Perich’s analysis and review of The West Wing Season 2 continues with Episodes 9 through 11: “Galileo,” “Noel” and “The Leadership Breakfast.”
The President and NASA plan a TV event for a probe’s landing on Mars; satellite photographs show a suspicious-looking fire in Russia; Leo asks Toby and Josh to decide on the next postage stamp; Sam and C.J. have personal reasons for not wanting to accompany the President to a concert. (c/o IMDb)
“Galileo” begins with President Bartlet rubbing his hands at the opportunity to host a live broadcast of an unmanned Mars landing. He gets a look at the remarks prepared by a NASA staffer and winces. Bartlet asks Sam to revise the remarks. Sam, with about a five second pause, dictates the following:
Write this: “Good morning. Eleven months ago a 1200 pound
spacecraft blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Eighteen hours ago…” Is it eighteen hours ago? We’re on the air at noon eastern. [...] “Eighteen hours ago it landed on the planet Mars. You, me, and 60,000 of your fellow students across the country along with astroscientists and engineers from the Jet Propulsion Lab in Southern California, NASA Houston, and right here, at the White House, are going to be the first to see what it sees, and to chronicle an extraordinary voyage of an unmanned ship called Galileo V.”
Bartlet’s response: “He said it right.”
Should we believe that anyone can deliver a perfect set of opening remarks, extempore, with only a pause to check the time? In the universe of The West Wing, we must. As I’ve mentioned at least once, all the protagonists of The West Wing have the mutant power to instantly, accurately and rhythmically deliver trivial statistics to prove their point. And while it seems a little pat – Bartlet’s response adding another layer of corniness to an already starchy muffin – to see a senior White House speechwriter delivering neat prose off the top of his head doesn’t strain credibility too hard.
More to the point, he does say it right. The NASA staffer’s original draft begins with the sort of empty pomposity that audiences take for granted: “Good morning! I’m speaking to you live from the West Wing of the White House. Today we have a very unique opportunity to take part live in an extremely historic event which …” That’s as far as Bartlet makes it before he and C.J. point out that (1) nothing can be “very unique” (2) or “extremely historic,” as both of those are binary qualities, and (3) the word “live” is repeated twice in the first two sentences. We encounter sentences like that all the time – in work emails, in scholarly papers, in Presidential addresses – and don’t blink at them. But they are cliched and they could be better.
That, of course, is one of the recurring themes of The West Wing. It trains us to expect better of our leaders. If the President is trying to excite schoolchildren, he shouldn’t kill time with winding sentences. He should deliver crisp, vivid prose that describes a momentous scene. The President is not only a chief executive in this context: he is a champion of causes.
It also sets up an interesting contrast between the NASA staffer, who’s worked hard on his printed remarks, and Sam Seaborn, who can deliver a clear speech extemporaneously. Sam looks perfect; the NASA staffer looks like a failure. But it’s not hard for us to imagine Sam mentally composing this speech from the moment he first saw the NASA staffer’s rough draft. We don’t see that process, though. Throughout this episode we are invited to compare the appearance of perfection vs. the evidence of human failure. This is the first instance.
There’s a subplot involving Josh and Donna picking the next stamp which, I just, I don’t even. It’s a stamp. I couldn’t get invested in stamps back when people still used stamps; don’t ask it of me today. And the emotional pivot of the subplot is whether or not to nominate (fictional) Marcus Aquino, war veteran and former Puerto Rican commissioner who also agitated for PR statehood. This story doesn’t know whether it wants to be a humorous subplot about the trivia that White House staff sometimes have to deal with (choosing a stamp!) or a serious subplot about the implications of America’s colonialist history (Puerto Ricans can’t vote!). You can’t have it both ways, Sorkin. Pick one.
(Of course, the point of The West Wing is that the people matter as much as, if not more than, the issues do. So the point of the subplot isn’t the gravity of philately, but the ambiguity of whether or not Josh and Donna are ever going to do it. Living in the future, I am privileged to know that they won’t, so I just can not be bothered with this god damned stamp nonsense)
(Also, without trivial subplots and repeated dialogue, each episode of The West Wing would be 18 minutes long)
While attending a concert with the President, C.J. has to duck several rejected job candidates for a Deputy Press Secretary job, one of whom she used to sleep with. Sam also has an ex to avoid: Mallory McGarry, Leo’s daughter, who’s now dating a hockey player. There’s awkward interplay surrounding each of these meetings and evasions. They ultimately end in catharsis: Sam and Mallory having some frank talk about the space program, and C.J. and her ex (Colm Feore!) having a snit outside the Kennedy Center.
We’re conditioned to think of our rulers as “the makers of manners,” as Shakespeare put it, but in The West Wing they’re the subjects of social niceties, not the dictators. C.J. tries to avoid Colm Feore’s character all evening, then tries to act gracious when he shows up, disappointed. The President grumps his way through the afternoon leading up to the concert, unenthused about an evening of Iceland’s idea of modern composition. Unspoken in these social feints is the premise that these are the most powerful people on the planet. C.J. speaks to the world press a couple times a week. The President has most of the world’s nuclear missiles and aircraft carriers. But they’re not above civility. That implies that our government, despite its power, is a more civil form of rulership.
Civility is the gentle art of orchestrating appearances between unequals. It’s a peaceful alternative to reveling in naked power. We cheer a basketball player who vaults over his opponent to slam the ball home, but we would despise the same player if he didn’t shake his opponent’s hand after the game. We value civility in competition because we recognize that we might someday be the loser, and we would want our conquerors to be civil to us. This is how C.J. can act polite to job applicants, reporters and other staff members, even though the power at her disposal could ruin their reputations.
(We’re still primates enough to revel in brute displays of power, like the President telling a radio talk show host, whom he’s invited to his palace, to OBEY THE SACRED FORM OF ADDRESS, WOMAN. We’re not perfect)
And that’s the overarching theme of the episode: the appearance of perfection vs. the reality of weakness. It’s carried throughout by the darkest plot of the episode: a fire in a Russian missile silo that the Russians won’t own up to. The Russian ambassador won’t admit that it was a missile silo, that the nukes in the silo are in danger, or that the fire was caused by guards trying to steal the warheads. To admit any of that would be to give away weakness. As the evidence mounts up against her, however, the ambassador’s frosty veneer must crack. She can’t sustain appearances.
C.J. suggests, as the episode ends, that maybe we don’t need to put up such a perfect front all the time. Maybe we can admit that we lost a Mars probe or that we don’t like green beans or that kleptocrats are looting our missile silos. Sure, Sam Seaborn can speechify like Cato, but we didn’t see the crumpled pages beneath his desk. Yes, the President has a litany of Mars facts at his fingertips, but that didn’t help NASA land that probe.
We have at our disposal a captive audience of schoolchildren. Some of them don’t go to the blackboard or raise their hand ’cause they think they’re going to be wrong. I think you should say to these kids, “You think you get it wrong sometimes, you should come down here and see how the big boys do it.” I think you should tell them you haven’t given up hope and that it may turn up, but, in the meantime, you want NASA to put its best people in a room and you want them to start building Galileo 6. Some of them will laugh and most of them won’t care but for some, they might honestly see that it’s about going to the blackboard and raising your hand. And that’s the broader theme.
To continue to pretend that everything’s fine, even in the face of obvious evidence otherwise, can kill you. Which is an excellent segue into …
Josh speaks to a psychiatrist about the events of the last three weeks: Toby hired musicians for the foyer, an Air Force pilot disobeyed orders, Yo-Yo Ma performed at the White House, and Josh managed to cut his hand quite badly. (c/o IMDb)
This was the episode that turned it all around for me.
More than anything else, I missed tension from The West Wing. I could not make myself care about whether or not Toby gets a bold new education initiative in the President’s speech. I tried to care about CJ unwittingly revealing a grand jury’s empanelling, but the outcome was kept on tenterhooks so long that everything dissipated. And I can’t give a good god damn about a stamp.
But in “Noel,” we have a protagonist, Josh, in denial. He’s meeting with a psychiatrist: Dr. Stanley Keyworth, ably played by Adam Arkin. He tries to play the shrink off with the same bluff brilliance that he uses on his coworkers, but Stanley isn’t buying it. He tries joking, equivocating, overwhelming his listeners with data – anything to avoid the truth. And behind it all is an incident: severe enough to call in a psychiatrist for the White House Deputy Chief of Staff, severe enough that Josh will do anything to avoid reliving it.
Not only does this episode have tension, the director (Thomas Schlamme) builds it with such art. We get the casual reveal of unforeseen but damning details: “How’d you cut your hand? You’re not talking to the paperboy either, Josh.” We get to see Josh gradually unravel in the recap of the last three weeks. We get sepia-toned flashbacks to Josh breaking the glass, flashbacks of scenes that may or may not have happened.
It’s a brilliant construction of suspense, all the more amazing because no one has a gun, or a bomb, or even much of a threat. Yes, Josh may lose his job if Stanley diagnoses him as mad, ma-a-ad, but that’s barely touched on. What’s at risk is Josh’s image of himself. The blows to our self-image scar deeper than any other horror. We think we’re great parents, only for our children to scream how much they’re scared of us. We think we’re hard workers, only to overhear our superiors gossiping about our performance. We think we’re professionals, capable of handling great responsibility, only for our boss to tell us that we have to meet with a shrink.
As a standalone episode, it would work perfectly. But it works even better because we’re invested in Josh as a character. We know he’s smart. We know that, when he’s on, he can come up with inspired solutions. We’re fighting for him not to be broken.
The incident that touches Josh off – and it may not be just the one thing – is an F-16 pilot who goes rogue in New Mexico. Josh is assigned to dig into the pilot’s personnel file and uncover why the pilot might have broken formation. He finds that the pilot had to eject over Bosnia and suffered some injuries in the line of duty. He also finds that he and the pilot have the same birthday. Josh repeats this fact to Donna and Sam, but it doesn’t make much impression on either of them. It doesn’t make much impression on us, either, until three weeks later when Josh is in the Oval Office, screaming at the President to listen to him.
Josh never thought he was hurt, following the shooting, but he never gave much thought to the subject until now. Now, confronted with a man with the same birthday, serving the same government, he wonders what it’s like to be so broken up by a war wound that you’d want to kill yourself. He wonders about it so long and hard that it drives him to distraction. And he can’t sit through a Yo-Yo Ma recital without being reminded of sirens.
The B plot to “Noel,” and we only see it in glimpses, is about a woman who starts screaming during a White House tour. C.J. is inspired to investigate the woman. She discovers that the woman’s father owned a painting that was taken from him by the Nazis during the occupation of France, a painting that, through a complex chain of transactions, now hangs outside the Blue Room of the White House. The old woman saw a painting that she hadn’t seen since her childhood, a painting that reminded her of a lost father and fleeing from fascists, and screamed. She spoke out and she was rewarded.
“Noel” is about repressing pain and reliving it. Rebecca Hausmann forgets about the trauma of her childhood for sixty years, until a chance encounter in the White House brings it screaming back. An F-16 pilot pretends he’s recovered from his crash in Bosnia, until something triggers a flashback and he can’t handle being in the air anymore. And Josh pretends he’s recovered from the shooting – for all he knows, he is recovered – until he’s forced to confront the notion of pain itself. Suddenly he has an obstacle that he can’t reason, delegate or quip around. Suddenly he has to be honest.
“Noel” was the most artful episode of The West Wing I had seen up to that point. Can Sorkin keep it up?
THE LEADERSHIP BREAKFAST
Toby wants to use a bipartisan breakfast to discuss real issues instead of making it a staged event; Sam floats the idea of moving the press room across the street; Leo wants Josh to apologize to a columnist on his behalf; Leo and Toby realize they need to start thinking about reelection. (c/o IMDb)
Holy crap – suddenly The West Wing is about politics.
If “Galileo” was about the illusion of civility, then “The Leadership Breakfast” is about a tattered veil in front of a cage of snarling dogs. The gamesmanship involved in seating people for the titular breakfast takes up the entire cold open. Just introducing a potential debate about a minor clause to an extant bill takes an all-day meeting and hard negotiation. Everyone in this episode has an agenda and everyone is scheming to achieve it.
The head schemer, of course, is Ann Stark, Chief of Staff to the Senate Majority Leader, played by Sorkin veteran Felicity Huffman. She portrays a younger and more bubbly leader than she did on Sports Night – not to say that she’s empty-headed, but she’s more playful than the harried Dana Whitaker. Of course, as the post-breakfast press conference proves, she’s also far more vicious.
Ann begins laying the groundwork for her “hit” at breakfast with Toby, when she bestows on him with a can of New Hampshire maple syrup. “Where’s my present?” she pouts. At first we take it as a jest, only to later realize that this is how Ann operates. Everything must be tit-for-tat. She wouldn’t be giving Toby a can of New Hampshire maple syrup unless it put him in her debt, albeit symbolically.
It’s also a very artful way of implying something that the episode makes obvious without ever putting into words: that Toby and Ann have a romantic history. Toby tries to persuade Leo into letting him sit down with Ann – the executive officer for the President’s chief rival – and has to reluctantly admit that he “know[s] her a little.” Ann teases Toby about how he “used to be fun” and asks him what she should wear to breakfast the next morning. Everything about their relationship is obvious, but it goes unsaid.
We see this in more humorous ways, too, like when Sam is press ganged into going to dinner with Karen Cahill, a New York Times columnist whom he’s terribly nervous about impressing. He pats himself on the back afterward for having spoken so cleverly, until he becomes convinced that he confused Kyrgyzstan for Kazahkstan. To smooth over the malapropism, he sends Donna to chat with her. Donna thinks she impressed her, until realizing that an extra pair of underwear fell out of her pant leg in front of Cahill. For those keeping score at home, that’s two episodes of Sports Night that Sorkin self-plagiarized from (S2E2 “When Something Wicked This Way Comes” and S2E4 “Louise Revisited”). When you consider that he imported Felicity Huffman, I think we score this as a trifecta.
Either way, the implication, and the theme, is the same: there’s no such thing as a harmless meal. Breaking bread in D.C. is not a moment of communion. In fact, that’s when you redouble the pressure, because the other side might have his guard down. There’s the meal, of course, but there are also things that can and can’t be said. Like raising the minimum wage, or how could you do this to me after all those years?, and the like.
One last note: I objected, very early on, about the beatific glow that surrounds President Bartlet. He’s a man without faults, only quirks. “The Leadership Breakfast” changed that, and it waited until the very end to do it. Toby and Leo, considering the impact of the day’s events, decide to kickstart the President’s re-election effort. The problem: they can’t tell Bartlet about it. Bartlet, the moody philosopher, wouldn’t have the stomach to start his re-election campaign that early. For once, Bartlet’s intellectualism, his academic remove from the concerns of petty politics, is treated as a flaw.
It’s an unexpected direction. It’s a refreshing change. And it also means there’s a war coming.