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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The West Wing: “Election Night”

Illustration for article titled The West Wing: “Election Night”
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Well, it wasn’t even close. And as a few commenters have pointed out, that was probably the right way to go. Last week’s debate was triumphant and definitive; Ritchie himself conceded defeat after it was over (I’m sticking with this interpretation, since even Ritchie can’t be so naïve to think he had a fighting chance after Bartlet’s verbal beatdown). I’m not sure the suspense would have worked given how much “Game On” set up a Bartlet victory as a foregone conclusion. So in “Election Night,” the president wins by an overwhelming majority, easily. The staff celebrates with balloons, confetti, and a victory speech, though not a until the final results are tallied, just in case there’s an elaborate jinx being thrown around.

The real excitement, meanwhile, is happening in Orange County, where Horton Wilde, a dead Democrat, stands a chance of winning. Given his potential constituency, the “dead” part of that descriptor is less surprising than the “Democrat” part. If Will Bailey pulls this off, Sam Seaborn will have to pack his bags, spend 90 days at home just so he can lose to a Republican committee chair he hates, squashing any chance of running for office in the future—a legitimate dream of his. There’s a lot more on the line besides just an historic change of power in Orange County. Plus, it’s going to rain in Southern California. There’s an El Niño thing happening.

Despite the expectation of a Bartlet victory, there’s a lot of action in this episode, and it allows a rare glimpse into the psyches of the White House staff on an election night (whether or not they’re expecting to win). Plus, Abbey and the president have an intense, meaningful exchange backstage after Bartlet wins, before he takes the stage for an encore bow. “Election Night” is a sprint past the finish line because there’s a second, more elusive finish line 1,000 yards back, and The West Wing might as well handle the business at hand—the election—so it can move on to more pressing matters.

“Election Night” is barely satisfying, but I don’t think it was meant to be. This season of The West Wing positions the election as a thing that’s in Bartlet’s way—impeding new policy decisions, keeping him from settling the situation in Qumar, and not letting him deal with the upcoming storm of his MS. It’s out of the way now. Bartlet has four years to do whatever the hell he wants, and the United States can breathe a sigh of relief (depending on your political leanings).

The vibe of “Election Night” is that of establishing the new norm. Bartlet has won the election, but his hands are beginning to shake, and Abbey is preparing herself and Jed for the way things are going to be. Anthony tracks down Charlie and asks for his help: One of his friends who plays on the football team was caught with an open PBR in his hand, though he swears he wasn’t drinking; and if Charlie could put in a good word, this guy can suit up for the big game this weekend instead of sitting on the sidelines. Not only is Anthony actively talking to Charlie, but he’s relying on the guy, which is a huge step forward. And Toby, despite Andy’s protests, inserts himself into the lives of his twins as best he can, attending Andy’s sonogram appointment and, per usual, asking her several times to marry him. Because, as CJ warns, Andy’s pregnancy is about to leak to the press, and a wedding announcement would really help the story blow over. New norm.

Debbie Fiderer is doing all the little things she can to establish a new normal, too. She creates a system by which the president has to let her make all the outgoing calls, so that when his memory starts to go, there’ll be another record of the business he did that day. She also establishes new regulations about showing up late to meetings, whittling down the president’s wasted time bit-by-bit, hoping to get him to bed at a reasonable hour each night. At first she comes off as crazy, and Josh, always the vocal one, is annoyed at these tiny changes. But like Mrs. Landingham before her, Debbie has a system that makes sense when you take the long view.


One of the things people in offices like most about new hires are their fresh ideas; what they hate, though, is when those ideas are put into practice and the delicately balanced systems they’ve gotten used to are thrown out of whack. The thing is, it’s usually for the best—people can’t see their own flaws from within. I read about a study once where a bunch of monkeys were put into a cage, and a trainer put a banana at the other end. If one of the monkeys went for the banana, everyone was sprayed with a hose. Quickly, the monkeys learned that if someone goes for the banana, they should beat him or her until they stopped. (Reasonable enough.) Slowly though, the researchers removed monkeys and replaced them with brand new ones who’d never felt the water from the hose. All they knew is that there are beatings to avoid. Soon there were no original monkeys left, and they’d all been trained to punch any monkey who went for a banana, not sure exactly why they were doing it. Point being, office culture is engrained in us all, and it takes an extremely brave soul to take those beatings and get back up, grabbing for the proverbial banana. Debbie Fiderer is such a woman.

Fittingly, water is a constant source of unexpected change in “Election Night.” As calculated as Joey Lucas’ predictions are, as much as the White House thinks it knows exactly how things are going to shake out, there are a few factors that can throw everything off. One of them, weirdly enough, is rain. As Sam explains, rain deters voters who are going out for a candidate who’s pretty much guaranteed to win, since clearly their vote won’t really matter, so why not stay home and remain dry? An unexpected rainstorm can quickly turn the tide of a sure-thing election, since the really diehard voters, pulling for the underdog, are going to vote no matter what. There’s going to be rain in Oregon, Josh muses early in the episode, and this could spell trouble for Bartlet. Cut to later in Orange County, when Will Bailey is standing in the street, seemingly invoking the rain gods (and doing a nice job of it, even if it’s mere coincidence) so that his candidate can have a fighting chance.


One of the things I found confusing while watching “Election Night” is just how worried Sam is about Horton Wilde actually winning. He was so calm when he told Bailey to put his name on the ticket; but now, faced with the prospect of actually doing it, he’s getting cold feet. He reveals to Donna that he’s going to put his name in for consideration, and then laments the fact that he’s going to have to go back on his word to a grieving widow, not to mention Elsie Snuffin. It’s just impractical, he convinces himself and Donna. There are too many logistical nightmares to deal with, and he’s probably going to lose anyways, so why bother trying?

But the more I think about it, the more I think Sam’s experiencing something I’m sure all of us have experienced at some point, when we’re so sure we’ve made the right choice it’s sick. Our mind is already made up, so it’s like we’re living the ensuing events from afar, watching the pieces on the board line up exactly like we imagined, but also watching ourselves. We remove the here-and-now from the situation, because of course it’s meaningless when we were so sure of the decision we made, and our mind, with nothing to focus on, wanders incessantly—poking holes in our plan because the memory of that moment of assuredness is fleeting. Sam knows what he’s doing and what he promised. That doesn’t mean he also can’t be terrified he’ll actually have to deliver on that promise. Not worried that he won’t be able to deliver, mind you, just worried that he will have to. Worrying for the sake of worrying. Anxiety’s a bitch.


But as jumpy as everyone is—as much as Toby got some joy out of yelling at that balloon guy for bringing his wares into a meeting, and as much joy as I got from watching the dude shuffle away—“Election Night” forces itself, among the chaos, to take in a moment of joy. Yes, the election was a done deal, but that doesn’t stop Bartlet from taking a second curtain call, and donning a grin that won’t be wiped off upon hearing he took New Hampshire. There’s also palpable excitement when Josh and Toby eagerly recruit Sam to stay up all night with them, watching the close races in other states, including Sam’s own Orange County vote. Bartlet’s fond of saying “What’s next?,” but that doesn’t mean he or the White House staff can’t find the joy in what they do, even if it’s while they’re metaphorically walking and talking.