West Wing S02E03: The Midterms

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Series creator and principal writer Aaron Sorkin put a lot of kinetic energy into the episode to show us that things are back on track in the Bartlet White House after the chaos of the shootings.

Opening with CJ Cregg being barraged with interruptions and information thrown at her seconds from a press briefing, taking it all in her stride—all except remembering that people working on the grand unified theory are physicists, not psychics—is the definitive statement that she has found her equilibrium again after being the symbol of disarray in the previous two episodes.

Lyman bangs his head against the headboard as Cregg announces a discovery by Caltech 'psychics' on national TV.
Lyman bangs his head against the headboard as Cregg announces a discovery by Caltech ‘psychics’ on national TV.

If you look closely while Cregg is fobbing off Josh Lyman right at the beginning of the episode, you can see that goldfish Gail’s bowl is adorned with a ballot box, signalling the midterm elections after which the episode is named, but which are not the main game.

The racist angle on Sam Seaborn’s college friend, Tom Jordan, was not well-crafted. I think it was bad writing, or a filler confected in haste. Are we to assume that Seaborn hadn’t done his homework? or that the Bartlet people would have had no qualms endorsing a racist candidate if it had not become an issue?

Toby Ziegler’s surly personal crusade to ‘get’ the racist scum who threaten to lynch black people is in character, and hardly evidence of the post-traumatic shock Cregg is concerned about. It is the dogged Ziegler personality pursuing a point of ethical principle. I’m with him: arrest the dangerous hate merchants who talk up violence. There is a point at which freedom of expression is transgressed and people cross over into the intent, or the conspiracy, to commit crimes.

An interlude showing a brief personal interaction between Charlie Young and Jeffrey Macintosh touched something in me years ago that I couldn’t put my finger on. Jeffrey is the son of Andrew Macintosh, a computer technician fixing White House PC problems, and his son has gone wandering around the White House, secreting himself in the Roosevelt Room. Young is almost deferential when he runs quite unexpectedly into the boy. When Andrew appears and the conversation turns to recent events, Young’s previously perturbed spirits seem to be lifted when the PC technician delivers the old platitude about people shooting at you being evidence that you’re doing something right. Sombre comfort for a man who feels guilty about having been the target in a shooting that inured those around him.

Young changes his attitude after meeting the Macintoshes.
Young changes his attitude after meeting the Macintoshes.

Perhaps Young sees himself in Jeffrey. A different life that could have been if his mother hadn’t been shot, or his father hadn’t abandoned the family. In any event, his suddenly brightened manner with his girlfriend, presidential daughter Zoe Bartlet, wasn’t all that satisfying. It fell flat for me. Along with the ‘extra protection’ joke courtesy of Leo McGarry.

When I first saw this episode, the president’s Elliott Roush and Jenna Jacobs distractions seemed to me to be an unfinished part of a conversation begun in the pilot episode, where the president carpets Mary Marsh for being a bigot and hatemonger. It was like refining the same theme.

There’s another priceless Bartlet monologue as he destroys radio evangelist Dr Jenna Jacobs, apparently based on Dr Laura Schlessinger:

JACOBS: I don’t say homosexuality is an abomination, Mr President. The Bible does.

BARTLET: Yes, it does. Leviticus.

JACOBS: 18:22

BARTLET: Chapter and verse. I wanted to ask you a couple of questions while I had you here. I’m interested in selling my youngest daughter into slavery as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. (small chuckles from the guests) She’s a Georgetown sophomore, speaks fluent Italian, and always clears the table when it was her turn. What would a good price for her be? While thinking about that, can I ask another? My Chief of Staff, LeoO McGarry, insists on working on the Sabbath, Exodus 35:2, clearly says he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself or is it okay to call the police? Here’s one that’s really important, ’cause we’ve got a lot of sports fans in this town. Touching the skin of a dead pig makes us unclean, Leviticus 11:7. If they promise to wear gloves, can the Washington Redskins still play football? Can Notre Dame? Can West Point? Does the whole town really have to be together to stone my brother, John, for planting different crops side by side? Can I burn my mother in a small family gathering for wearing garments made from two different threads?

[Jacobs fidgets uncomfortably.]

BARTLET: Think about those questions, would you? One last thing, while you may be mistaking this for your monthly meeting of the Ignorant Tightass Club, in this building, when the President stands, nobody sits.

[Jacobs squirms in her seat but doesn’t rise. Bartlet glares meaningfully at her. She finally rises out of her seat.]

I really enjoyed the closure created by Seaborn approaching the humiliated Jameson, looking bilious in her lime green power outfit. ‘I’m just… I’m gonna take that crab puff,’ Seaborn says as he picks it up from her plate, leaving her standing, looking even more ridicuolous.

Aaron Sorkin confesses that the president’s lines were taken from an email, purporting to be an open letter to Schlessinger, that did the rounds back in that time. He claims he attempted to find the original author to give credit where it was due, but was never able to find the writer. Whoever wrote the words did a good job in highlighting the barbarity of the Old Testament, and the consequent ridiculousness of demanding legal observation for selected pieces of ignorant Bronze Age bigotry.

This interlude, linked to the distraction of some lunar Right school board candidate, Elliot Roush, who had been a political opponent in the president’s past, actually form what are today some of the strongest political commentary in the entire season.

Lyman's front steps, Strauss poster in the window, just before the nauseating 'god bless America' moment.
Lyman’s front steps, Strauss poster in the window, just before the nauseating ‘god bless America’ moment.

When the president laments the fact that Roush is polling well, everyone chides him about the most powerful man in the world being petty, but he presciently rebuts his staff by telling them that this is how such people gain power, and end up running the country.

And so it happened in the real America. Little by little, bit by bit, the religionist and Tea Party lunatics captured power by taking over school boards, town councils, city halls, state seats, and finally national offices. They’re still doing it today, and the consequence is that a notionally civilised country is flirting with people as deplorable as Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio as presidential material. It’s like watching frogs in a slowly heating cauldron allowing themselves to be broiled to death, offering no resistance, and in this case, actually demanding that demise.

As if to anticipate this development, the congressional elections in the episode change nothing; the same balance of power is maintained.

I was and remain disturbed by the closing moments, in which some of the staff, gathered on the recovering Josh Lyman’s front door steps, toast their country with the refrain ‘god bless America’. I cannot abide the arrogance and stupidity contained in that statement, nor can I conceive of any motivation for any one of these essentially secular characters to stoop to such a dumb phrase.

More interesting but less pertinent is a campaign poster in Lyman’s window in that last scene, promoting ‘Strauss for Senate’. There was a Paul Eric Strauss who succeeded Jesse Jackson in 1997 as one of two shadow senators for the District of Columbia, functioning to lobby Congress on behalf of DC, and probably pursuing an agenda to gain statehood and self-determination for the district. The set decorators appear to have had their fun from time to time.

Credits

  • Written by Aaron Sorkin. Directed by Alex Graves. First aired on 18 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.

  • Bartlet complains about Roush's polling numbers.
    Bartlet complains about Roush’s polling numbers.
  • Guest starring Elisabeth Moss as Zoey Bartlet, Claire Yarlett as Dr Jenna Jacobs, Rebecca Creskoff as Sarah Jordan, Jamie Denton as Tom Jordan, NiCole Robinson as Margaret Hooper, Alfonso Freeman as Andrew Macintosh.

  • Co-starring Myles Killpatrick as Jeffery Macintosh, Franc Ross as Sonny Saunders, Jesse Corti as Dave Stewart, Melissa Fitzgerald as Carol Fitzpatrick, Devika Parikh as Bonnie, Kim Webster as Ginger, Peter James Smith as Ed, William Duffy as Larry, Alan McRae as Gary with a ‘G’.

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.

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