Parties on The West Wing are spectacles. They’re lavish and extravagant because they’re public affairs, and with the entire world watching, it’s important to play everything to the nines. The show centers on the communications side of the White House, and there’s certainly a lot to communicate at parties: who sits next to who, who says hello to who, and in what way, etc. I’ve come to enjoy party scenes because the show never lets a party simply occur. There’s always an undercurrent, some sort of tension between characters, and they’re a convenient way to shoehorn underused gems like Lord John Marbury back into my life for a fleeting moment.
“Dead Irish Writers” and “The U.S. Poet Laureate” are both about parties—one seen, one not. The first is a birthday party for Abbey Bartlet the day before she faces the board of the American Medical Association. The second is a party honoring the naming of the country’s new poet laureate, Tabitha Fortis. A lot of people know the shitstorm Abbey is dealing with, but few are aware of its severity—that it’s very likely Abbey will completely break down during the party. On the flip side, everyone knows that Fortis has a chip on her shoulder about land mines; she thinks they’re abhorrent, and believes the United States should join the rest of the world in agreeing to remove all their active land mines from battlefields. She plans to use the party, thrown in her honor, as a way to get the ear of the president in a public forum, drawing attention to this cause. So yes, everyone knows this is going to happen, and it’s up to Toby to see that it won’t.
The show deals a lot with the discrepancy between the characters’ public personas and how they behave in private, and it’s never as pronounced as when there’s a few hundred people at a ritzy event—with millions watching at home. The common question for both these episodes is: So what do you do?
In “Dead Irish Writers,” Abbey decides to do the best she can, for as long as she can. She puts on a happy face (to the best of her ability), chats with John Marbury, promises him a dance, schmoozes with nameless strangers, and generally just makes it clear it’s a party in her honor. But every person has a breaking point, and when both Leo and CJ corner her to discuss the events of tomorrow, she proclaims, “Claudia Jean? Let’s get drunk,” and vanishes with a bottle of wine—snagging CJ, Amy, and Donna in the process.
The ensuing scene brings up an issue that’s been around The West Wing since its inception: Are these ladies hanging out with Abbey Bartlet, or with the first lady of the United States of America? When Toby spoke bluntly to Bartlet about the president’s father, Bartlet was pissed because he felt Toby was crossing the line. But it wasn’t just the line between friends; he was crossing the line of how one should speak to the president. Later, the therapist tells Bartlet that he’s the only person in the entire building who will see Bartlet as Bartlet, not as the president. There’s also the matter of Josh telling Donna not to date the lawyer guy, because professionally it would be bad, and because Josh is Donna’s boss, he has somewhat of a right to say something. But they’re also friends. Toby and Bartlet have a deeply personal relationship, and Abbey Bartlet is cut off from the rest of the ladies in the White House and merely seeks a few gal pals for an evening of getting wasted.
This is all well and good until Donna inadvertently crosses the line herself. She notes that, yes, Abbey certainly did wrong by her medical license when Bartlet asked for the drugs in secret and she said okay. A silence fills the room. “Oh my God. You switched back to first lady,” Donna bemoans.
Of course, Donna was right. Toby was right when he said what he did to the president. One of the things I’ve been tossing around over the last few weeks is wondering what this third season is about, and it seems like there’s an awful lot of attention paid to the power of the truth. Everyone in the White House is so scared of offending anybody, they keep their opinions to themselves. And as Bartlet says and Abbey insinuates, their roles as president and first lady are beyond reproach when it’s convenient. The censure really humbled the White House, and now both the leaders of the free world are ready to hear what people have to say—and they’re doing an honorable job of it. Shortly after the conversation with Donna, Abbey decides to suspend her AMA license by her own volition until Bartlet is out of the White House. And as far as Bartlet, Amy had this to say: “He took the censure standing up, Abbey. I was very proud to have voted for him that day.”
There’s a little bit of that in Sam’s storyline, too. He’s visited by an old professor, who has a slight disdain for Sam because—best I can tell—Sam was always the practical, timid one, and the professor was annoyed Sam wasn’t living up to his potential. In this case, the professor is looking for funding of a supercollider. He got pretty far on his own, but now an anonymous congressman is blocking the bill, and he’s visiting Sam to figure out why. Turns out, Senator Enlow from Illinois is the culprit, but easily breezes by Sam’s threats because, c’mon, Sam can’t really do anything. He can only send notes.
By the end of “Dead Irish Writers,” all the characters have the answers they’ve been seeking the entire time. Sam satisfies Enlow by giving him a purpose for the supercollider: Discovery. Abbey knows what she must do with the AMA. Donna is able to enter the party, and does so to a soaring rendition of the Canadian national anthem, which people happily dance to. The episode is a celebration for Abbey Bartlet, but also for characters finally having the nerve to stand up to one another, and do what they want without fear of repercussion.
“The U.S. Poet Laureate” is also about standing up, but it doesn’t seem that way based on the majority of the episode. Two big things happen right from the start. The first occurs during an amazing cold-open: The president is conducting interviews about an energy summit he’s hosting, and once each interview is complete, the reporters ask him questions about his potential running mate. It’s always off the record, as indicated by the little light on the television that changes from red to green. (The interviews are conducted remotely.) He deflects the question each time. Then, during the last interview, the same thing happens, but this time he takes a direct shot at Governor Ritchie, saying he has a “.22 caliber mind in a .357 magnum world.” The reporter thanks him, and the light changes from green to red.
“You were hot. They’ve got it on b-roll,” Toby points out.
Of course, by the end of the episode, we all know the president did it on purpose. It was under the guise of a slip-up, so that way he wouldn’t have to take responsibility for his words directly. However, now he’s got everyone thinking about intelligence, specifically that he’s got a lot of it and that Ritche doesn’t have it. Two episodes ago, Toby convinced the president to make his campaign about smarts: To make it about real issues, not about image or slander. The president’s deft move with the reporter was certainly a political strategy (the kind that Toby might not love, hence the secrecy), but it was the last one necessary to start running the campaign on his own terms. It’s certainly sly, but it’s easy to forgive slyness when we all know what’s going to come of it.
The rest of “The U.S. Poet Laureate” deals with the aftermath of the president’s statement, which could also be seen as growing pains into a bold, intelligence-driven campaign. First off, CJ is tortured by the press about what Bartlet said, endlessly, for days. Rather than a news cycle about the president’s bold new energy initiatives, she’s reduced to repeating the same pre-approved phrase deflecting the president’s comments, to the point of physical exhaustion in some cases. I can’t blame the press for being so inquisitive: I highly doubt they’ve heard a sitting president be so refreshingly honest about an opponent, probably, ever. This is new and exciting territory, hence the growing pains.
Meanwhile, the administration is forced to appease the new detractors. Because Bartlet was speaking about a Republican, now the White House has to appease the moderates and put a Republican in a prominent government position—a highly visible one at that. Ainsley Hayes is the obvious choice, and thus Sam calls her back early from vacation and thrusts the new title upon her within seconds of her arrival (and before a whirlwind media schedule). Charlie takes it upon himself to read Governor Ritchie’s book—or really, the book written by whoever “ghosted” it—and bring up Ritchie’s dissenting energy opinions with CJ, specifically the opinion that drilling in Alaska isn’t that bad. This all feels very reactionary, but then again, there’s little on The West Wing that isn’t reactionary. But all this is a long way of saying, simply, that the president took Toby’s words to heart. It’s awesome that I’m going to get to see the results of this big campaign shift, one that just couldn’t happen in real life. The talk of change isn’t happening at the end of the season, it’s happening in the middle.
For one of the most singularly focused episodes of The West Wing, “The U.S. Poet Laureate” has some incredible side plots. First, just to get it out of the way, I’m pretty impressed with the way the show dealt with Josh’s interaction with his fansite. It’s probably the most accurate depiction of troll-appeasement I’ve ever seen, because it just doesn’t—and can’t—end. Josh addresses one commenter, which opens a whole world of new ones. And I can’t blame him: He’s obsessed with the way the world views the White House; it’s rare he thinks about how the world views him specifically. It’s an endlessly deep and dark hole down which he’s falling, and it takes the harsh words of CJ to snap him back to reality. You can’t please “The Internet,” so it’s not worth trying. Of course, I’m not talking about The A.V. Club, because at least the trolls here have a sense of humor.
Then there’s the titular plot about Toby and Tabitha Fortis, which doesn’t seem to have a lot to do with the president’s “gaffe”—but it does. In many ways, it’s the exact opposite. The president made a fake mistake on the air, and the story is just as much about what he said as it is the fact that he made the mistake in the first place. This is counter to what Toby tells Tabitha near the end of the episode. She wants to stand up at her party and talk about land mines, and demand that the president do something about the U.S.’ involvement in the agreement to dig them up. But Toby warns her that if she were to do that in a public setting—a party thrown in her honor, no less—that the story won’t be about what she said, only that she stood up to the president in the first place. There’s no way Tabitha, flighty and space-cadet-y as she is, would be able to see that, but she’s sharp enough to understand there are ways of getting what she wants other than the first thing she thinks of. After all, she’s a poet, which is a way of sneaking political discourse into something that’s pleasing to the ear and mind.
I spoke about parties at the beginning of this review, about how they’re a device just like any other TV trope to demonstrate the difference between how characters act when they’re with close friends and how they act when people are watching. The new wave of mockumentary shows adds another layer: Now we can see how characters behave when they’re completely alone (or “alone” with the “camera crew”). Television is growing more cinematic by the day, and thus affording all sorts of access. The camera itself is just as much a character as any of the ones you see. And still, Toby is guarded. He’s always on message, and never shows his hand. What a nice moment, then, to end the episode with this:
What’s that say?
[reading] “Meet Tabitha Fortis.”
Toby produces a pen and crosses her name off of the list. Tabitha chuckles.
- Lots of great Sam lines this time around: “Logarithms, probably.”
- “Just as long as Democracy’s not dead in the Senate.”
- “There’s a heavy stench of partisanism in the air, Sam.” “Actually, you know, they just sprayed for bugs.”