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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The West Wing: “Arctic Radar”

Illustration for article titled The West Wing: “Arctic Radar”
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Usually when I write these recaps/reviews/whatever it’s called when you put words on e-paper about something that aired a decade ago, I notice some common theme in the episode that relates to the title. Like, that episode called “Election Night”? It took place on election night. No surprise there. Or “Process Stories,” about stories related to the process of getting elected—also an episode where a character literally says something to the effect of, “It’s the process that matters, not the outcome.”

I’m having a harder time with “Arctic Radar,” an episode that mentions the arctic circle only once, when Captain Jack tells Josh that he just got off the phone with someone stationed there. Josh asks what it’s like up there, to which Jack responds, “Well, small-town feel. Nicest people you'll ever meet and a terrific symphony, if you like classical music with a pops orchestra on Sunday nights.” Clearly a joke, because the actual arctic is probably the loneliest place on the planet, unless you believe in Santa Claus.

I’d also imagine that, were you to be stationed in the arctic and something were to come across your radar, it would be the greatest day of your entire life. Finally, someone to share an evening with, someone to understand you and join discussions with your best friend Bucket Face, which is really just you wearing a bucket on your head and speaking in an entirely different voice. Or perhaps it’s just a large snowball or some sort of poisonous freeze leaf? Isolation, no more!

Anyway, that’s pretty much what happens with Toby this episode. He has isolated himself inside a bubble of, “Nobody can do my job like me, save for a very select few.” And with Sam gone for at least 90 days if not more, he forces himself to accept that he’s going to be working alone. It was lightning in a bottle that he found Sam to begin with; to find another person who can not only do what he does serviceably, but well, is going to be impossible. Or so he thinks. So he doesn’t even try.

What drives a person to sign up for the military knowing they’ll be stationed in the arctic? (Maybe there’s no choice in the matter, but I’d assume there must be at least a little, right?) By that token, what drives Toby to be Toby—a guy who lives in Well Intentioned Idea Land, hungry for self flagellation by means of:

  • Lack of recognition
  • Working in solitude
  • No breaks
  • Constant self-doubt
  • Ex-wife who won’t marry him even though she’s going to give birth to his twins—though not, like, his twins, as in copies of Toby
  • Sweet beard (I’m just jealous)

I suppose Toby is obsessed with something that’s perpetually just beyond his grasp. The perfect speech. The historically significant speech. Maybe even simply the perfect way to describe what America’s deal is, much to the chagrin of Jerry Seinfeld, who’s always up for that kind of thing. Toby won’t stop until he reaches that point, which will never happen—part of him knows that, but a larger part of him probably doesn’t.


Point being, he’s a complicated guy who feels like he’s living on an ice island in the middle of the Arctic Ocean. And along comes Will Bailey in a life raft, a blip on his arctic radar. You’re welcome.

It’s sweet to know the torch is being passed from Sam to Will by Sam himself, via a note that simply says, “Toby, he’s one of us.” It means not only have Toby and Sam formed the kind of bond only previously forged by, like, war, but it means there’s hope for all of our West Wing favorites. Success can be lonely; mastery over something can be painful, agonizing quarantine. Josh found Amy, CJ found Simon; Bartlet found Abbey. Toby thought he found Andy, and instead found a doofy-looking guy who can write exactly 500 words about a topic better than Toby can, and maybe even just as fast. It’s not Andy, but he’ll take it.


The topic of loneliness comes up a few times in “Arctic Radar,” though usually not as overtly. Donna’s ready to take her relationship with Jack to the next level, and by that I mean she wants Josh to ask Jack to ask her out, like they’re in high school again. Though when Donna asks for it, the request comes off as kind of sweet, because she’s shy and she’s done a whole lot of favors for Josh in this department (mostly just introducing him as, “This is Josh Lyman,” when apparently his title and charm take over). So Josh does what he’s told, regaling the poor captain with stories of Donna’s forgetfulness at art openings and propensity to write regretful letters to Ilie Năstase. Jack’s just sort of confused as to why Josh is saying all this stuff, and later Donna’s furious that Josh chose those stories to share. They make her sound crazy, she says.

Josh disagrees. They’re the kind of stories that would make him want to date her, he says. In fact, upon Josh returning to Jack to make things right, Jack points out that in all the time he’s had an assistant, he’s never spoken about him as much as Josh has spoken about Donna in those two conversations. Later, Josh lets Donna go early so she can freshen up for her date, all the while pointing out that the next day is Thanksgiving, and that Donna’s not going to be coming into work. As in, he won’t be seeing her. He then takes the time to interact yet again with the Star Trek fan of the office, poking fun at her obsession while trying best he can to demonstrate he’s actually partially on her side. He knows who the Cardassians are; in fact, you might say he “keeps up” with them.


Look, I don’t know what’s going to happen between Josh and Donna (the fact that I’ve never seen The West Wing is real, and not just my “hook” for these reviews, because I know you people are all about the “hook”!), and I’ve made it very clear in these e-pages that Amy is my dream girl. Have I not made that clear? Well, consider it made clear. But ye gods, Josh and Donna need to fucking frisk each other’s nethers already, amiright? I’m gonna make that a phrase people say.

There’s also the matter of Vickie Hilton, a navy pilot. She was having an affair with one of the people she’s in charge of, was asked to stop the affair, and refused. Now she’s in trouble, and lots of people in the White House are being asked for their opinion on the matter. There are conversations floating around the halls about how they might soon have a “woman problem,” to which all the men in the office quip, “What, you mean the person I am dating or perhaps just sleeping with?” VAUDEVILLE LIVES!


Nobody can decide what to do. A man would not be in this much trouble, some say. Others see this as a black-and-white case of someone breaking a rule. Charlie sees it as it being universally wrong to tell someone who they can and cannot fall in love with. Toby feels like her training as a fighter is far more valuable than any other bullshit things that might get in the way, and the best thing they can do is not get in the way of her doing her job to protect our national security.

You ask seven people in the White House about something, you get seven different responses. These guys and gals are all in their own little arctic bungalows; the beauty of The West Wing is that we get to watch them in isolation together.