If there is a ‘legend’ of The West Wing, these episodes are its bedrock, working emotional triggers and prompting the kind of sympathy for the characters normally reserved for the survivors of real and historic crisis situations. A mark of the writing and acting calibre is that these emotional triggers haven’t been eroded over time, despite the lacking surprise about the outcomes. Maybe because the kind of crisis we are presented with seems much more likely today than sixteen years ago, mainly because of Republican complicity with deregulating gun ownership.
I wondered what it is that series creator and principal writer Aaron Sorkin taps into when he manipulates audience emotional response this way. But I couldn’t find some secret and sophisticated trick. Sorkin’s approach is probably not much more intricate than drawing on his own intuitive understanding of what is right, what is fair, what is tragic, and what adds a realistic element of irony or humour to an otherwise black circumstance.
That this works is down to shared values across Western culture. It transcends national and chauvinistic barriers to meet in an ill-defined territory where most of us share some values when making sense of narratives. A territory that may be ill-defined, but embraces all of the Western world all the same. This is likely the product of an education system based on inculcating ancient Greek and Roman narrative structures, but also some pre-Christian Germano-Celtic influences (Norse myths, Beowulf, folk tales, etc), and then the massive edifice of Christian European culture on top, which tends to obscure earlier influences and dissent, but includes them all the same. That background suffuses all media, social, and political communication, such as the breakfast table conversations about what’s in the news, how to interpret the barrage of marketing messages on the TV, radio, and the cereal boxes on the table, and even how to understand the apparently inarticulate grunts from teenagers devoted to the latest ‘youth culture’ sales constructs. In short, no matter what the national or language boundaries might be, Westerners do share common assumptions about interpreting narratives, fictional and not.
As an aside, relevant to people like me, there’s a truism that sometimes escapes Americans: most non-American Westerners are more intimately acquainted with politics in the USA than Americans are with politics anywhere else, or even at home. This is a corollary of the overshadowing influence American military adventurism and economic imperialism has on the entire world. And with effects probably most feared in the populations of nominal allies rather than among America’s enemies because those populations have at least pretensions to democracy, and yet see their voices eroded in international economic developments dictated in New York and Washington. This is why I think Sorkin’s story works as powerfully outside the USA as it did on American prime time.
Part of the enduring appeal of The West Wing to me is that Sorkin was able to play to the common understandings of educated Western populations rather than to pander to lowest common denominator assumptions about American exceptionalism—the idea that American experiences are always unique and more authentic than any others. That greater universalisability of Sorkin plots probably underwrites his relative celebrity status as a writer; are the names David Chase, David Shore, Shawn Ryan, Nic Pizzolatto, Bryan Fuller, or Beau Willimon as familiar as Sorkin’s? Look them up and you will see them associated with successful TV shows too, but maybe not with scripts that have the lasting impact of those driving The West Wing.
Sorkin was critiqued, at the time, for using a cliffhanger to end the first season (see the West Wing Episode Guide). His rejoinder was that the dramatic construction helped him open up the flashback device he used at the beginning of the second season to fill in character backgrounds. I think that’s probably bullshit: the studio probably wanted the cliffhanger formula. It’s idiotic but pretty standard accounting-driven marketing formula.
And yet, anyone who spent time in hospitals beyond the occasional overnight stay knows that there is plenty of dead, sleepless time in which to consider life, the universe, and ‘how did I get here’. In that sense it works well to interleave the fictional here-and-now with the character histories.
It didn’t hurt that the first two episodes of the second season were aired as a film-length double episode on the night of 4 October 2000.
The two episodes don’t fill in Bartlet’s résumé much, but from hints dropped in other episodes, it seems the fictional character began his political career in the early 1970s, switching from being an economics professor to serving as a New Hampshire representative before winning a seat in the US House of Representatives, and then serving two terms as New Hampshire governor, expiring in 1999, presumably when he started his presidential run.
It is his campaign for Democratic nomination that is the focus of the flashbacks. Leo McGarry is already his chief of staff, coming from a history in the Democratic Party that included serving as Labor Secretary in an unspecified previous administration.
McGarry visits Josh Lyman in Washington and invites him to come hear Bartlet speak at a time in which Lyman works for the presumptive Democrat nominee, John Hoynes. Lyman is having trouble identifying what Hoynes stands for, other than winning, and recognises in Bartlet ‘the real thing’. Lyman then goes about recruiting Sam Seaborn, with whom he has an unspecified relationship, probably tied to college political activism. Seaborn is making a fast track for partner in New York’s biggest law firm, advising on unethical practices, and seems quite happy to leave that high-paying career behind to join the Bartlet campaign.
The idea that a yuppie lawyer would turn his back on a lucrative, high-flying legal career for political activism is almost too sentimentally romantic, and yet probably the only way that high-calibre people actually get into politics behind the scenes. And it does happen. This plotline offers one of the most bizarre sequences in The West Wing: Seaborn telling an oil company to buy crappy ships bound to spill oil, but without owning any equity that could be tapped for compensation claims, and then reversing himself to plead with the company representatives to buy decent ships—in a boardroom pitch so naff it would never happen. No one could get to that level and behave that idiotically. Fortunately for Seaborn, he is rescued from being sacked by Lyman, who recruits him for Bartlet’s campaign just before the law firm’s CEO shows him the door.
Later we see Donna Moss talking herself into a job for the campaign by just turning up and talking Lyman into becoming his assistant. Her method is pretty disarming. When Lyman tells her that this is not a job for someone trying to find herself after a failed relationship, she asks him why it can’t be that. It seems pretty clear that Lyman is forced to reflect on his stint with Hoynes as a similar failed relationship, and his decision to join the Bartlet campaign is no less a journey of finding himself than Moss’s.
We don’t get much of an insight into Toby Ziegler, except that he has run minor campaigns before, unsuccessfully, and is an inch away from being fired by Bartlet’s staff before McGarry fires Bartlet’s people instead. There is clearly history between McGarry and Ziegler, but it isn’t revealed, beyond McGarry’s warning to Ziegler: ‘Don’t screw up’.
Ziegler, in turn, recruits CJ Cregg, freshly fired from a really crappy Hollywood PR job, and with only an Emily’s List gig to recommend her for a presidential campaign.
As for the reason why Bartlet is seen as an inspirational candidate, despite the low-wattage rubber chicken dinner at which we see him speak, McGarry gets a pretty good line:
… I’m tired of it year after year after year after year having to chose between the lesser of who cares? Of trying to get myself excited about a candidate who can speak in complete sentences. Of setting the bar so low, I can hardly look at it. They say a good man can’t get elected President. I don’t believe that, do you?
This explanation for the dedication and loyalty of Bartlet’s staff works as well as it does because it remains as true and aspirational today as it was sixteen years ago. Looking at the Democrat primary currently underway, what difference is there between the pragmatic, win for winning’s sake Clinton, and John Hoynes? What difference is there between two New England upstarts? And what has changed about the ‘what’s in it for me’ culture of Republican politics?
It is compelling to suppose that there are Creggs, Lymans, McGarries, Seaborns and Zieglers out there right now. Will they sit in White House offices this time next year? A story that always tickled me is about another TV show entirely: House. It concerns actor Kalpen Suresh Modi, better known as Kal Penn, who played Dr Lawrence Kuttner, and who quit the show to join the Obama administration in 2009 as Associate Director of Public Engagement. I imagine that even a supporting cast salary was a more lucrative career move than public service.
It is in this context that The West Wing remains an evergreen. Aspiration does not go out of fashion despite periods of unprincipled greed as national Leitmotif. Nor does the unfinished business of the Bartlet agenda get eclipsed for long: it closely resembles the upstart agenda that appears to so terribly confound the Democrat party machine in the current primaries.
The recruitment stories are entertaining in themselves, but they appear to serve more as a means of telling us that our favourite characters are all amateurs, the way most staff in new administrations are. And that, in turn, has a bearing on how they manage the shooting emergency.
I’m not sure what to make of Bartlet’s bad temper with his staff, and his sudden conversion to statesmanlike stature when Lyman’s father dies. Is this twist an implication that Bartlet rises to the occasion when he learns to appreciate his team? Or is it only a reprise of the moments during Charlie Young’s introduction to the team. A personality pattern that is prelude to a special relationship? Whatever the case, tragedy is a well-known dramatic trigger for rising to challenges, and that theme is sustained in the season opening, and repeated in its aftermath.
One of the ‘real-time’ plotlines is the question about who, exactly, is in charge while the president is under anaesthetic. I suspect the issue is blown out of all proportion, but it does allow Sorkin to point to some pretty rubbery legality for unforeseen events.
Watching this carefully, the president is quite lucid when he orders McGarry to call together the cabinet and the joint chiefs, while suspending trading on the stock exchange. McGarry clearly accepts the authority of hastily summoned vice president (Hoynes) in a situation room briefing. It is Hoynes who follows McGarry’s advice, not McGarry bullying him to do that.
The only dispute here was between the national security advisor, Nancy McNally (played by Anna Deavere Smith) and the vice president, who seems uncharacteristically unprepared and shy, letting McGarry make the running for him.
Even in this fiction, though, McGarry is acting on the president’s instructions, and the president is incapacitated for only six or so hours; there must be occasions during which the president is asleep for six hours during which, it could be argued, the country is as leaderless as during the dramatised surgery.
If there was any evidence of a rudderless executive, it was CJ Cregg as the visibly shaken public face of the administration; Seaborn would have done a better, more controlled job. There is purpose to that representation, with Seaborn getting the morning show circuit, though that seems to be mainly a set-up for the Ainsley Hayes sub-plot coming in the following episodes.
Stripping away all insistence on realistic credibility, the reason these two episodes work is all about engaging with the characters in hard times.
I have written previously about the West Wing ‘crew’ being an ersatz family, of sorts. A group of people the audience can feel vicariously close to. People who appeal because they are brighter and less outlandish than cops and robbers, ER doctors, or forensic detectives. By now there was an unmistakeable chemistry among the actors and their dramatic personalities. Mandy Hampton was the only sore thumb, and removed in this season, while Janel Moloney, playing Donatella Moss, became part of the regular headline cast in the opening credits.
Putting these characters in extremis, and suffering with them the chaos of the shooting, and the uphill battle to put the world in order again, is the dramatic engine here. The ratings engine.
Then, as now, the script and action managed to create an emotional reaction; not quite teary eyes, but a choked up feeling about Lyman being so badly wounded, and people caring so deeply about him. People coming together for each other in these circumstances.
There is a quite uncharacteristic scene of an assistant, Nancy (played by Martin Sheen’s daughter Renee Estevez) turning up at the White House out of hours, clearly distraught by news of the shooting, and Toby Ziegler hugging and reassuring her. Ziegler, who barely restrains himself, in the ordinary course of events, from cursing people and physically assaulting them. But it works. Because of the situation. And I don’t doubt that the cliffhanger and the exaggerated drama of the shooting was contrived at least partly to achieve this effect. I think it did so handsomely. Ratings went up (season one was around nine million, season two was the peak of the run at around seventeen million). Interest in the further adventures of the characters soared. And Sorkin exploited the phenomenon by adding further extreme plot twists. But you cannot milk the same dramatic effect too often. And this was probably unique for being the first and most extreme example of it.
I was already a fan when I first saw these episodes, but I think the opening of season two certainly cemented my eager anticipation of what lay ahead, and still works for me knowing the outcome. Maybe a little bit because of that knowledge.
Written by Aaron Sorkin. Directed by Thomas Schlamme. First aired on 4 October 2000.
Headline cast in opening credits: Rob Lowe as Sam Seaborn, Dulé Hill as Charlie Young, Allison Janney as CJ Cregg, Janel Moloney as Donna Moss, Richard Schiff as Toby Ziegler, John Spencer as Leo McGarry, Bradley Whitford as Josh Lyman, and Martin Sheen as President Josiah ‘Jed’ Bartlet.
Special guest stars: Stockard Channing as Abbey Bartlet, Timothy Busfield as Danny Concannon, Tim Matheson as John Hoynes.
Guest starring Elisabeth Moss as Zoey Bartlet, Michael O’Neill as Ron Butterfield, Jorja Fox as Gina Toscano, Anna Deavere Smith as Nancy McNally, Kathryn Joosten as Dolores Landingham, NiCole Robinson as Margaret Hooper, Daniel von Bargen as General Jack Shannon, Michael Bryan French as Hospital Administrator Lewis, Pamela Gordon as Tracy. Andy Umberger as Cal Mathis, Jim Ortlieb as Dr Benjamin Keller, Peter White as Jack Gage, Ernie Lively as Mr Loch, Jody Wood as Mr Cameron.
Co-starring Melissa Fitzgerald as Carol Fitzpatrick, Kim Webster as Ginger, Kris Murphy as Katie Witt, Mindy Seeger as Chris, Randolph Brooks as Arthur Leeds, Ivan Allen as Roger Salier, Willie Gault as Agent Michael Madsen, Elijah Marhar as Agent Dixon, Bradley James as Agent Donnie, Al Twanmo as Agent Tommy Cho, Ming Lo as Dr Lee, Rhonda Stubbins White as Dr Whitaker, Sean Moran as Dr Holbrook.