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The West Wing: “The Black Vera Wang”/“We Killed Yamamoto”

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“The Black Vera Wang”/”We Killed Yamamoto” (season 3, episodes 20-21; originally aired May 8, 2002 and May 15, 2002)


CJ gets friendly with her new Secret Service agent, the president deals with a situation in Qumar, and Josh feuds with Amy over a new bill.

I thought “The Black Vera Wang” was going to be about an African-American designer who visits the White House and designs dresses in the style of Vera Wang. I was so close!


Well, actually, I thought a lot of things about this episode that weren’t correct, especially the final scene. In “The Black Vera Wang,” CJ is forced to deal with having Agent Donovan around, and she does not like it. All she wants to do is drive her convertible with the top down and the wind in her hair, and Donovan has to helpfully instruct her that, really, CJ’s needs in these situations are completely not valid. Her safety is paramount, and though I’m sure there’s a part of CJ that recognizes that, her first instinct is to rebel. Much of the episode involves going over logistics with Donovan: Who stands near who; who is in front of who, and at what time does that switch; who is looking longingly at who and at what times, etc. CJ is one of the most recognizable faces in Washington, but she’s pretty humble about the fact that anyone would choose to single her out as a target. She’s in a business where rhetoric and hyperbole are par for the course. It’s only after much sparring that she gives in to the idea of Agent Donovan, and something else takes over.

You see, CJ has a little thing for ol’ Mark Harmon—People magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive” circa 1986. And suddenly, she changes the way she phrases things to Donovan. She wants to take her niece shopping for a prom dress, and makes it seem like she’s the awesome trendy aunt who’s “hip” and “with it” and all other things people want to think about a very cool lady. (Maybe she’ll pick up some “ice cream” and listen to some “rap” music too?) Agent Donovan and CJ’s niece—a young Evan Rachel Wood—bond while CJ tries on the black Vera Wang, which isn’t so much as a person so much as it’s a dress. A dress that CJ looks mighty fine in.


Donovan takes his eyes off the prize, and places them on another prize, for just a few seconds, and the result is that harrowing final scene. Done for the night, Donovan sits down at CJ’s computer, types in her password, and reads her email. He sees a message from someone with an AOL account (get with the times, man—Prodigy), and realizes that not only was the crazy guy at the mall, he was close enough to see the make and model of CJ’s dress. He was probably that guy wearing a coat in May, the one Donovan had pointed out to the niece. He was there, and Donovan missed it. He slams his fist onto the table.

There’s a part of me that expected Donovan to sit down at that desk and compose the email. I’ve been so trained by shows like 24 and Every Drama Show That Has Been On TV Ever to suspect the guy you least suspect. Certainly The West Wing isn’t a show to pull those sorts of punches, and the actual conclusion to “The Black Vera Wang” was just as suspenseful and not as blunt or “twist for the sake of having a twist”-y.


Still, I don’t think of The West Wing as a show that follows a typical TV drama momentum. There are episodes where it feels like nothing has happened, aside from very pointed and fierce conversations, yet obviously a ton of information has been revealed and the characters have orbited around each other. It’s very rare that an episode is full of suspense, back-stabbing, plot development and mystery—all things The West Wing can certainly do, but usually saves in its chamber for key moments.

As we’re winding down this third excellent season, “The Black Vera Wang” and the subsequent “We Killed Yamamoto” are fittingly chock-full of momentum. Take the matter of the video Sam receives in the mail, an attack ad created for a mysterious yet nefarious purpose. No one knows who sent it, but it’s out there, and it’s time for the team to figure out just what the hell they need to do. It used to be that the “Committee To Re-Elect Jed Bartlet For President” would meet on farms in New Hampshire; then they moved to well-lit conference rooms, then dimly lit ones. Now they’re in the basement. It’s like the opposite trajectory of Harry Potter’s life living with the Dursleys.


Once again, Bruno takes the unpopular but probably more levelheaded approach: Do nothing. Put that video in a drawer somewhere, lock it up, and throw away the key. Bruno sees the big picture, and though campaigning is all about mud-slinging, the less that happens surrounding Bartlet’s MS, the better—even if Bartlet is prepared to give it right back. Sam, though, wants to meet with Kevin Kahn, a friend of his who’s working the Ritchie campaign. He’s advised against it, and is content enough to go about his day when he receives word that Kahn called for him. (When Ginger tells him who left messages for him, Sam completely ignores the fact that his father called once he hears Kahn tried to reach out.) Against everyone’s better judgment, Sam decides to meet with Kahn, hand him the video, and trust that his friend will keep it safe. He doesn’t—it leaks to the press, Ritchie absolves himself from blame, and now everyone’s talking about Bartlet’s MS with no negative impact on the Republican candidate.

Sam royally screwed up, and the storyline ends not just with a chastising by Bruno, but with a confrontation—in the rain—between Sam and Kahn. That’s some serious network drama stuff right there.


“Riveting” isn’t a word I’d use to describe many episodes of The West Wing, but “The Black Vera Wang” certainly was. Even the tamest of storylines ended with major confrontations. Having returned from Helsinki, Josh re-gifts a chest of moose meat to Donna, who hands it off to an intern—who promptly puts it up on eBay and makes $210 on it. The intern did something wrong, and rather than implicate Donna, Josh takes the blame from on-high; then, rather than implicate the intern, Donna takes the blame from Josh. By the time Donna confronts the dumb intern, she’s understandably peeved. (Also: Why not just fire the guy? Do you know how many people are lining up for that unpaid opportunity? Every young person in America.) Same goes for Toby and his sitdown with the heads of all the major TV networks. They don’t want to air four days of the DNC and RNC, just the acceptance speeches. They have better things to program, they posit. No one cares, they say.

This is too much for Toby: “There isn’t going to be a horse race to cover, either in New York or San Diego, but we gave you the air waves for free 70 years ago and 357 days a year you can say who’s up and who’s down, who won the West and who lost the South but what’s wrong with eight days, not every year but every four years, showing our leaders talking to us. Not a fraction of what they said but what they said. And then the balloons.” A beautiful takedown from a character who always says beautiful things. And then the balloons.


There’s, of course, the growing matter of Qumar, which begins in “The Black Vera Wang” and continue into “We Killed Yamamoto.” Fitzwallace has uncovered a terrorist plot to take out the Golden Gate Bridge, and Abdul Shareef, Qumar’s defense secretary, is helming it. He’s a longtime friend of the United States, but the more Fitzwallace digs into the plot, the more and more it seems Shareef is the one to blame. The problem is that a key piece of information—the one that started this whole thing going—was obtained using torture, which means Shareef now has diplomatic immunity. Before learning this fact, Bartlet was all for taking out Shareef (though he likened the man to Capone, meaning they had to find something else to implicate him on, not this relatively flimsy conspiracy theory); but now he’s against it. He wants to cancel Shareef’s trip because, really, there’s nothing he can do unless the countries are at war, and he’s not going to do that any time soon.

It’s weird writing these following words on 9/11 (a day before it posts on the site, obviously), but I wonder how many terrorist plots the United States has avoided over the years because they’ve taken out the leader before anything could happen. We probably don’t hear about most of them, and we hear about a lot. It seems like a no-brainer equation that even the fourth-gradiest of mathematicians could figure out: Less Shareef equals less lives lost. It’s a gamble, but the losing side of it would be devastating. Fitzwallace knows this, and spends time convincing Leo that inviting Shareef to the United States—not canceling his trip, rather—is the right thing to do. This is Fitzwallace’s chance to be the guy that killed Hitler, and he doesn’t want to miss it. In the end, Bartlet decides to let Shareef come to the United States, though he doesn’t want to. “There are moral absolutes,” he says just before the closing credits play. Just because he made the right call doesn’t mean he has to feel good about it.


There are a lot of moving pieces in “We Killed Yamamoto” that pop in and out when the Qumar situation isn’t being explored. The chief among them concerns Josh and Amy—who has been absent from the last few episodes. I haven’t had much of a chance to see the two of them as a couple, and “We Killed Yamamoto” demonstrates that they’re insanely compatible, which can be a terrible thing considering they have very different opinions on politics. Josh mentions a bill he’s working on, and points to the consolation the Democrats had to put in: money to provide marriage incentives. Seems simple enough, but Amy thinks it’s bullshit, and posits that the president is completely out of line in pouring money into a program that’ll encourage women on welfare to be with their deadbeat husbands—who now won’t have to pay child care and all that. Josh thinks there are certain things you have to give up if you want to be reelected, which ultimately would be the best thing for both Josh and Amy. All of this has to do with their differing opinions; the way they’re insanely similar is how they effortlessly shift into work attack mode. Within three seconds of their fight being over, Amy is sending in the troops and Josh is lining up his defenses. The two are talking on the phone over each other, a beautiful cacophony of setting up meetings and playing politics.

The president ends up snapping at Josh for what he did—wondering aloud whether he’d be better off if Josh and Amy were to simply switch places—which isn’t the only time some bile’s thrown around. Josh sends Donna to North Dakota to read a statement from the White House regarding the state’s impending decision to drop the word “North” from its name. They think it’s deterring tourists from patronizing their great state, because clearly New York is only a hotbed for tourists because it’s perceived as “new.” Donna does what she’s supposed to do, fields a few questions, throws in some trademark sass, and calls it a day. The chairman, though, is a little confused as to why Sam wasn’t the one delivering the message, and tells Donna to relay this message to him: “Get up off the dirt.” Sam’s taken enough shit for what he did in the last episode; isn’t it time to stop piling on the guy? He’s up off the dirt, already.


Now, of course, we need to talk about CJ and Donovan again. Their flirtation has risen to a new gun-firing level. She likes him because he’s tall, and he has a nice smile, and goddammit, he protects her. He likes her because there’s a soft side to CJ that only comes out when you spend a lot of time with her, and he’s feeling an instant connection. They almost-kiss in front of her house—which is a huge no-no on the Secret Service laundry list of things you’re not supposed to do with the person you’re protecting. (I can only assume.) It’s not surprising their fondness for one another came out of such polar opposition, because it’s The West Wing after all, and every relationship that exists in that world comes from that. What I’m wondering, though, is just how far the show’s going to take it. He was at Rosslyn protecting CJ and the president from enemies he could see face-to-face. Now he’s distracted, and the enemy has yet to be identified. There’s not just a situation brewing in Qumar, there’s one brewing right here—and with only one more episode to go, I’m not eager to say goodbye to the show for an entire year.

Stray observations:

  • “I don’t want to eat something that’s a cartoon character that can talk. Or hatch a plan.”
  • “You changed your hair.” “No.”
  • “The law cracks me up.”

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