The West Wing S01E08: Enemies

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On the first pass I hadn’t noticed it as much as later on. Episode eight seemed a little like a caricature of what Sorkin had written before. All the lines and characters were less subtle. Because Sorkin didn’t write this episode. Time Matheson and Dulé Hill were cited in an online TV guide that no longer exists to the effect that the script was unusually late. I wondered whether that meant Sorkin had problems. Maybe arising from drug abuse, which was a real problem for him in those years. I can’t find any evidence to that effect in print, but a year or so later he was busted and apologised to the cast and crew for the embarrassment he had caused the show. What a crock. All that hypocrisy about drugs in an industry laced with, at a time the entire country was awash in cocaine, and with coke dollars.

Another, far more simple and innocent explanation might have been that Sorkin was still working on Sports Night as well as his new show, and was simply overcommitted. However, there was a big gap between season two, episodes five and six of Sports Night: five aired on 2 November 1999, and six on 7 December. Enemies went to air on 17 November. Maybe Occam’s Razor doesn’t apply here.

In any case, despite being somewhat different, the episode wasn’t necessarily all bad for Sorkin’s absence.

The nutty professor …

Beginning the story with Bartlet doing the smartarse thing by lecturing a tired Josh Lyman on national parks, and deliberately torturing him with trivia, seemed pushing the theme too far. I did begin to weary of Bartlet’s trivial pursuit smart-arsery over the course of the first four seasons. Having disparate factoids at your fingertips is rarely a sign of ‘smartness’ the way it was presented, rather than of idiot savantism and being an annoying turd.

Still, the opening had a punch line toward the end of the episode, when Lyman connects the Bartlet national parks pontification torture to another piece of incidental information: the Antiquities Act, which allows the president to side-step an embarrassing rider on passing a banking bill tied to his personal prestige.

… Big Sky …

The banking bill is talked of as a restraint on the power of banks to play fast and loose, the way they actually did. In the episode the bill would pass only with an amendment that would permit strip mining of Big Sky, Montana. A proposition not much different from selling into prostitution a beautiful, virginal young girl.

Mandy Hampton manages to earn my disgust yet again by proposing earnestly that it would be best to accept the rider to get the bill through. In fairness, Sam Seaborn seems to make the same argument. But in the end something Donna says in passing reminds Josh of the Antiquities Act (a real piece of legislation) that would enable Bartlet to declare Big Sky a national park (which the real law doesn’t actually permit).

In some ways this plot twist avoids acknowledging the disgusting consequences of political compromises that can (and often does) turn an initially good bill into a chancrous, putrid abomination.

… Hoynes …

The conflict between vice president John Hoynes (Tim Matheson) and president Bartlet is explained. Hoynes kicks off a cabinet meeting while waiting for the president. But Bartlet then deliberately embarrasses Hoynes in front of the assembled secretaries. And the story leaks to Danny Concannon. Though CJ Cregg and the president suspect Hoynes of leaking the story, it turns out the source was the meeting’s stenographer. It becomes a sore point.

A hard face for Hoynes.
A hard face for Hoynes.

Hoynes asks for a meeting with the president to tell him he wasn’t the leak, and it emerges that Hoynes had been a nominee for the presidency, beaten by Bartlet, but offered the vice presidency to guarantee his ability to deliver the south for the campaign. It seems the terms on which he accepted the vice presidency had been humiliating for Bartlet because they made him look weak. Ergo his hostility to Hoynes. Sheen really excels in the scene, offering an uncharacteristically hard face to the camera.

I thought this plot development was a bit naff. JFK and LBJ reworked, but without innovation. Surely Bartlet would have kept his VP close, following the dictum about friends close but enemies closer and all that. The smart politics would have been the Obama Clinton turn, offering a high profile rôle or project to a defeated opponent in your own team to give him profile and keep him busy. I’m sure Clinton hates Obama with a passion, but she was never any threat to him after he included her in his cabinet.

…script-writing hijinks …

There are two ways to look at the odd interposition of Toby Ziegler’s and Sam Seaborn’s concern about the sharpness of their writing skills. The first is a conventional one. The second is a hypothesis about a shot across Sorkins’ bow.

Mallory rebukes her father and the president for hazing Sam.
Mallory rebukes her father and the president for hazing Sam.

Coming from a set-up in which Ziegler and Seaborn both declare they could do better writing, Seaborn is invited to the Chinese opera by Mallory McGary, using tickets Leo gave her. Seaborn makes the boyish mistake of clearing the ‘date’ with Leo, who then sets up Sam for a hazing by getting him to write a presidential 50th birthday greeting to an assistant secretary, and having the president ask for another draft when the first was clearly beyond adequate. All to prevent him from making his date with Mallory.

Subterfuge to punish Seaborn, I thought the first time I saw this. But it was really punishment for Mallory from her father. Punishment because she hasn’t yet forgiven him for letting her mother leave. Or because he hasn’t stayed in touch with his estranged wife. Either way, this is just childish behaviour from the president and his chief of staff. In Sam’s shoes I would have resigned for complete loss of respect and trust in both men.

A second interpretation, though, might be that Sorkin missed a writing deadline, and the stand-ins were having a dig at him via Ziegler and Seaborn, shown to be quirky about their craft. Obsessive to the point of being silly. There is a scene of Rob Lowe (as Seaborn) crushing the paper of a draft in his hands, pounding his desk, and generally looking like a refugee from comedy central. Still, great acting by Lowe. Sarcastic take on Sorkin? We will never know.

Rob Lowe does comedy central for the episode.
Rob Lowe does comedy central for the episode.

… and Danny Concannon

In alerting Cregg to the carpeting of Hoynes at the cabinet meeting, Danny Concannon ends speculation about the dynamic between the two characters by directly asking Cregg for a date.

This was to become one of the most entertaining flirtations across years of episodes. I had forgotten where it all began, though Sorkin seems to have had that possibility in mind since the third episode.

Cregg leaves the door open, saying she can’t … on this occasion, because she has other commitments.

In the real world such a romance would have been seen as bad form. Journalists are never off the record, and pillow talk is the source of many a scandal. But it seemed fine for an hour’s evening entertainment.

There’s something jarring about Josh’s closing comment for the episode: ‘We talk about enemies more than we used to. I wanted to mention that.’

It seems premature for disillusionment from the show’s second-ranking fixer. It’s his job to ferret out and kill enemies. Was this another shot at Sorkin, who had a reputation for being high and difficult to deal with? These are recent thoughts that come to me irresistibly. The first couple of times I saw the episode I didn’t pay any attention to the line or its potential meanings. Maybe I’m overthinking it. But nothing on TV is there by mistake, and Josh’s comment is neither clarified nor revisited.

Credits

  • Written by Ron Osborn and Jeff Reno from a story by Rick Cleveland, Lawrence O’Donnell, Jr, and Patrick Caddell. Directed by Alan Taylor. First aired on 17 November 1999.

  • Regular headline cast members are listed for episode one.

  • Special guest star: Tim Matheson as Vice President John Hoynes.

  • Guest starring Timothy Busfield as Danny Concannon, Renee Estevez as Nancy, Charley Lang as Congressman Matt Skinner, Janel Moloney as Donna Moss, Allison Smith as Mallory O’Brien.

  • Co-starring Kathryn Joosten as Dolores Landingham, NiCole Robinson as Margaret, Devika Parikh as Bonnie, Jana Lee Hamblin as Bobbi, Robyn Pedretti as Candy, Shirley Y Scott as stenographer.

For discussion, see my Google Plus post and Randy Resnick’s Google Plus West Wing collection.

For a complete list of West Wing commentary see my West Wing index page.