“Game On” is an episode about a debate—the debate; it’s the thing every member of the White House staff has been preparing for over the last handful of episodes, let alone weeks in West Wing time. It’s a very serious affair, so serious in fact that “Game On” gleefully mines more comedy from the actual debate than the show has found in more overtly comic situations. The episode is hysterical at times, moving at others, and nimble enough to morph a sad, touching story about a tie into 30 seconds of pure comedic gold. The more sacred the cow, the funnier and more impressive it is when that cow starts juggling.
The opening scene sets a tone of playfulness amid the grave seriousness of what’s about to happen. Leo approaches Toby about the debate, claiming Bartlet is having trouble getting his answers right. Toby’s first instinct is to send Bartlet back to camp, even if it’s in his office and even just for a few hours. But Leo insists Toby let this one ride; rather than correcting Bartlet when he gets something wrong, he should just say, “That’s terrific, Mr. President.” Toby’s upset, but he understands—there’s already a lot of pressure on the man. So he spreads the word to the rest of the team, and commences grilling Bartlet. And when he stumbles, Toby loses his shit and starts yelling. There’s silence, then laughter as $10 bills are handed out to everyone who bet Toby couldn’t actually follow Leo’s mandate. Bartlet has decided to spend his precious minutes leading to the debate fucking with Toby. As he exits the office though, Toby is the one smiling: “He’s ready.”
“Game On” is about a debate, yes, but it’s more of a celebration of Bartlet’s impending victory. The entire day leading to the San Diego face-off comprises a series of brief, meaningful conversations between the president and his staffers. “There’s no such thing as too smart; there’s nothing you can do that’s not gonna make me proud of you,” Leo says to Bartlet as he hangs back, sad not to be at his friend’s side. “Game on,” says everyone else at one point or another as they settle into the spin room, eager to watch their boss devour his opponent. Charlie is the only one who’s nervous. Asked to dig up the president’s lucky tie, we come to learn that he’s been harboring the secret that the tie was lost to a dry cleaning accident. Bartlet assures Charlie everything is going to be okay; then we watch a scene with Abbey and the president in private (after Toby leaves with, “I just assumed you’d want to include me”), and Bartlet is freaking out in his own private, controlled way. “Do you think there’s any point in still having the debate?” Abbey asks facetiously. Bartlet rolls his eyes and mentions the tie again.
Abbey wishes him luck, sends him off, calls him back, and cuts off his tie. Cue the most frantic, claustrophobic scene in West Wing history as the team scrambles to take off Josh’s tie and throw it onto the president with literally 15 seconds until he has to be on camera, televised to the entire nation. Somehow, they pull it off, with a second to spare so he can smack Abbey’s ass on his way onto the stage. If love isn’t a crazy woman waving the tie she just slashed from your chest, then, well, I don’t know what it is.
Everybody is crazy in “Game On,” though, breaking just about every single rule you possibly can. Hell, the Bartlet campaign is the one who set out the rules for the debate—90 seconds for a response, followed by 60 for a question and response—and Bartlet goes out of his way to ignore that. The first question goes to Ritchie, who reiterates that he’s in favor of state’s rights, and Bartlet rebuts by reciting a list of all the places Ritchie’s state of Florida received its funding last year, ending with, “Can we have it back, please?” Later, Ritchie gives a clean, 10-word answer to a question about cutting taxes. Bartlet only wants to know, “What are the next 10 words of your answer?”; then he keeps talking and essentially glosses right over his own question. There’s a fine line between a mockery of politics’ idiosyncrasies and pomp, and a celebration of those things. “Game On” finds a way to run away with the debate by failing to engage in the debate itself—using the format as a means to an end. But it doesn’t feel like the president is making fun of the debate or of Ritchie. Rather, he’s finding new meaning in tradition, using the format as a way of speaking directly to the American people. And its in that clarity where “Game On” finds not only incredible humor, but catharsis.
“Game On” is a tentpole episode of The West Wing, reminding us that our government should fight for the highest common denominator, raising the American people to its level rather than pandering to their base desires. It’s not Ritchie vs. Bartlet up there, but id vs. super ego—a guy in desperate pursuit of simplicity vs. a guy who realizes the simplest thing to do is tell the truth. CJ recognizes this, making the bold suggestion that the White House staffers promptly leave the press room once the debate is over, not offering up any commentary or spin, letting the debate speak for itself. She also finds Albie Duncan on her way out, the Republican congressman who volunteered to spin for the president after this debate, and asks him to expand on his China-related answer, even if it means veering off-script a bit.
Back at the White House, Leo is having a heated exchange with Ali Nassir, the UN ambassador to Qumar. He had stayed back from the debate—unable to see his best friend crush the competition, so obviously this was an important discussion to have. He’s trying to get Nassir to go back to Qumar and get them to lay off Israel, and having no luck. Nassir is denying any involvement, complaining about a number of things beyond anyone’s control, and generally just getting testy. Then Leo watches a bit of the debate on TV, goes back in and asks for exactly what he wants, and Nassir acquiesces. That’s the Bartlet Guarantee™, and I can only imagine what actions other Americans are taking after watching that goddamn excellent debate. I mean, it was so good that Ritchie himself ended by shaking Bartlet’s hand and saying, “It’s over.” “You’ll be back,” Bartlet assured this schlub. And even if Ritchie himself never has a political career, Bartlet is right: There will always be political schlubs to mock, people who talk down to the American people and try to win elections by doing what Don Draper does in his commercials: Making people feel deep emotions (usually fear), then offering himself as the solution. Bartlet, meanwhile, wants to win based on what could be. Crazy, right?
That message carries over to another story happening in “Game On”: a campaign happening in Orange County with nothing but potential. That’s meant literally, because the candidate, Horton Wilde (author of The Skin Of Our Teeth), recently passed from his fourth heart attack. Because of California state law though, his name must remain on the ballot, which is all well and good if the campaign were to simply evaporate into the void and not take part of the news cycle away from the president. But that’s simply not the case. The campaign manager, Will Bailey (Joshua Malina, who I know becomes a much bigger part of the show thanks to friends who have watched further into the series), is not letting this one go quietly into the night. He’s running the tightest ship of his political career, and the worst part—at least for the White House—is that he’s doing a damn good job of it. Note this exchange he has at a press conference Sam was lucky enough to witness (hat tip to this site):
Mr. Bailey, we’re all sitting here pretending this is a regular press conference, and you’re very engaging up there, but your candidate died, so why isn’t this all a little preposterous?
Chuck Webb is a seven-term Congressman who, as chairman of not one but two commerce sub-committees, has taken money from companies he regulates. He’s on the board of the NRA and once challenged another congressman to a fistfight on the floor, over an amendment to make stalkers submit to background checks before buying AR-15s, AK-57s, Street Sweepers, Mac-10s, Mac-11s. He’s joined protests designed to frighten pregnant women.
What’s your point?
There are worse things in the world than no longer being alive.
In the words of NBA Jam, “Boom shaka laka!” Plus, Will’s a wildly successful ghostwriter whose speech has been making the rounds at the White House, and his assistant/non-assistant is Winnie Cooper from The Wonder Years. This guy can do no wrong, and Sam sees this as incredibly threatening. This young buck is bringing even more attention to how much of a joke the Democrats are in Orange County.
But even though Sam Seaborn flew to speak to Bailey himself—and Sam is the kind of guy who gets a standing ovation at a bar when the Wilde campaign realizes he’s swung by—Bailey refuses to budge. In many ways, Bailey is a young Bartlet. He refuses to do any less than the most our modern democracy affords him. So what if his candidate dropped out of the race because he “died”? He, like Stackhouse, can raise issues. He, like the White House team, can find ways to communicate directly with the American people. And he, like Bartlet, can stand up for the person who didn’t even realize he needed to be stood up for, but is awfully glad someone did.
Sam sees all that in Will. It’s why on the biggest night of his life, he decides to head back to Orange County and have a drink with the guy, offering himself up as the candidate should the Democrats win the seat.
The West Wing is a smart freakin’ show. And sometimes the smartest people make the best jokes. Just look at Elsie Snuffin.