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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The West Wing: “The Red Mass”

Illustration for article titled The West Wing: “The Red Mass”
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The West Wing is full of stubborn and presumptuous people. The kind of have to be, though: They’re running a government and make split-second decisions that require obsessively reading into every word of a quote their opponent gave to the press. If, say, Josh Lyman has a hunch about what Ritchie’s strategy is to take down Bartlet, he’d better be damn sure he’s right—and be ready to go to the fuckin’ mat defending his idea. Because if he’s right, he can save an election. And if he’s wrong, well, there’s always another candidate—though in “The Red Mass,” that’s not a possibility. The episode celebrates the times when those hunches are so, so right.

When last we left off, Stackhouse was entering the race as a third party candidate, slated to steal a bunch of votes from the president and inching Ritchie closer to victory (in theory). And to add insult to injury, Amy had taken a job as his advisor, thereby becoming instrumental in personally taking the piss out of Josh Lyman. Meanwhile, the situation in Qumar was increasing in hostility. Its government all but knew United States had something to do with the killing of its leader, and was on the verge of forcing the U.S. out of its silence by blaming the deed on Israel. Bartlet was going to be forced to make a choice: Out his country as the one that did the deed, or let an innocent, already bruised country suffer. Had Bartlet only screwed things up for himself, then maybe dayenu.

No one’s quite sure what to do about any of this, but “The Red Mass” contains moments of clarity that come out of nowhere. In an early scene, Stackhouse is seen meeting with his advisors, Amy in tow. They discuss a quote Ritchie put out at the AMA, and now Stackhouse has to decide how to respond, if at all. The kicker, however, is that if he takes the bait, the president will be forced to respond as well; and no matter what Stackhouse says, the president will be painted into a corner. Amy realizes this almost right away, and informs Stackhouse that he’ll be essentially kindling the fiery feud between himself and the president, alienating himself even more than he already has. Stackhouse doesn’t care. He got into the race to raise issues, he says, and why shouldn’t he raise this one?

Another advisor points out to Amy that if they were able to surmise Ritchie’s plan—drive an even bigger wedge between the other candidates—then wouldn’t Josh be able to figure it out in five minutes? “It would take his assistant Donna five minutes,” she retorts; and it would only take Josh half that time. Well, maybe more, since the Mets lost the day before.

Cut to the White House, where Josh is complaining about how those guys can’t just pitch strikes when Donna hands him the Ritchie quote. He takes a moment. “I know how Ritchie’s going to win this election,” he says. Completely independently, CJ is having a similar epiphany. During a press conference, she is asked what a victory for Bartlet “looks like,” and quips, “270 electoral votes.” To which the reporter responds, “No, seriously.” Suddenly the conversation is less about the actual logistics of what it looks like to win, and more about the idea of democratic victory. The reporters want a sweet narrative to pin their Bartlet pieces to, and when it comes to Ritchie, they simply want to watch him do something, anything. CJ suddenly realizes that these reporters have zero idea what Ritchie’s capable of. If he literally shows up to the debate on time, he will have already done more than anyone anticipated, and be looked upon favorably for it. Low expectations can win the race for him.

What’s impressive about “The Red Mass” is how effortlessly Josh and CJ come to these realizations, then refuse to let them go away. There’s a bit of “The boy who cried wolf” syndrome on The West Wing; when everything becomes a big deal, suddenly the characters become immune to what’s truly important. (Like I mentioned last week, this is tempered by, you know, the fact that they work at the White House.)


But in “The Red Mass,” Josh and CJ are so, so sure they’re on to something. They’ve had plenty of ideas and realizations in their White House tenure, and few feel as earned as those in “The Red Mass”— probably because they just won’t let them go. When CJ and Toby discuss the number of debates they should do—Bartlet wants five; Ritchie wants as few as possible because he knows he’ll get trounced—CJ brings up her fear about low expectations, and Toby disagrees. This is Bartlet, after all, and there’s no reason they should be concerned. “These two men are going to be side-by-side on the stage, answering questions. That’s the ball game,” Toby says. To which CJ brilliantly retorts, “If the whole thing is, ‘He can’t tie his shoelaces’ and it turns out he can, then that’s the ball game.”

There’s also the matter of Josh and Amy, who both stubbornly refuse to acknowledge that they know each other amazingly well, probably still care for one another, and both have a real sense of what this country needs—that being another four years of Bartlet, of course. But Amy is still annoyed that she was let go from the White House, and was happy to take whatever consultancy came her way, even if it meant working for the opposition. Meanwhile, Josh will flat-out tell Amy she’s doing the wrong thing and working for the wrong guy, but refuses to see outside his myopic view of the White House. He complains to Amy that Stackhouse is taking the president’s votes, but Amy is quick to point out, “That’s the crazy part of your argument… they’re not his votes.”


There are a lot of balls being juggled during “The Red Mass.” CJ and Toby worry about the format and quantity of debates. Josh brings in a cabal of Democratic congressmen to talk Stackhouse out of running. The KSU bombers have been found in a remote house, and have been surrounded for 11 days as the government determines the best course of action. Leo visits with Ben Yosef from Israel, and secretly informs him of the Qumar plot against the country. Sam is realizing that the Democrats are electing a bunch of weirdos in Congress, and making some tragic choices like a guy who just suffered his fourth heart attack. And there’s still the matter of the needle-exchange quote: Should Bartlet say something? Should he not?

Stubbornness wins the day, at least for the most part. Josh refuses to acknowledge that Amy has a legitimate point about Stackhouse—that, really, he’s not much of a threat—and Amy decides on her own to leave Stackhouse and throw her support behind the president. Stackhouse quickly follows suit, realizing he’s so blinded by his desire to “raise issues” that he’s been, in the words of Josh Lyman, flying his plane upside down this entire time, and has come out of cloud cover completely upside down. He might have been stubbornly refusing to back out of a race he knew he truly couldn’t win, but Josh’s own unwillingness to let Stackhouse forget what a mistake he’s making finally won him over. CJ realizes the administration needs to take a huge gamble: Ritchie won’t back down about wanting only one debate, so they give him what he wants—but only if the president retains control of the format. And speaking of stubbornness, Bartlet’s not one to back down from a challenge, so even though he’s told what a big mistake it would be to talk about needle exchange, he does it anyway.


The only hiccup in the episode revolves around Ben Yosef. Leo was so sure Ben would be fine that he sent the man home to deal with things in Israel, assuming he’d speak to his friend soon. The episode closes with the realization that his plane never arrived; it went off the grid shortly before landing back home. Stubbornness comes from a perceived lack of control, and “The Red Mass” demonstrates that although you can occasionally will yourself to control the uncontrollable, there are just some things that will continue to get away from us all.

Stray observations:

  • Great Josh Lyman quote: “When the president’s got
    an embassy surrounded in Haiti, or a keyhole photograph of a heavy-water reactor, or any of the fifty life-and-death matters that walk across his desk every day, I don’t know if he’s thinking about Immanuel Kant or not.”
  • Bartlet with some sage words: “A coach once told me that the hardest thing to do in sports is to walk into your Super Bowl locker room at half-time and change the strategy that got you there ’cause it’s no longer working.”
  • I’m gonna start “writing out loud.” That way it’s not weird if I talk to myself for a few minutes or all day every day!
  • “There comes a day in every man’s life where he realizes he’s not going to play professional baseball.” “You’re just having that day today?”