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The West Wing: “Red Haven’s On Fire”

Illustration for article titled The West Wing: “Red Haven’s On Fire”
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“Red Haven’s On Fire” (season four, episode 17; originally aired 2/26/2003)

It’s interesting to watch “Red Haven’s On Fire” right after the season five première of Parks And Recreation, where Leslie Knope visits boyfriend Ben Wyatt in Washington, D.C. Parks And Rec paints Washington as a bright (though overcast) place to revel in democracy and breathe heaping gasps of history. The West Wing’s “Red Haven’s On Fire” shows a D.C. where worried family members gather in the White House to await news of their captured loved ones, or where a spazzed-out speechwriter berates his well-meaning staff. Or, remotely, a D.C. where losing gracefully is just as valuable as winning.

In this version of the capital, the only thing you can expect, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is that everything will eventually go to hell, so you might as well do everything you can to make the landing palatable.

It starts innocently enough. Will is working with his speechwriting bombshells—interns who are all he has left once the entire staff up and quit last episode. He has them taking previously given remarks and tweaking them to fit the president’s new tax plan, and though he’s not making much progress at all (“Why are you conceding their central point?” he asks of one who brings up what the Republicans said), he’s making progress, inch by inch.

Near the beginning of the episode, Toby calls him—from a call girl’s cell phone, I might add—to push the deadline up 24 hours. When Sam forced Bartlet’s hand at the end of last week’s episode, he inadvertently made his successor’s life way more stressful. So Will takes it out on the interns, working them to the point of staring at the floor hoping there’s food down there.

I wonder how much of himself Aaron Sorkin sees in Will Bailey. Will’s unnaturally talented, for sure. He’s driven to work extremely hard to prove to himself that he’s worthy of occupying space, be it at the White House or back in Orange County. He expects perfection from everyone around him, and when he doesn’t get it, he resolves to just do everything himself—but make those around him feel slightly guilty in the process. And, ultimately, Winnie Cooper teaches him the value of positive reinforcement. Yep, Sorkin in a nutshell.


I can only imagine his madness might have repelled many a writer in his day, but with Will Bailey, Sorkin can live the fantasy. After a long night of working, Will reads back to the interns what they wrote—well, not what they put on the page, but what they stenciled out before Will “painted” it. He then dismisses them with a job well done, mentioning that he’s going to be working on remarks about the situation in Ghana: Seventeen Americans were killed in suicide bombings. Rather than go home, the interns get to work. “I don’t think they understood: They can go home,” Will says to Elsie.

She replies, “They understood.”

They smile knowingly. More wish fulfillment at its wish-fulfilliest.

There’s also the matter of Amy and Abbey, which follows a similar, more condensed trajectory. The First Lady is having a difficult time getting anything done; her agenda is being ignored by staffers (Josh has Donna read something on his behalf, himself too busy to be troubled to read). So, perhaps sarcastically, Josh suggests Abbey appoint a chief of staff.


Amy attends a luncheon with Abbey Bartlet and almost sets the entire room on fire. She spills water on herself. She dresses down a reporter who accosts Abbey with this gem:

“I say, I thought it was courageous. Because the leadership wanted fair pay done quietly, so it didn’t become necessary for the moderate Republicans to make it a symbol of left-wing overreaching. Not like the president doesn’t have enough problems, but you said, ‘Screw the leadership.’ And I think that’s courageous. Ironically, I have a hunch that the first lady could have been brought on board fair pay if she had been lobbied more, what’s the word, more, you know, professionally. Rather than being embarrassed in this morning’s newspaper, Alana.”


In short, she’s the perfect candidate—another immaculate specimen of outspoken optimism, succeeding despite herself.

The matter of Sam Seaborn’s congressional bid doesn’t have as happy an ending, though it starts on far rockier territory. Toby and Charlie have just been released from jail, placed there by pure circumstance when a drunken lout slipped, and someone claimed Charlie hit him. Then Toby calls the White House (“You’re really going to be teaching the seminar on call-girl caution?” he says to Sam, after getting scolded), and lets Sam know he’ll be taking over the remainder of the campaign. Oh, the arrest? Buried after the fold, promises Toby, as the trio exit the jail to the furious flashing of press camera bulbs.


So Toby now must transform the Sam Seaborn campaign using a mere $28,500 and an eight-point spread, with only 10 points up for grabs. Obviously it’s time for Sam to head to the beach, dodging questions about the Republican tax plan so he can deliver his canned message that, “Orange County’s beachfront is a national treasure.” He looks youthful. He looks energetic. He says absolutely nothing of importance. Later, Toby rewrites Sam’s speeches using “flamethrower language,” to ensure he says things of tremendous importance.

Sam’s livid. His campaign has taken a marked turn, sure: He’s no longer someone people are writing off, he’s become someone who is rallying the base. But in Orange County, that base is miniscule. “All your base are belong to us,” screams every Republican.


But get this: Toby doesn’t care. He already knew, actually. He knows Sam’s going to get rocks thrown at him, and he just wants to stand next to the guy when it happens. That’s the major difference between him and Scott Holcomb: Scott knew he was going to lose, but made the landing as graceful as possible for himself. Toby knew he was going to lose, but made the landing as graceful as possible for Sam. Years of White House training teaches you to be selfless when you have no idea how else to be.

The same rules apply to Bartlet and Leo back in Washington. Three military personnel have been taken hostage in Khundu, and footage has surface that reveals they’ve been beaten. The United States takes decisive action, enacting a plan that has the highest chance of success. Meanwhile, the family members of the captured soldiers have gathered in a room to talk to the president, who is unable to give them many details. He comes in and out of the room, actually, and everyone is only vaguely aware of why.


“Red Haven’s On Fire” explores what it means to truly serve the country. These parents, wives, and children are aware their loved ones have enlisted in a dangerous mission, but one mom confronts Leo about the whole situation. She doesn’t believe the United States should have ever interfered, for one, and her son would have been safe had the U.S. backed off. Plus, she adds, how could Leo truly understand how she feels when he’s sitting in his cushy office while her son’s out in the field about to die? Leo explains that he served the country in Vietnam, the mom apologizes, and they move on.

But it’s not as simple as a case of not knowing Leo’s military past. It’s another tick mark in the column of doing what’s right vs. doing what’s easy—of standing up for those who are unable to stand up for themselves, regardless of the consequences. Bartlet based his campaign on this, and I gotta say it’s refreshing to see him actually following through on it. Here’s the problem: Whatever the worse version of “caught between a rock and a hard place” is, that’s the situation the United States government is going to find itself in every single time. Doing good for some means harming others, and vice versa.


So those three soldiers are rescued. Suicide bombers take out a base in Ghana, though, and 17 other soldiers are killed. The blow’s not as palpable—the family of the three rescued soldiers are in the room; those of the 17 are not. We don’t see them, as we wouldn’t see the victims of a stray news story we happen to catch in our RSS feed. But “Red Haven’s On Fire” ensures that we feel their pain, even for a little while, to remind us it’s truly impossible to have it both ways.