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The West Wing: "The Two Bartlets"/"Night Five"

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“The Two Bartlets”/“Night Five” (season 3, episodes 13-14; originally aired January 30, 2002 and February 6, 2002)


Toby and the President bicker over talking about affirmative action, and Bartlet heads to therapy.

Now that I've watched roughly half the episodes of The West Wing season three, it feels like the right time to wonder what this particular season is about. Season one seemed to revolve around the residual effects of being around the President: Zoe and Charlie were in danger because their relationship was publicized and scrutinized at a national level, and the people surrounding the President were the ones paying the price. Season two had Bartlet dealing with that grief as he came to terms with his MS deception. It saw Bartlet at his lowest but also his highest, and that journey made the second season so magical.

Season three, at least from what I've seen, is focused on the kinds of thoughts we as Americans are likely having about our own President. We elected this guy two years ago, and though you think you know a guy, it's a whole new ballgame in his third year in office. This is when his true nature comes out—when there are no promises to fall back on, except he tries to make them anyway, since he's running for reelection. In the world of The West Wing, these people have been in power for two years, and we're only now seeing what they're truly made of, and thus retroactively explaining their past behavior.

"Let Bartlet Be Bartlet" is a phrase that's been thrown around a lot. Season three has fleshed out what that actually means.


And I'm not just talking about the President, obviously, but his entire team. The people who work tirelessly for a man they think they know, but who can surprise them at a moment's notice. Both "The Two Bartlets" and "Night Five" paused the action and allowed the audience to take stock in who's on screen, what they stand for, and how they interact with the world. And in most cases, identity is a much more fluid construct than you'd expect a verbose, idea-driven show like The West Wing to employ.

"The Two Bartlets" is the most overtly related to the idea of a split personality. The intention behind the title doesn't appear until the end, when Toby and Bartlet are finally granted some alone time in the Oval Office. He’d been complaining earlier in the episode because Bartlet was going to be speaking in Iowa, and the topic of affirmative action (as it pertains to college admissions) was inevitably going to come up. Toby prepared a remark for the President to use that would make it perfectly clear the President is in favor. Instead, the President decides to just kind of see what happens, is asked a direct question about his stance, and dodges it. “It’s Dr. Jekyll and Uncle Fluffy,” Toby moans.


In many ways, Toby is the perpetual idealist of the group, even more so than Bartlet himself. The thing about Bartlet is that he can inspire those around him but only occasionally takes action on what he believes is right. That’s why “Two Cathedrals” was such a momentous episode for me: Bartlet was finally moved to listen to his heart, not just give wonderful speeches then kowtow to what he thinks he needs to do in order to win reelection. Fittingly, the wildly divergent thing he did was announcing his candidacy for reelection, but that’s beside the point. In an earlier episode, Leo was asked, “When did you decide to run for reelection?” Bartlet might talk a big game, but at the end of the day, he has to answer to his constituents, and plays politics just like everyone else.

Toby is different. Where Bartlet can turn on the charm, Toby has no charm. He can write a speech that blows people’s minds but is probably more comfortable delivering bedtime stories than arena-sized, major televised events. He’s a writer, and as one of my former bosses said once about the comedy business, “The difference between a writer and a producer is that a writer is allowed to have his own opinion.” Bartlet is the producer; Toby is the writer.


Don’t get me wrong: A bedtime story from Toby Ziegler sounds like the greatest thing in the world. It’s just that… you know how CJ gets annoyed when that one reporter won’t let something go, and follows her around pestering her until he or she gets the answer they’re looking for? Toby is that guy for the President.

Like I said before, this season has been about reacquainting myself to the characters I’ve lived with over the last two summers, and I realize more and more that the show needs Toby. Desperately. When I started watching The West Wing, I naively assumed every character was Toby. This was going to be a different White House than I’ve seen on TV and read about in newspapers. This was going to be one where, at the end of the day, shit got done and people were put in their rightful places, like the scene where Bartlet kicks the metaphorical crap out of that Dr. Laura-type. It’s funny that I wanted something so clean-cut, because every other great drama I’ve watched is morally murky and creatively perilous.


It’s just so easy to be swayed by the Presidency, even a fictional one.

So Toby, to put it in Sorkin terms, is that guy. CJ is the one who’s outwardly opinionated, but isn’t paid much heed by everyone else. In “The Two Bartlets,” she fights with Toby over the merits of affirmative action, which at first seems surprising until she starts talking about her father. He worked for years as a teacher, and every time there was an opportunity for advancement, a less-qualified minority apparently snatched the position right from under him. So instead of retiring at the top of his game, he retired in the middle and now struggles with dementia that could have been curbed, in CJ’s mind, by a more fulfilling work life. She knows affirmative action is right, but the illogical part of her mind is a wily temptress and feeds her information that’s, at best, corollary.


Each of the characters have two Bartlets—the side that follows their gut, and the side that’s swayed by forces yet unknown. Josh falls victim to this as well. He’s making some headway with Amy, though it’s kind of hard to tell, since she’s doing things like 1) being dodgy, and 2) rejecting marriage proposals by members of Congress. So he decides to put himself out there and invite Amy to an impromptu trip to Tahiti. She agrees the only way she knows how—dry wit-ily. Problem is, there’s a situation happening in Puerto Rico that involves Josh’s friend Billy, a well-known actor leading the charge. There’s a scheduled sit-down in two days, and though Josh doesn’t have to be there, he’s pulled by his loyalty to his friend (something Leo exploits earlier in the episode) and his loyalty to his job, his higher calling. Though he can’t really put it into words, Amy will have to wait.

What I liked about “The Two Bartlets” is that the episode ends showing two ways the conflict between “Bartlets” could shake out. Josh finds a way to let his two Bartlets live with each other; he organizes a grand romantic gesture, decorating his apartment like Tahiti and, I’m guessing here in the words of Donna, “zapping himself of power by all that love making.” Bartlet, meanwhile, is confronted by Toby, who gets all “Brooklyn shrink’s office” on him, and points to Bartlet’s disappointed father as the root of Bartlet’s inability to make a decision for himself. Josh ends the episode in a better place; Bartlet, fuming, throws Toby out of his office. Toby has crossed a line, but then again, he’s a writer, and writers say what they think regardless of consequence. He’s a little nuts.


There isn’t much to say about Sam in this episode. Mostly, he’s just up to his usual thing of doing something silly in the background. This time around, he re-meets with the UFO guy from earlier in the show’s run, who believes the government is stashing an alien ship in Ft. Knox where all the bouillon is. First of all, it merits pointing out that bouillon is a funny word. Secondly, I love how Sam has basically just given up on the crazies. He’s willing to let them go do their thing so long as they don’t bother the government. So he winks at the UFO guy, setting him down an even deeper rabbit hole of mystery and exploration. Little did any of us know that he’d later go work at Sacred Heart hospital under the watchful eye of Dr. Kelso.

(It’s also worth noting, before I get to “Night Five,” that “The Two Bartlets” has an amazing opening scene. Amy, who informs Josh of the rejected marriage proposal, visits him at 5 a.m. Josh, faux-cocky as ever, instead focuses on some tiny semantics—that they went on six dates, not four—and tells her that he will explain everything when she calls him from her cellphone in 30 seconds. She leaves, the phone rings, and Josh begins to detail his account of things without so much as a “Hello?” This goes on for a second before Leo interrupts him. It wasn’t just great because of the whole bait-and-switch joke construct, but it’s incredible just how unflappable Leo is. The man has seen/heard it all.)


“Night Five” brings back Dr. Stanley Keyworth from “Noel”, this time to visit the President. They lie to him, though, and claim it’s for a follow-up with Josh, and the doctor is blindsided by the identity of his real patient within minutes of his entrance into the White House. (“Did you know anyone on the plane?”) The session itself isn’t all that revelatory on the surface. The two talk for a while about why Bartlet is having trouble sleeping, and Bartlet is quick to dismiss all the factors the doctor throws at him: physical, environmental, etc. Is the President stressed? Of course he is. Next.

Then they get to psychological, and the President becomes dodgy about what happened four nights ago—which of course is when Toby suggested the President was fearful of putting himself out there, where he might lose followers and therefore disappoint his father for not being more of a success. This leads the psychologist to discuss Lincoln—how he did what was right even though he lost half the country for doing it. Then, shortly after, he ends the session, telling Bartlet that of all the people he knows, Dr. Stanley Keyworth is the only person who won’t care that Bartlet is the President Of The United States. It took only two and a half seasons, but for the first time, Bartlet is reduced to being just a guy. Even when he has flashbacks and intimate conversations, there’s always a sense that, you know, he’s the President. Obviously I’ve talked about this a lot, since it comes up a lot, but there’s not a single person on this show that doesn’t look at Bartlet without even the slightest amount of reverence.


The doctor can only show Bartlet empathy as one person to another, not as a man sitting in the presence of the President. Empathy plays a huge part in “Night Five,” in that the characters let themselves be vulnerable and receive others’ vulnerability back. It takes a while for Bartlet to let his guard down, just as it does CJ, but for different reasons. After a press briefing, a reporter approaches her and requests her help with something. One of his writers, stationed in the Congo, has missed two deadlines, and he would like assistance from the government in locating this man. At first, CJ is forced to put on her business face: She makes the man’s wife comfortable in the White House and ensures her that they’re doing everything they can to make the rescue a success. Inevitably though, she breaks down, and offers a peek behind the curtain of how tough it must be for CJ to let people down, day-in and day-out; hell, she can’t even provide reporters with the draft of the speech they so desperately want.

Now we come to the whole Sam/Ainsley Hayes stuff. First of all, when are they gonna bone already? Secondly, it felt an awful lot like Sorkin tacked that scene on just so he can appease some hate mail he was theoretically getting about his portrayal of women. Or, maybe he made a comment about an employee of his whom he’s a friend of, and some other temp/intern called him out on it. Regardless, the entire affair felt vaguely defensive. Sam made a comment someone else deemed inappropriate, and as that person later pointed out, she has every right to call him on something she found offensive. Every right. But then Sorkin felt the need to have Sam not only come up with a counterpoint, but present that counterpoint to Ainsley herself, then have Ainsley berate this helpless other woman for a few minutes. Of course, Sam still makes fun of Charlie for losing a game of basketball to a girl, so he clearly doesn’t learn anything, which I suspect was unintentional irony.

The point is, there are very few scenes in The West Wing that are so on-the-nose. I’m sure there are a million ways to introduce the idea of “lipstick feminism” and the notion that not every woman has the right to speak for every woman. These are all wonderful ideas that I’m glad made it onto televised entertainment. I just don’t like the execution. There are weird moments of bluntness on The West Wing amidst the deftness, and they feel not only slapped-on at the last minute but incredibly dated. I was just talking to Genevieve Koski about this scene, and she made the point that the scene might have been more effective if CJ was part of the conversation as well. I guess there are just scenes I don’t like. Ainsley as a character, though, is pretty great. Sorkin writes contradictions well, and the notion that a conservative lawyer would be so forward-thinking about feminism is worth exploring.


Despite the many ideas thrown around in that scene, there are also a few scenes of incredible stubbornness in “Night Five,” specifically between Toby and his ex-wife. She’s annoyed that Toby is writing a speech that condemns fundamentalist Muslims; Toby is more than happy to do so, because he wants to draw attention to the issue using forceful language. He doesn’t want to present the camel of speeches—“a horse built by committee”; this is his baby. “Oppression is not okay if it’s institutionalized,” he points out, to which his wife worries the Muslim world will hate Americans even more. “Do you know when they’ll like us?” he retorts. “When we win.”

Toby is a man who picks his battles. He stands firm to his beliefs, and does what he can to share those beliefs with a larger population—whether you like them or not. After all this time, it turns out the man situated at the center of The West Wing’s (at times) blind optimism isn’t Bartlet. It’s Toby.


Stray observations:

  • "Oppression is not okay just because it's institutionalized."
  • "I like sex." "He-llo!"

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