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The West Wing: "Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc"/"A Proportional Response"

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[A brief note before we begin: I'm trying my darndest to watch the episodes as close to the writing schedule as possible, so spoilers don't accidentally creep into my reviews. Please, for the sake of those who might be following along, try your best not to reveal spoilery info in the comments. Hooray? Hooray!]

"Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc"

While the pilot set out to define the type of world these characters are inhabiting, this follow-up episode begins to nuance the people who are living in it, and how their interactions and relationships will serve the story. As a matter of fact, if this episode teaches us about anything in the West Wing, it's that relationships are at the forefront of every decision in the hallowed halls. And sometimes that's not a good thing—as the title falsely states, one thing following the other is usually presumed to be caused by the other, but often a third variable is at play.

The episode starts when Mandy, Josh's ex, is fired by her boss; she's a media consultant tasked with giving Lloyd a shot at the presidency, but it seems Lloyd is content waiting around, and no longer needs her services. See, Lloyd is going to deliver a keynote speech at the DNC, a decision that effectively puts him out of the running. And, as it turns out, who was at the root of that decision? Josh himself, back at the White House, congratulating himself on a job well done. He doesn't strike me as a mean-spirited guy, but he sure does hate Mandy, and is happy to see her go. But the bottom line is that Mandy is a talented media person, and when a similar position/need opens up at the White House, the entire team wants her on board. Hell, they have to literally ambush Josh in Leo's office to make it happen. Drama sufficiently induced; many a wit-off is sure to ensue. And even Josh can recognize her talent, and hopes to God that his past relationship doesn't get in the way.

The other two main strands of the episode, though, deal with people too blinded by their relationships with people to make rational decisions. One thing follows the other, but often there is a third variable at play.

The first is an unexpected surprise: we get a glimpse of Vice President Hoynes, who earlier that day gave a quote to the press about the President, insinuating that the man was not well. This is wreaking havoc for CJ, who is blindsided by the quote at the daily press conference (where, it should be noted, she wishes one of the reporters a happy birthday… even at the White House, those things don't go unnoticed). Furious, she grabs the VP just as he's leaving a meeting—and does a few great seconds of the walk-and-talk this show loves so much—but Hoynes (the wonderful Tim Matheson) blows her off. "My office has its own press secretary," he shoots back at CJ; and with that, he's gone.

But we find out later that this goes beyond a simple power play against CJ. Leo, who can read CJ like a book, surmises what Hoynes did, and calls a quick meeting with the VP. And with almost no lead-in, he lets Hoynes have it. "Consider an order from CJ a direct order from this office," he says, offering zero ambiguity as to how pissed he is. Then Hoynes reveals what's been at the root of this whole thing: He apparently does not like the President one bit, and is remaining complacent simply to keep his job, which Leo knows. And at the end of the day, I'm starting to realize that you don't pick a fight with Leo. He's a commanding presence wherever he goes, and he knows everything about everyone.

There's also the case of Morris, a marine doctor the President is so very fond of. Seems Morris is one of the only people the President can really open up to—as sarcastic as Bartlet can be, Morris fires it right back at him. In fact, after Morris returns from Syria, where he's staffing an underprivileged hospital for a week, he'll be the House's resident physician. That, plus his newborn baby, makes for a hell of an awesome year.

Even though I saw it coming a mile away, it's tough not to be floored by what Leo shares with Bartlet at the ominous time of 3:35am the next day: Morris's plane, containing other doctors, was blown up over Syria. The attack was unprovoked, and there were no survivors. Bartlet hears the news, pauses only a moment, and calmly says, "I will blow them off the face of this Earth with the fury of God's own thunder." They blew up our plane, and Bartlet will respond. One thing follows the other, seeminly caused by it. But, as we see, his friendship with Morris is a powerful, powerful third variable.

Grade: B+

Stray observations:

  • "I accidentally slept with a call girl." "Accidentally? I'm confused, did you trip?"
  • Speaking of, Sam spent a lot of his time spinning his wheels in this one, going from Josh to Toby trying to get, possibly, approval for his interest in Laurie—the prostitute he took home unknowingly. His final stance, where he whisks her away from a "business" function for an impromptu date, was as baffling as it was funny; as we'll see in a moment, his run-in with CJ really sets him over the edge, and it would almost make more sense to do such a grand gesture after gettin' an ear-full from her. But, no matter, Sam's admission of his identity to the, ahem, gentlemen in Laurie's company was pretty ridiculous, in a good way.
  • "Do you know when I lost Texas?" "When you started taking Latin."

"A Proportional Response"

Being the President—nay, working in the White House—is really cool, yes? But it's also really frustrating. But also, really cool. But also, sad? Grr, boo, hiss.

Such is the simple sentiment of this third episode of The West Wing, and a necessary one at that. These guys have a lot of freedom, and a lot of power; but at the end of the day, the Wing owns them. And owns them good. (Ooh, building-burn!)

The pilot kicked off with Sam picking up Laurie at a bar, and it's taken us two episodes to see its true effects on the office. CJ starts the day waiting for Josh in his office, furious that Sam is doing this thing behind her back—her job is to protect these guys from the press, and she can't do her damn job if her people are slinking off to sleep with hookers. Josh is unfazed, which… let me tell you, if you ever want to make a person angry, give them the exact opposite energy they are giving you. Hoo boy, and it works. CJ gets in Josh's face, who fires back that she's a "paranoid Berkeley shiksa feminista." Oh yeah, says CJ, well Josh is an "elitist Harvard fascist missed-the-deans-list-two-semesters-in-a-row Yankee jackass." This is what happens when characters in an Aaron Sorkin show get frustrated to no end.

CJ later finds Sam, sits him down, and lets him have it. But strangely, even though CJ has an extremely legitimate professional point, it's Sam that seems like the reasonable one in this situation. CJ is looking at it from the press's standpoint—that Sam Seaborn slept with a prostitute, end of story. Sam, though, merely posits that he's hanging out with a woman he likes, and will continue to do so because, well, that's what he likes. He goes on: CJ is a wuss. For once, Sam says, he'd like her to stand up to the press vultures and say, "This is what's happening, and it's none of your damn business." For all the power CJ wields as the Press Secretary, she can't even do what Sam is saying. She's too far ingrained in the game of the White House to ever cross that line. That is, until later, when she tells an intrepid reporter to back off the Sam Seaborn story. And you know what? He listens, but only in exchange for some new insider info. The game continues.

The info, though, concerns the biggest crisis of the episode: the continuing saga of President Bartlet taking military action against Syria, for blowing up the plane of his newfound friend Morris. First, he meets with his military advisors, who recommend a fairly tit-for-tat response: They blew up a plane, so we take out a few high profile military targets. Bartlet is not pleased. "What is the virtue of a proportional response?" he asks. He argues there's no surprise to these actions; they're what the rest of the world, and they Syrians themselves, expect. He storms out of the room, demanding they give him another plan that's more severe than docking they Syrians' allowance.

An hour later, he's back in the room, this time to hear a less conservative plan. This one takes out an airport, killing thousands and majorly crippling the government. It's exactly what Bartlet wants, his "fury of God's own thunder" he made mention of last episode. But Bartlet pauses. He's tormented. He wants to hear that first plan again. He thinks some more. He goes with the first one. He's crushed.

Let's dig into this scene. Clearly, Bartlet was responding with his gut, despite repeated denial that that's what he was doing. (By his own admission, he's only known Morris for a few hours total.) Morris was a family man, about to raise his beautiful daughter with his beautiful wife; it's nice the President shows such compassion. But hearing the cost in Syrian life must have shocked him back into reality. He was always going to go with the first plan, he just needed to hear the more extreme option to put his mind at ease. This is a man who at least likes to entertain his gut reaction, even if it's not the final result. Of course, Leo describes this scene best—though not till later, before the President is to share his first military orders ever with the entire nation. "There's no good [in this situation], there's just what it is," Leo says. America is a America needs to act like the most powerful nation in the world, and the only way to do that is to occasionally make proportional responses, even when the disproportionate one feels more human—it's infinitely less compassionate, even to our enemies.

This episode also sees the introduction of Charlie, who's to be the President's personal aide. The boy was plucked from messenger interviews, because the woman running them sensed something in him that fit the new job well. Then begins the vetting process, done by Josh and Sam (this is a very prominent position after all, so odd questions must be asked): What message does it send if a black person holds the door open for the President? What kind of crowd does Charlie hang out with? Is he gay?

Ultimately, it's all meaningless. Charlie is a good kid, the most capable for the job despite whatever else comes up, and now it's just a matter of convincing him that he wants the job. He initially went for the simpler messenger job due to his complicated circumstances; he's supporting his younger sister—skipped college, even—after his police officer mother was killed in the line of duty. But Bartlet immediately likes the guy (he located the President's glasses after a mere two seconds on the job) and promises him that, once Congress is back in session, Bartlet will go about getting the "cop killer" bullets, the ones that took down Charlie's mother, banned from the streets. Then Bartlet goes off to appear on national television, while Charlie, visibly starstruck, watches from the sidelines. "I've never felt like this before," he says to Josh, watching the circus click into place. "It doesn't go away," Josh responds; yeah, the White House is a mad house, but it's just so damn cool.

Grade: A-

Stray observations:
A little more press fun, this time with Toby. After a Democratic congressman made some vaguely threatening remarks about the Prez, Toby told the press that it's White House policy to follow up on all threats towards Bartlet, but that he can't comment further. All of a sudden, everyone thinks this poor sap of a congressman is going to prison. Toby, though, just laughs, as do Leo and Bartlet. It's all, ultimately, so ridiculous.

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