey’s panic button, word of how Charlie defended the presidential daughter filters back to the Prez, who invites him in on the card game. Thankfully we don’t see too much more of these games during the series. The opportunity for presidential smart-arsery on such occasions is just too great, and my tolerance for Bartlet’s displays of his encyclopaedic general knowledge is stretched even without the card games.

At one stage Josh and Sam brag to each other about which of the guys they ‘would have taken’ had a fight broken out, with Charlie raining on their parade by suggesting neither of them is really a fighter. My own experience with political operatives is, that if they are younger than Leo, they are pretty game. Fist fights were not a complete surprise among passionate people in the heat of campaign hyperreality or the hoodoo of managing everyday media fallout.

… census …

Not a bad plot to have one of the characters plead ignorance about the census in order to lecture the audience about it. Sam as tutor and CJ, or rather the press secretary, as the dummie works well. Sam’s position and persona makes him a believable expert in what is a complex interrelationship of concepts, statutes, statistical implications, and socio-economic consequences.

Al Fann as Mr Willis of Ohio.
Al Fann as Mr Willis of Ohio.

Personally I never found census systems hard to understand at all, but I guess not everyone has a background as a spin doctor.

Mr Willis turns out to be largely superfluous. He is needed only to make the point that the statutes on which American law is based are dated, racist, and unreliable foundations. That point seems as evergreen now as it was then: so many ignorant imbeciles like to cite the constitution and amendments of the USA without understanding these, or the connection to the new laws they seek to support with such citations.

If Charlie was not a token black man, Mr Willis clearly was. But it was handled nicely. The horse trading smarts of Ziegler is illustrated along with his principled humanism – qualities that endeared the character to me.

On a pedantic note, only Senate seats vacated by death can be filled by appointment, and do indeed have a history of ‘widow’s succession’ or ‘mandate’, but House of Representatives seats falling empty due to death require a special election. What is called a by-election in Australia and the UK. In the USA there have been exactly zero instances of widowers stepping in to fill seats vacated by dead wives (see Christopher Ingraham in the Washington Post).

… taxes …

Less successful than the census lecture to the audience is the one on taxation from Josh to Donna. She asks why a budget surplus shouldn’t mean she gets more money back as a tax cut, and Josh gives the incomprehensibly cretinous answer that the government doesn’t trust people to spend their money wisely, and that Donna shouldn’t have voted Democrat.

What a missed opportunity to explain wealth redistribution, and the 1980s to 1990s preference for that redistribution to have been from the poor to the rich. What a huge opportunity missed to explain what taxes actually pay for.

But maybe that would have been a step too far even for Wunderkind Aaron Sorkin to get away with. Particularly since studio bosses aren’t among the starving masses, and probably thought social conscience was a fine thing so long as it didn’t cut into their budgets for cocaine, hookers, and New England holiday homes.

Still, the formula actually worked in future episodes. Josh would explain many political realities to Donna over time, serving almost as a didactic vehicle for the audience, and always somehow without coming across as too patronising to bear, which is often a risk with such strategies. I chalk up the success of this formula to the chemistry between Moloney and Whitford, and to Whitford’s ability to make Josh seem flippant at the same time as insightful.

… and marriage!

The most jarring scene in the episode was Bartlet telling McGarry to fix his marriage. And obdurate and foolish demand made with patronising superiority about a circumstance not really understood. But made by a man who should know his chief of staff better. McGarry was running the country for Bartlet, with intellect, expertise, and insight few people possess. Why would Bartlet assume McGarry had not considered every avenue of approach to his marital problems? I would be personally annoyed, and even offended, to be faced with a blithely arrogant and ignorant imposition like the Bartlet ‘intervention’.

It doesn’t help much that Bartlet relented later. What was the purpose in the first place? Have I underestimated the degree of prissy tight-arsedness of Americans? What business is it of anyone what the McGarrys decide about their partnership? Why would a friend act so brusquely about such a painful event? What is illustrated about Bartlet by this episode? Was Sorkin relaying his personal experience of boorishness like this? To this day I still don’t quite understand the scripting logic behind the two scenes that comprise this development.


  • Writer: Aaron Sorkin. Director: Christopher Misiano. Original air date: 3 November 1999.

  • Regular headline cast members are listed for episode one.

  • Guest stars: Janel Moloney as Donna Moss; Elisabeth Moss as Zoey Bartlet; Suzy Nakamura as Kathy; Allison Smith as Mallory O’Brien; Renée Estevez as Nancy; Al Fann as Rep Joe Willis (D-OH); Charley Lang as Congressman Skinner; Michael O’Neill as Secret Service Agent Ron Butterfield; Kenneth Tigar as Congressman Gladman.

  • Co Starring: Kathryn Joosten as Dolores Landingham; Devika Parikh as Bonnie; Gathering Marbet as Waitress. Two credits go to the bar room frat boy morons harassing Zoey, but the third, who does all the talking, is uncredited. I think I recognise him as a young Eric Balfour seen ten years later as Duke Crocker in the show Haven, looking as though he is sporting the miraculously unaltered adolescent beard-scruff of a decade earlier.

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