The West Wing S01E11: Lord John Marbury

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The main game in this episode is the multilayered metaphor Sorkin creates through the marvellous character of the idiosyncratic Marbury, but there are also important sideshows.

The dating game …

Finally the still non-existent dalliance between journalist Danny Concannon and CJ Cregg comes to bite her in the person of Communications Director Toby Ziegler. He decides to shut her out of initial briefings on an escalating military situation in Kashmir. India has deployed more than 300,000 troops and a carrier group for what is obviously an invasion. Pakistan is mobilising to meet the Indian force.

As a result of being left in the dark, Cregg misleads the press when asked directly about the Indian mobilisation. It is a nightmare scenario for any public affairs professional. In Cregg’s shoes I might have resigned as the only rational response to being mistrusted and kept in the dark to such an extent that my own trust in people who mistrust me led me to mislead the press. Lying to journalists is the end of any productive relationship a public affairs professional can have with the news media, and perhaps in all future endeavours as well.

Ziegler’s later apology is largely meaningless, but ties up the issue dramatically to satisfy audiences clueless about what that kind of work actually involves.

… and guess who’s coming for dinner …

President Bartlet’s reaction to his daughter Zoey’s proposition to date Charlie Young is predictable, ridiculous, and partly remediated by his serious chat with Young about the media attention and the likely consequences of that attention for a young black man in the America of the 1990s. As if a young black man did not know this already.

There is something principled and honourable about President Bartlet’s decision to give his blessing to the date, and its chances of becoming more than a date, which is Sorkin’s intention, I suppose. Nevertheless, watching this again I am a little saddened that matters have become worse for interracial relations in the USA, not better.

In that context I think one of the failures of the series was to address race relations, civil rights, and the encroachments made on basic human rights by just taking them for granted despite repeated attacks from the Right. Particularly the Religious Right.

In the 1990s I became part of the American Imperial machine, and voluntarily. I did not believe that the USA could ever roll back its own ferociously fought for and won human rights progress. But it happened. And I suspect it happened because of attitudes that changed in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s. I wonder now whether Sorkin knew that, and had it in mind.

… while Lyman is deposed …

The Leo McGarry drug and alcohol abuse story arc moves forward, with Josh Lyman being deposed to answer questions put to him by Larry Claypool, acting on behalf of an anti-Democrat organisation called Freedom Watch. It is proposed as a Republican front, since Republican Congressman Peter Lillienfield started the whole skirmish.

All the honourable fencing by Lyman and Sam Seaborn aside, the upshot is that Claypool has a confidential Secret Service file he shouldn’t have, which details McGarry’s treatment at the Sierra Tucson rehabilitation facility for alcohol and Valium addictions. Sierra Tucson is apparently real. I wonder whether Sorkin spent time there.

Claypool is played with marvellous sleaziness by John Diel, whom I remember affectionately as one half of the Larry and Stan duo in Miami Vice, where they served as a kind of ersatz Laurel and Hardy distraction.

The story arc now begs the question where the republicans got the Secret Service file. But the question is not answered in this episode.

… and Hampton’s death knell sounds

Hampton's death knell?
Hampton’s death knell?

Mandy Hampton is given walk-on parts lobbying Sam Seaborn to smooth the way with his colleagues for her to take on a Republican client while still working for the White House. It is an insane idea, and I wondered why it was scripted at all.

Seaborn gets to articulate the insanity as an angry reaction to Hampton’s wheedling persistence: ‘Leo’s in trouble. You’re a political consultant. Your job isn’t to end the fight, it’s to win it! Now you can work for us or you can work for them, but you can’t do both.’

Just so. But it’s a line I would have written only if I intended to kill off the character, and then I really would have done it, too. Was that In Sorkin’s mind too? I’m not satisfied that I understand Mopira kelly’s inclusion in the cast list, or the obvious hostile scripting. Was she a studiop liability? An exec’s perk he found difficult to reconcile? Whatever the case may have been, she was treated shamefully by the producers, and should have been vanquished from the scripts sooner than it took to make it humiliating.

… behold a pale horse …

Lord John Marbury is an inspired character creation despite the overplayed eccentricities. Through him Sorkin is able to critique the stuffy formality of Washington prejudices, the myopia of the USA in its arrogant presumption to lead the free world, and its myriad intellectual shortcomings in understanding the world, its intelligence gathering, and its bullying strategy for alliance building.

Lord John Marbury.
Lord John Marbury.

Marbury also acts to question American conceptions of professionalism and competence rooted in a kind of stale formalism epitomised by the anuran Ross Perot. He gets to speak directly about the irrationality of religion, particularly as it relates to conflict, but with all he says about India and Pakistan being highly applicable to an unending war waged by American evangelicals against the rest of the USA, and the entire world.

Bartlet’s discovery in rapid succession that neither the Indians nor the Pakistanis seem willing to back off, and that the Chinese seem keen to intervene against Indian interests, might have been intended as educational background for American audiences largely ignorant of geopolitical dynamics extending beyond Hawaii, but it also highlights the insanity of reactive foreign policy after intelligence and planning failures. Intelligence and planning failures. There’s something entirely too familiar about that description of American foreign policy.
Marbury, played with enthusiasm by distinguished Welsh stage actor Roger Rees, gets the best lines in the episode, which could only be credible when voiced by an outsider, albeit a close ally:

Happily ensconced in the cocoon of your Cold War victory, you are woefully ignorant of the powerful historical agents in Asia. The global triumph of the economic free market has created an illusory assumption that the world is drawing itself closer together. Your Congress has been pathetically inept at halting the proliferation of nuclear weapons in this region, and your intelligence gathering is weak. India and Pakistan have fought three wars in the half-century since they have gained their independence, with God knows how many skirmishes in between. It is about religion, and I can assure you, they do not share our fear of the bomb.

It’s a great summary of tensions on the sub-continent as much as tensions within the USA itself. This piece of scripting deserved greater accolades than it begat.

With dialogue like this, from a character who baits McGarry by suggesting he is the butler, and expecting to be able to smoke in the Oval Office, it would be easy to dismiss him as eccentric. But he’s not really. He’s just not as anally retentive and repressed as the assumed American bourgeois prejudices being played to by the series, and by pretty much all American television.

It could be a clever dig by Sorkin at his own industry. And at his audience. Perhaps it is an expression of contempt for the restrictions he himself was working under, with barely disguised invigilation of his habits by studios via producers.

My fondness for that perspective is strengthened by Marbury’s future appearances as an unashamed public drunkard and forthright lecher. A man very much enamoured of joie de vivre, the way many more people once were.

Despite my great affection for McGarry, he is the epitome of anal retention, and of self-denying misanthropy, if mostly because of his past addictions. Nevertheless, it adds an unnecessary severity to his character that sits well with the ersatz religiosity of Alcoholics Anonymous, and that is the basis of Marbury’s delight in tweaking his nose. An English metaphor might be the laughing Cavalier having fun at the dour Roundhead’s expense.

It makes me think that sometimes we forget that one of the least well recognised ideological messages in American cultural exports is the Protestant gospel of misery: that life must be a bed of nails, suffered in silence as a sign of virtue, and devoid of sensual pleasures, which are always the devil’s temptations. It’s not like writers and producers set out deliberately to ideologise such misanthropy. It’s just that they are steeped in this psychology themselves, and unable to see it as mental illness, or as an optional pathology.

We get to see Marbury a couple more times, and possibly to even greater effect.

Credits

  • Written by Aaron Sorkin and Patrick Caddell from a story by Patrick Caddell and Lawrence O’Donnell, Jr. Directed by Kevin Rodney Sullivan. Originally aired on 5 January 2000.

  • Main cast: Rob Lowe as Sam Seaborn; Moira Kelly as Mandy Hampton; Dulé Hill as Charlie Young; Allison Janney as CJ Cregg; Richard Schiff as Toby Ziegler; John Spencer as Leo McGarry; Bradley Whitford as Josh Lyman; Martin Sheen as President Josiah Bartlet.

  • Special guest stars: John Amos as Admiral Percy Fitzwallace; Roger Rees as Lord John Marbury.

  • Guest starring: Janel Moloney as Donna Moss; Elisabeth Moss as Zoey Bartlet; John Diehl as Larry Claypool; James Hong as Chinese ambassador; Eric Avari as Pakistani ambassador; Iqbal Theba as Indian ambassador.

  • Co-Starring: Kathryn Joosten as Dolores Landingham; NiCole Robinson as Margaret; Melissa Fitzgerald as Carol Fitzpatrick; Bill Stevenson as Jaworski; Charles Hoyes as Thompson; Ryan Cutrona as CIA Director Rollie.

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