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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The West Wing: "The Portland Trip"/"Shibboleth"

Illustration for article titled The West Wing: "The Portland Trip"/"Shibboleth"
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These two West Wing episodes reminded me of something, but it'll take just a bit of set-up. I'm not really a fan of huge wind-up TV recaps, but I feel compelled to tell this story, so please bear with me. Who am I to deny MY MIIIIIIND?

Recently, I was reading Samantha Bee's excellent new book, and there was a particular story that stuck out. She was at a friend's house—or, rather, it wasn't a friend, but just another outcast girl in the neighborhood that her mother and the girl's mother had decided to set Bee up with—and this other girl threw a tantrum. The mom ordered her an entire pizza to eat in the corner by herself, which was presumably the standard coping mechanism. Bee describes sitting and watching this girl eat the pizza, feeling sorry for her yet jealous at the same time. Little kids have primitive coping mechanisms that dig into their brains until they become compulsive (especially because they're coping ostensibly with "the world" that they don't understand), and even though all kids are different, I think they learn to recognize the same unsettling feeling in each other.

The story struck me because like this poor little girl Bee was playing with, I was an anxiety-ridden kid. Nothing really terrible happened in my childhood, my parents and family were wonderful. But for whatever reason, I was plagued with vague fear that drove me to do illogical things with compulsion. For example, I was scared to turn off the lights in my room for fear of, I dunno, let's say monsters. Something. I wasn't sure what. But what I did know was that before I could go to bed, I had to perform a ritual of my own creation. I'd push open my door until it hit the wall a few times, to make sure it was completely open. I'd look in my closet and turn on the light, turn it off, on, off, for a bit. I'd look under the bed at the same three spots. I'd push the bedroom door open again. Then I'd stand at the light switch and stare at the most innocuous thing in my bedroom: the electrical outlet on the opposite side of my room. I'd stare until, whatever, something told me it was alright, that things seemed okay enough in my bedroom, then I'd turn off the light and scamper into my bed with zero hesitation. I couldn't go to bed until I did this, and I never truly understood why I did it.

Things are fine now. Like I said, I don't think anything was wrong, I just had an overactive imagination that desperately was trying to make sense of the big scary world I couldn't comprehend, and this nonsensical ritual gave me some relief. But I remember the feeling of every night, wanting so desperately to go to bed but being compelled to do something—something I didn't even really want to do—before I could. It wasn't a pleasant feeling. And when I recognize that in others, as I did reading that Samantha Bee story, it strikes a nerve that nothing else does.

I think we all have those things in our life. We perceive the world to be a logical place where logical people make logical decisions using logic. And as long as we do that too, all is fine. Then something comes along and punches us in the gut—an inexplicable, extremely specific feeling rooted deep in our childhood that we just can't shake. Those are the issues and actions that hurt us the most, even if we can't really consciously pinpoint why.

As far as I'm concerned, these are The West Wing's finest moments: when a character takes an issue so hard because it's been their issue their entire lives. It's beautiful and specific drama, and it breaks my freakin' heart.


But on the other end of the spectrum, I suppose it was only a matter of time until I found an episode of The West Wing I didn't really like, and "The Portland Trip" is it. For a show that defies conventions and serves up such nuanced development, "The Portland Trip" felt oddly distancing and surface level. I'm obviously relatively new to The West Wing, but everything about this episode felt, from what I could tell, conventional. There's the running gag of Bartlet chiding CJ about Notre Dame, going out of his way to ensure she honors the Fightin' Irish at every turn. He makes her wear a Notre Dame hat right before a photo op, demands she sing the fight song as they pass over South Bend, and so on. "He likes to hear the song at a brisk and steady tempo," Charlie is told to remind CJ. (Not that it wasn't funny—I've quickly learned that flabbergasted CJ is the best CJ of all CJs—just these types of ongoing things happen all the time.) Sam faces writer's block when crafting an education document for the press, and is snapped out of his funk by the President's dreamy words about life and the beauty of the world. "Be poets," Sam whispers to himself, smiling at the words' warming, glowing, warming glow. The President looks to make a deal to help college kids pay for tuition, and Charlie, under his breath, has the idea to save the day—a sort of Teach For America type situation where kids get college money in exchange for teaching at public underprivileged schools. The sort of "everyone can play this game" politics is ringing familiar.

On the ground, Josh debated the merits of an anti gay marriage bill with a Republican congressman, and he does so deftly. But it felt like finding out the Republican congressman was gay upfront took the wind out of the dramatic sails. The conversation starts and the gauntlet is thrown: this congressman wants a national law prohibiting same sex marriage, yet he's gay. Things progress as if he had never said that, with Josh throwing some pretty amazing lines like, "Freedom of choice isn't a minority value just because the majority doesn't agree with the minority choice." The talks continue for a while, but don't get all that heated before the congressman says to Josh, "Ask what you really want to ask." To which Josh replies, basically, "WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU?" How can this guy support a bill that goes against everything he believes in? The congressman's answer is fascinating (if not one I don't quite understand), but I knew it was coming. I don't get the sense that the admission of being gay influenced the conversation up to that point, which made me wonder why they brought it up so early, rather than saving the revelation for that moment.


That's just it: As a whole, the episode left some of the potentially interesting things on the back burner. Someone flew in the plane all the way to Portland, just so they could talk to the President on the way back. Ainsley and Donna semi-bonded, and Donna had a feud with Josh over his purporting to know what's best for Donna's personal life. (Equally infuriating given what some of you commenters said last week, implying they never get together. If that's true, so help me God, I'm going to, well, not do much, but it won't be a happy time.) Danny refuses to give back his copy of the briefing, and has a little feud with CJ. And everyone is concerned about Leo having a drink tonight, when he's finally hit with divorce papers. His number one coping mechanism is gone, and it's one of the most stressful days of his life. That's the stuff I would have loved to see more of, instead of what felt far too typical and, I dunno, Sorkin-y.

(I should say, though, that even the worst West Wing episode is still damn good. We're not talking Heroes, here.)


There's a psychological principle I forget the name of, but it basically states that when you take on a job that has societal standards (based on TV, movies or what-have-you), you're likely to start the job by doing what you think a typical person in that job would do, before taking your new role to heart. Things like being a cop, for example—your first few weeks on the force probably have you strutting around busting "perps" and eating at Burrito House, like typical cops do; you eventually become the blend of cop archetype and your own personality, and the world is better for it. I'm a big fan of how The West Wing has cast these characters in powerful roles, then profiles how they deal with the ramifications. Do they do what they perceive someone in their position to do, do they stand their personal ground, and where is the line in-between? I liked "Shibboleth" so much more than "The Portland Trip" because it dealt with these specific issues and hearkened back to what I was saying at the beginning of this recap.

When I see other little compulsive kids, I immediately identify with them. When Toby hears about prayer in school, he remembers being a fourth grader beat up on the playground because he chose not to bow his head during the optional moment of silent prayer. At the time, he didn't truly understand why he was the subject of the torture, and understanding that now doesn't dampen that feeling of emptiness, loss, and confusion. He pushes to get Leo's sister on the docket so he can force the issue because, well, he's compelled to. In a way, it's comforting to think of politicians as rational, calm figures above their own fears and inconsistencies. But The West Wing shatters that notion and, in a way, makes me much more comfortable thinking of politicians as not those things at all. I can understand why Toby was so compelled to do, pretty much, anything it took to bring up the issue. He moved mountains to exorcise the demons in his head. It's a sickness, but one I see in myself as well.


The episode also took Leo down a notch in my book. Well, not so much took him down a notch, but made him out to be less the relentlessly wonderful person he seems to be. Well not that he's not still probably the most wonderful person ever, but this is the second time he coldly withdrew support for someone because he feared the administration would suffer. He did it once for Sam's closeted racist friend who wanted to run for Congress, and here he is doing it to his own sister for fear of a photo going national. This one is already in a local paper, of Josephine McGarry watching as police arrest kids for praying in school, and he's scared others will learn what he already knows: Josephine gave the photographer a heads-up. And in this White House, they do not strut. Ever.

His sister is pissed, which made me wonder about the legions of others who probably hate Leo for everything he's done, simply because he has standards he tries to abide by. There's a lot of hate towards the administration, probably, and we will never see it. The West Wing is a magical world where actions have far reaching consequences we, the viewers, are protected from.


What was also refreshing about "Shibboleth," though, was how it portrayed some of the trivial stuff the President and his administration does. For on Thanksgiving, the President issues a pardon to a turkey, which in the context of this show makes the tradition out to be the most ridiculous, unnecessary thing known to man. (Yet, every year, we still do it.) This means CJ has to spend some quality time with Eric and Troy, even falling in love with both of them and wasting the President's time saving their lives. She also steals Donna away from whatever she was doing to teach CJ the song. For she is the press secretary, and songs she will lead. We also get to witness the President's inventiveness in full swing, as he navigates the tricky waters of getting those Chinese Christian refugees out into the country without angering China or anyone in the States. Hell, he does this while finding time to pass on his ancient Paul Revere knife to Charlie. The man is firing on all cylinders.

Yet the episode also contains the uncomfortable moment where Bartlet questions one of the Chinese Christians about his faith. Why would the most powerful person in the world feel compelled to use schoolyard methodology on such a complicated issue? Well, I don't know what compels most of these people, but damn do I know the feeling.


"The Portland Trip": B-
"Shibboleth": B+

Stray observations:

  • "Corn husk hanging."
  • I'm going to start a sitcom called, "I was just flipping a nickel in my office…"
  • Sam's little outburst towards the Christians was, well, pretty satisfying, and will always be no matter when I watch this episode.
  • "Morning Toby. You look determined."
  • "We shouldn't be defining love." Strangely enough, as I write this (Sunday), the Pride parade is in full force here in Chicago. It's wonderful to live in a city that openly supports GLBT issues. It reminds me of what my brilliant friend Christopher Piatt said once about gay marriage, regarding the issue finally becoming a non-issue: "I want to not care about it so badly, you have no idea."