“The Indians In The Lobby”/“The Women Of Qumar” (season 3, episodes 8-9; originally aired November 21, 2001 and November 28, 2001)
Two Native Americans camp out in the West Wing lobby, and CJ goes to bat for the oppressed women of Qumar. Also: Josh and Amy, together at last?
The West Wing is obviously a political show, but these two episodes have demonstrated that its morals and viewpoints are all over the map. Taken as individual episodes, “The Indians In The Lobby” and “The Women Of Qumar” are tales of CJ’s outrage over often-neglected issues. In the first, she winds up talking with a group of Native Americans, waiting in the White House lobby the day before Thanksgiving—determined to stay there as long as it takes to be heard, as they’ve already been waiting on a piece of legislation for 15 years. The second episode finds CJ learning something disturbing early on: The government is selling guns to Qumar, a nation that oppresses its women and shouldn’t be on America’s handout list. These two episodes eschewed development in the Bartlet reelection storyline (well, mostly), and left me feeling like they were starting a larger discussion I’m not sure is going to be picked up later on.
I suppose that’s just par for the West Wing course. As often as the show tackles the moral ambiguity associated with the Presidency—or just generally being in a position of elected authority—it also lets unsettling issues linger about, raising points for the sake of raising them. Recall the episode where Josh sat for an entire day with a nominee advocating for financial reparations from slavery. I’m not sure we’ll ever get closure on that issue, but it was raised nonetheless.
It’s not totally in vain, though. As much as I was hard on “Isaac & Ishmael” for calling itself a “play,” a lot of this show’s episodes could fall into that same category. Other than a few callbacks to earlier moments, a lot of the dialogue and story can be enjoyed in single-serving fashion. It wouldn’t be crazy to think that someone could drop into either of these two episodes and be able to appreciate them on a deeper level. The West Wing manages to be a show you can watch like a procedural if need-be, yet it makes plenty of consolations to its longtime fans.
It’s funny: The West Wing is one of the most hyperverbal shows I’ve ever come across, yet all the long-term heavy lifting happens deep below the surface—in its characters’ glances, grins, and growls. It’s not crazy to think there’d be a character on this show that would be horrified at the way Qumar treats its women, and articulate frustration that our government is, in a way, condoning those actions. But the fact that it’s CJ of all people—someone who’s reported the government’s every move and served as the mouthpiece for its actions—informs the breakdown that much more. Suddenly, it’s personal.
Okay, yes, this is all pretty obvious stuff I’m saying about TV and the way drama works. But how often do we fuckin’ see that nowadays? How often are the basic rules of theater and storytelling applied to modern TV? Certainly more than they ever have; there’s no doubt shows like Breaking Bad and Louie are pioneering a bold new “get smart people involved, then get out of their way” model for TV-making. But let’s talk about network TV, here. I recently watched a bulk of the pilots for the upcoming TV season (not all, at least not yet), and my big note to every major network is: Geez, trust us, won’t you? There are very few shows that trust the audience enough to let the pilot tell an unfamiliar, unfinished story. Not every idea has to be totally, 100 percent solidified in the first episode of a series.
I didn’t love every single moment of “The Indians In The Lobby” or “The Women Of Qumar.” But I loved how they trusted my intelligence, both as an arbitrary viewer and as someone who chooses to keep up with this show. Both episodes were a mash of walk-and-talk political back-and-forth, throwing issues big and small at the White House administration and hoping they’d keep their footing and composure. I’ve come to expect that from every episode. But then Josh looked up at Amy, having nearly avoided being pelted by a water balloon, and I knew the show had me by the balls. It trusted my intelligence not just with facts, but my emotional intelligence as well.
“The Indians In The Lobby” happens the day before Thanksgiving, when most of the staff is either gone or on their way out for the long weekend. CJ is cornered by those two Native Americans in the lobby, and has to entertain them because the people who can actually make a difference are already gone, and Leo refuses to see them. (He’s always the one who says no; I guess he’s even more the realist of the group than Toby.) Sam realizes that under a new formula for calculating the poverty line, four million new people are going to be considered poor once it takes effect. And though he’s powerless to change the inevitable, he does what he can to at least point to the injustice. This is a pretty typical Sam thing to happen, though Sam spinning his wheels is always entertaining for the sheer volume of great quotes. Josh finds himself cornered between the Italian (“Rome, Italy”) and Georgian governments: A boy murdered his teacher and fled to Italy with the help of his parents, and they’ll only release him back to the states if Georgia refuses to pursue the death penalty. Meanwhile, the President’s Thanksgiving plans become the subject of a poll, and Bartlet stews over the results.
“The Indians In The Lobby” and “The Women Of Qumar” have this in common: Characters are forced to act on things they didn’t start. In “The Women Of Qumar,” there’s of course CJ’s taking to the overseas cause—coming to terms with a deep-seeded injustice which could be traced to her conversation with the Indians in the lobby. There’s also an administration rallying around a possible mad cow disease scare, figuring out how best to handle a situation that may or may not develop, maybe, possibly. Toby finds himself speaking for the Smithsonian, and Josh finds himself speaking for the United Nations.
He speaks to Amy, by the way—a lobbyist for a women’s empowerment organization. And lo, Amy has arrived. Many of you in the comments have been counting down the episodes until she graces the screen, and now that she has, I can safely say two things about the women Aaron Sorkin’s characters (and the man himself) fall in love with:
1) They must tell a male character, essentially, to go fuck themselves, and have a detailed explanation for why and how that character should go fuck themselves.
2) They must do at least one idiosyncratic thing, which could possibly be interpreted as flirtation.
Oh, and also I guess 3) They must love opinionated, fast-talking guys who are writers at heart—or in the case of Studio 60, are literally writers on a television show.
I like Amy a lot. I think we’re all a little overloaded with whimsy nowadays, because I admit my first thought when she threw that water balloon was, “Oy, this would never fly in the post-‘manic pixie dream girl’ era we are currently enjoying.” But as my girlfriend pointed out, the juxtaposition is key. One minute she’s telling Josh to go fuck himself (and providing detailed explanations about why he should, indeed, go fuck himself), and the next she’s giddy on the balcony, chucking a water balloon at his head. There’s some amazing juxtaposition in “The Indians In The Lobby” as well, in the form of the mother fuckin’ President of the United States calling the Butterball turkey hotline and struggling to come up with a plausible fake identity. There are dreadfully serious moments on The West Wing, but very few that draw characters so far into the moment that they’re not able to provide a solid comeback or two.
When I say The West Wing plays to my emotional intelligence, this is what I mean. Not every disagreement requires a Very Serious Conversation. Not every missed opportunity causes anguish. There are moments that become so overwhelming you totally lose your cool and break down in front of the one person who’s paid by the government to have a heart of steel (and for Allison Janney, it won her an Emmy). And there are moments you’re so smitten with someone, you throw a water balloon at them—or, in the case of Josh, you just walk away. The West Wing doesn’t have to show Josh clicking his heels or swinging around a pole; we know there’s more to come.
- "…taken on an international flavor." "Much like myself."
- "Pretend the cow has MS." "No, I don't think I will." Despite mostly just hanging around these two episodes, Toby always manages to feel like a major character, probably because he's so IN THE MOMENT and INTENSE and BEARDED.
- I'm having trouble placing Mary Louise Parker's accent. Singapore slur?