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The West Wing: "Five Votes Down"/"The Crackpots And These Women"

Illustration for article titled iThe West Wing/i: Five Votes Down/The Crackpots And These Women
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Random viewing note to kick things off:
I am finding it very, very, very hard to watch this show and take detailed notes. Bottom line: I'm lovin' The West Wing, and each episode is engrossing me more and more. (I'm also going to do away with grades, since the episodes have been getting better and better… not much room to grow, eh?) So, apologies up front for any tiny plot points I miss. Let's all go play some basketball now, shall we?

"Five Votes Down"
Up until this point, Sorkin has only taken us to the personal affairs of his staffers when they directly cross with business—Josh and Mandy is the most obvious example, and Sam's friendship with Laurie raised more than a few eyebrows around the office, particularly over in CJ's neck of the woods. But this one gives us a few glimpses into the damage the White House has so kindly bestowed on not just the essence of each character, but those around them.

And what a way to start the show: Beginning with a shot of Bartlet delivering a speech at a "Practical Idealism" function, the camera doesn't cut away for a long time. First we see Toby off to the side, saying the words as Bartlet delivers them; then it starts following an epic walk-and-talk between Bartlet and his entourage, all the way through the building and out to the limo. Notes we pick up along the way: Sam wrote two and a half paragraphs of the speech, Toby wrote 37 pages; Toby is passive-aggressively upset with Bartlet for adlibbing a bit in Section D; Josh is a quasi-celebrity, and all the ladies love him; the biggest problem hitting the White House is a loss of five votes on something called Proposition 802.

We don't get clarity on this last bit of info for a little while, but basically it seems the President wants to do a little something for Charlie, his new aide, and is trying to get a bill through Congress that would ban certain kinds of assault weapons. Even though they thought it was in the bag, five senators have defected and are now voting against party lines. Quick strategy session: Josh will convince Katzenmoyer and Wick to come back, Leo will take on the rest.

It's here that we start to see another side of Josh besides the smoking jacket-receiving fan darling. First, with Katzenmoyer, Josh is thrown for a bit of a loop when the man just simply refuses to play ball. He's got a lot on his plate already, what with worrying about reelection the day he took office. Josh, though, makes Katzenmoyer's real priorities very clear—see, if he doesn't play ball, Josh is going to take Bartlet all the way out to Eau Claire, Wisconsin, throw the President's arm around some local government official, get the press to pick up on it, and end Katzenmoyer immediately. "Bartlet is a good man, and not the kind of person to hold a grudge," Josh says. "That's what he pays me for." Sunglasses on; cue CSI: Miami opening credits music.

We see even more of Josh's hardass nature during his discussion with Wick, a younger congressman who even tries to impress Josh rolling in with his small staff, and greeting Josh with a hearty, "What up, dude?!" Josh immediately sends out everyone but Wick, and greets him with a hearty, "What the fuck?" (Or thereabouts.) But Wick is upset because the President hasn't been by in some time, so to get attention, he's pulling this stunt. He barely even knows what the bill is about, he just wants the cameras pointed in his direction once again, and demands a sit-down photo-op with Bartlet as payment for his vote. Josh has no choice but to appease the junior senator, but the whole time maintaining his cool, making Wick look like the immature one, and Josh simply subscribing to the always popular, "Let the baby have his bottle" mentality.

Now it's Leo's turn to step in, and faced with the option of talking to the Vice President (who has some sway over the wayward senators) or talking to another influential senator Richardson, he decides to take the path of least resistance—Richardson, batter up. Leo pulls out all the stops, even going so far as to point out that most of the assault rifles are targeting African American youth. (Richardson is black, for those who are only reading along.) Richardson comes back mildly insulted, but not because Leo appealed to his race to make the decision—but because he sees this bill as a joke. It's just a token gesture, banning rifles with a certain length grip, but not those with the longer grip, 30 count chambers but not 20 count ones, etc. Leo understands, but posits that these things take time, and you have to start somewhere; but Richardson has heard enough, and he leaves sounding like the smartest of the two.

This scene mirrors what's happening in Leo's personal life. After years of late night meetings and last-minute strategy sessions, Leo's wife is starting to see their marriage decay. Leo forgetting their anniversary is the catalyst to get her thinking, and she decides to leave him—just as Leo had prepared a fancy meal as an apology, complete with an awkward yet necessary visit from a personal violinist. Leo thinks this is a bit of an overreaction, promising that, given some time, he can begin to work on the little things that hold their marriage together. But his wife wants action, so she asks Leo if his job is more important than his marriage. His answer hangs in the air: "Yes," and that's all she wrote. No amount of token gestures and small steps can change the big picture.

Leo finds himself in the Vice President's office later that night (option two in effect), and his marriage troubles come pouring out. And for a man who had zero sympathy for Leo a few weeks ago, Hoynes is surprisingly comforting. Without so much as another word, he promises Leo he'll get the votes the President needs. He even invites Leo to a secret AA meeting that takes place inside the White House; if word got out, the people attending would be ruined, but Hoynes promises to keep things under wraps.

The victory has been won, but the press is attributing it to the Vice President, and the administration reluctantly has to hand it to him. Josh even wants to deliver his congrats personally, a gesture Hoynes notes. Is this Josh pledging his loyalty to Hoynes? With Hoynes keeping Leo's AA secret, I'm starting to wonder what other information he's trying to glean. Are we seeing the beginnings of a Hoynes power play against the President? After all, it's the little things, and you have to start somewhere.

Stray observations:

  • Given all of Leo's trouble at home, the absence of Mrs. President is becoming even more pronounced, especially during the hilarious back pain medicine scene, rife with Bartlet loopiness.
  • More on Toby's financial trouble in the next episode, where more comes to light.

"The Crackpots And These Women"
While not as evenly plotted out as some of the earlier episodes of the season, I found this episode, somewhat a continuation of the last one, to be a showcase for some of the biggest laughs and most gut-punching sentimentality the show's displayed thus far. But—if this is the appropriate way to describe it—the latter part of the title, and how it manifested itself in the episode, felt way too Sorkiny for my taste—a clever summation of everything that's happened thus far, a lasting speech yes. Just not as earned as I would have liked.

But first: The wonderful premise. Today is one of Leo's "cheese days" (which has so many meanings): Andrew Jackson used to put out a hunk of cheese in the main hall, which was a gesture meant to encourage just about anyone to come in and share their ideas with the government. He hopes to recreate that sentiment in his administration, by every once in a while inviting special interest groups to pitch key members of the White House. Sam gets an ear-full about UFOs courtesy of Ted from Scrubs; CJ learns the saga of Pluie, a wolf trying to travel south—and dealing with pesky impediments like houses and people—to mate with other species of wolves. The solution these guys are pitching (the group includes Nick Offerman, the brilliant comic from Parks And Recreation) is a wolf-only highway stretching across the western United States. And the beauty is that it will only cost 900 million to build! Win win!

Toby doesn't get the joy of listening to any crackpots of his own, just the joy of dealing with a few PR conspiracy theorists. See, back in the day, he bought some stock in a small technology company; later, he asked his friend to testify in front of Congress. Two unrelated events, except that his friend is a tech guy whose testimony helped these Internet stocks skyrocket in value. (Oh, the glory days…) As we learned last week, two events that appear chronologically aren't always related, as was the case here: Toby didn't know what his friend was going to say, and he certainly didn't expect this turn in stock price. But he's still the stock's owner, and the press could easily connect the dots in an unfavorable way.

But speaking of paranoia, we have this episode's Josh story, which finds him accepting a special card from the NSA—one that spells out what he should do in case of a nuclear attack. This bothers him immediately, since Donna and the other junior members of the staff didn't receive the same card. So he talks to Sam, hoping to relieve some of the guilt, only to find out that Sam didn't receive one either. None of his friends did. Just Josh, and everyone above him. No Sam, no CJ, no Toby.

Bothered to no end, Josh visits his therapist, who it seems he hasn't seen in a while. They get to talking, of course, and it's here we learn about Josh's sister, Joni. When Josh was five, Joni was home babysitting, and a fire stared. Josh freaked out and ran out of the house. Joni was not so lucky. And though he never flat-out says it, Josh is racked with guilt over thinking so selfishly. If the fact that he was five doesn't dampen those feelings, what luck will anyone have convincing Josh he's "important" enough to warrant his own nuke card and a defacto ditching of his friends? Not even a sympathetic CJ, confronting him later in his office, can get rid of the guilt. (He was listening to "Ave Maria" alone, the song that reminds him of his sister.) So he tells Leo that he can't keep the card, that he wants to stay behind with his friends and suffer with them, just as he celebrates with them when things go well.

And in the spirit of celebrating, Bartlet decides to throw an impromptu chili dinner in honor of his daughter Zooey, who is visiting from Sterling Cooper in New York. It's here that he decides to share a few thoughts of his own—first privately to the men. He goes on and on about "these women" and how wonderful each of them is; it's a nice speech, even if it's apropos of little. Then he speaks publicly, calling out everyone in the room, paying special attention to Toby.

(Earlier, he and the President had been having some difficulties, and that's putting it lightly. Actually, Toby and the President have been fighting over the smallest things, including the best way to answer a controversial question about Prop 802. And during all the bickering, Toby learns accidentally from Mandy that he was the President's second choice for Communications Director. But after stewing for a while, Toby finally just asks the President flat-out, who responds that he's thankful every day David Rosen, choice number one, turned down the job. He can't do it without Toby. I'm getting teary over here.)

And that's all he wrote for now. Sorkin's adept with the ol' words, and his Bartlet speech nicely, if a bit forcidly, sums up the theme of the last two episodes: You work at the White House, and everyone's got your back. Loyalty runs deep.

Stray observations:

  • Donna and Donald? Really?

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