OverWinging It: Season 2, Episodes 1-2

In The Shadow of Two Gunmen (Parts 1 and 2)

On paper, I should love Aaron Sorkin. He writes smart characters spitting smart dialogue at the top of their game. He’s got a brilliant sense of humor. And yet I can’t take to him the way I can to David Mamet, Robert Bolt or Tom Stoppard. I’d like to say this is because of his politics, but for two things: one, the older I get, the less objectionable I find his politics; two, I have problems with even his least political work (the later episodes of Sports Night, all of Studio 60).

Watching Season 2 of The West Wing, Sorkin’s magnum opus, helped me lay a finger on it. I haven’t been turned around all of a sudden from a Sorkin skeptic to an Aaronite. But I’m able to better articulate my feelings. And since that’s one of the core missions of Overthinking It – putting inarticulate feelings about an unexamined work of pop culture into academic language – I think my time was well spent.

Onto the analysis! This inaugural entry examines the two-parter that kicks off Season 2, “In The Shadow of Two Gunmen.” Future entries will hopefully have more than two episodes, because otherwise we’re here for a while.

S2E1 starts off seconds after the finale of S1, with gunshots ringing out from a window as President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) exits some public event. The President catches a stray round. Secret Service rushes him to the hospital, where he’s quickly treated and saved. Josh Lyman isn’t so lucky, however, taking a direct hit and going into surgery. As he lingers in critical condition, he (and apparently other members of the staff) reminisce on how they joined the Bartlet campaign a few years ago.

This episode focus a great deal on protocol. It’s easy enough to say, as showrunner, “the President gets shot and is rushed to the hospital.” But Sorkin chooses to focus on how the President is treated at the hospital. How does the Secret Service call ahead? How does the head nurse handle the sudden boost in security and medical attention required for the President as an inpatient? We get a few scenes devoted to this: someone making the call for ambulances to be diverted to other hospitals; the Vice President being spirited away from a photo op; Bartlet being wheeled in under heavy guard.

Why is process so fascinating? Why do we as an audience willingly sit through scenes of secret agents walking through layers of security (True Lies, the James Bond series), or lab technicians moving evidence from plastic bags to glossy monitors (CSI, NCIS), or code words being exchanged and nuclear launch keys being turned (countless examples)? Because process is evidence of reason. It means someone sat down and thought, “How should the launching of a nuclear missile (for example) be structured?” And it means the structure has been taught and rehearsed.

Reason is reassuring; chaos is frightening. If the President gets shot, we don’t want to see people screaming, crying or shoving each other out of the way. We want calm, commanding men with Southern accents and unflattering haircuts, like Secret Service agent Ron Butterfield, saying things like “GW! Blue, blue, blue!”

As the crisis at the hospital unfolds, a crisis of conscience plays out in flashback and in parallel. Leo McGarry, former Secretary of Labor, tries to poach Josh Lyman from John Hoynes’s team for the upcoming Presidential race. Lyman has just blown up in a Hoynes strategy meeting. “I don’t know what we’re for!” he says. McGarry asks him to come to Nashua, New Hampshire, to hear Bartlet speak.

On the way, Lyman stops off in New York to say hi to his pal Sam Seaborn, working for a law firm that’s helping to construct a nest of shell corporations and legal transfers to protect an oil company from future liabilities. Seaborn seems disappointed that Lyman is still working for Hoynes (“he’s not the real thing, is he?”).

It turns out, of course, that Bartlet is the real thing. He gives a speech at a VFW in Nashua that maybe twenty people attend. The few bits we overhear are bafflingly dry economics lectures, the sort of thing we’d expect from a “liberal New England academic” (Lyman’s words, not mine). The turning point, however, comes when Bartlet is grilled by a constituent on voting against a milk subsidy:

Yeah, I screwed you on that one. I screwed you. You got hosed. And not just you. A lot of my constituents. I put the hammer to farms in Concord, Salem, Laconia, Pelham, Hampton, Hudson. You guys got rogered but good. Today for the first time in history, the largest group of Americans living in poverty are children. 1 in 5 children live in the most abject, dangerous, hopeless, back-breaking, gut-wrenching poverty any of us could imagine. 1 in 5, and they’re children. If fidelity to freedom of democracy is the code of our civic religion then surely the code of our humanity is faithful service to that unwritten commandment that says we shall give our children better than we ourselves received. Let me put it this way: I voted against the bill because I didn’t want to make it harder for people to buy milk. I stopped some money from flowing into your pocket. If that angers you, if you resent me, I completely respect that. But if you expect anything different from the President of the United States, you should vote for someone else.

This is the speech that convinces Lyman to jump ship. This is also the speech that angers Bartlet’s other aides enough to the point that Bartlet fires them, leaving no one but Toby Ziegler and Leo McGarry on his staff. This leaves room for the enthusiastic Lyman to recruit Seaborn, while Ziegler flies out west to pick up C.J. Cregg. So this, right here, is the turning point that puts Bartlet in the White House.

First, could someone please explain what “if fidelity to freedom of democracy is the code of our civic religion, then surely the code of our humanity is faithful service to that unwritten commandment” means? Diagram it on a whiteboard. Rewrite it with synonyms. Something. As far as I can tell it’s gibberish. If Sorkin writes Bartlet like this to make him sound impressive, it’s a con game.

Of course, maybe Sorkin writes Bartlet like this to make a deeper point: that Bartlet is too smart for his own good. Bartlet means well – he voted down a milk subsidy so that poor kids could buy milk, after all – but he’s too ivory tower. This is why he needs the dream team of Ziegler, Lyman, Seaborn, McGarry and Cregg around him. He has all these great ideas, but he needs more savvy operators to help him communicate them.

Communication is a key theme of The West Wing; the first two episodes (I’ve seen) make that obvious. Three of the key cast are staff members tasked with communicating, not setting, the President’s agenda: Ziegler, Seaborn and Cregg. When you have a show that reflects the creator’s values that closely, such focus means something. Sorkin clearly believes that his beliefs are of immense worth to America, but that they haven’t always been communicated as effectively. If only the right people said the right words at the right time, America’s opinions on (say) civilian gun ownership would turn around overnight.

There were 36 homicides last night. 480 sexual assaults. 3411 robberies. 3685 aggravated assaults, all at gun point. And if anyone thinks those crimes could have been prevented if the victims themselves had been carrying guns, I only remind you that the President of the United States was shot last night while surrounded by the best-trained armed guards in the history of the world.

So says C.J. Cregg in a press briefing, early in the afternoon on the day after Bartlet has been shot (S2E2). Let’s take the stats Cregg reads off at face value, even though I strongly doubt that the DoJ would have its act together enough to collate the police blotters of even the fifty largest metropolitan areas in the United States and present the findings to the White House Press Secretary within eight hours of the President being shot. I also find a few grains in “the best-trained armed guards in the history of the world”; I imagine some of the more paranoid dictators of the Eastern hemisphere could match the Secret Service. Hell, SO14 has been dealing with Provo IRA bomb threats for years, and they have their act together.

But, again, take those facts for true. Assembling them in time for a press briefing must have taken a heroic effort. Reeling them off, in parallel with a shooting attack on the President, is a conscious choice. Why bring it up? Because Bartlet is such an ideal leader that every part of his life is a reflection of his values. His shooting demonstrates how common handguns are in American culture and how they can be used to violent ends – the unspoken conclusion being “better efforts to control them would have kept those people, and the President, safer.”

Note, however, that Bartlet’s shooting does not demonstrate the increased need for surveillance of suspected violent offenders without a warrant. It could. If Cregg can assemble a list of shooting victims overnight, she can surely assemble a list of crimes that could have been prevented if only the cops had tapped the perpetrator’s phones. But she doesn’t. Two shooters coordinated with a third spotter to take potshots at a Presidential convoy, a feat that takes planning, communication and audacity. They all shared ideological ties (white supremacy) that encourage violent action against the administration of the U.S. The lesson here? Relax surveillance restrictions against terrorist cells Keep handguns out of the hands of criminals.

So why does the Second Amendment get the red pen and not the Fourth? Because Bartlet’s life has to be a reflection of his values. Everything he does, he does for a reason; everything that happens to him happens to him for a reason. Even if the reason doesn’t touch him directly – Bartlet wasn’t the target of the attacks; his African-American aide, Charlie Young, was – things gravitate toward him because of his importance. It’s not that Bartlet’s staff had to seize the opportunity to speak out against gun violence because he was the victim of it. Bartlet was a victim of gun violence because he supports gun control. Not rationally – it’s not like the white supremacists were making a pro-Second Amendment stand – but metaphysically. It’s guns vs. Bartlet and Bartlet has to win.

19 Comments on “OverWinging It: Season 2, Episodes 1-2”

  1. Shana Mlawski OTI Staff #

    Aw, this is why I’m sad you didn’t watch season 1 before season 2. If I’m recalling correctly, in season 1, Bartlet was a stereotypical Dem in that he had the right ideas but never stepped up to fight for any of them. And, as you said, he didn’t know how to connect with people. So at the end of the first season (which was the end of his second year in office) nothing of substance had gotten done – he was merely a “caretaker president.” The big turning point of the season was when everyone finally agreed that he needed to stop letting everyone walk all over him. It was only then that he became Messiah Bartlet.

    So yeah, in season 2, he’s kind of a liberal messiah figure. But I think it works, mostly because a large section of this season is about him doing something pretty bad. In general, though, I think too many people who criticize The West Wing focus only on the Bartlet character (who at the beginning of first season was just a bit player). For me, the fun was always in watching the rest of the gang work. All of them, certainly, are flawed.

    Speaking of the rest of the gang, I’d be interested to see who you and our readers identify with, because that changed for me between the first time I saw the show (when I was 15) versus when I rewatched it as an adult. (For the record, as a 15 year old, I luuuurved Josh. As an adult, I usually wanted to strangle Josh for being the asshole who thinks politics is just a game, and I knew in my heart that I was Toby, the grumpy Jew.)


    • John Perich OTI Staff #

      These two episodes in particular feel sappier than (I hope) the rest of the season. I want gamesmanship! I want dirty politics!


      • frug #

        Trust me, there is plenty of gamesmanship and dirty politics in the series. You just had the misfortune of having the first two episodes you view be flashback heavy and take place mostly outside the White House.


  2. frug #

    The West Wing is about the Presidency of a man who perfectly embodies middle-class liberal values. I’m bothered not because I find those values distasteful, but because the man championing them is such an avatar. He’s as realistic as John Galt, the hyper-rational embodiment of Ayn Rand’s values in Atlas Shrugged. I can’t picture Bartlet smoking a cigar, or yelling at a valet, or coming to work upset because the Patriots lost last night, or anything else that doesn’t flow organically from his beliefs.

    Actually the series does address. One of his flaws as a politician is that he grew up wealthy and has little interest in “regular guy” activities. It was addressed early in season 1 when a member of Congress says he will only vote in favor a bill if the President agrees to be photographed playing golf with him, only to have Josh or Sam reply that the President doesn’t play golf… he plays chess.
    Later it will become a major issue in season 4 which is dominated by the his reelection campaign.

    As for the president and the staff being “perfect”, they aren’t. They make big big mistakes that cause major damage (both political and non-political).


    • John Perich OTI Staff #

      They make big big mistakes that cause major damage

      Yeah, but so did Agamemnon; that doesn’t make the Oresteia realistic. :-p


      • frug #

        Point taken, but they really are plausible in this series. Without getting too specific, in season 4 Josh wrecks a bill (and damages Bartlet’s reelection chances) when he misreads a Senator’s public statements, which were intended to give a Bartlet a convenient political target (i.e. Congressional obstruction), and goes after the Senator himself.


    • Paul M #

      Funny you should mention those specific things, because Bartlet is repeatedly shown to smoke cigarettes, and on at least one occasion gets upset because Notre Dame loses. And I’m sure he yells at Charlie though I can’t remember when or for what.


      • John Perich OTI Staff #

        I just saw “In This White House,” in which Bartlet slums it in the Communications Office on Saturday morning in a Notre Dame sweatshirt. So that’s something!


  3. Jim Saul #

    There is some back story to the episode that supports your point – Charlie’s mother was a DC cop killed in the line of duty by “cop killer” bullet that would ostensibly be illegal under stricter gun laws that the main characters would like.

    Though at the time the series was promoted as being an inside look at how the staff really might operate, and had people like Lawrence O’Donnell on staff to inform the writing by true experience, the overly on-the-nose kind of plot conveniences are probably more Sorkin’s attempt at Shakespeare via Seinfeld A/B/C plot merging fugues than an attempt to reflect perfectly his politics.

    Those kind of syncopating plot beats might not be entirely unrelated to his taste for mushrooms… coincidences self-assembling a structured narrative that rushes to moments of sudden illumination.

    My impression is that Sorkin wrote high-concept plots that were converted from bombast to good drama by the talent of the cast and the deep knowledge of the researchers and cowriters.


  4. foo #

    That sentence you reference doesn’t mean anything because it’s a sentence fragment. But the meaning of the whole isn’t difficult to puzzle out. First, it’s a conditional, of course:

    If (fidelity to freedom of democracy is the code of our civic religion) then (surely) (the code of our humanity is faithful service to that unwritten commandment that says we shall give our children better than we ourselves received).

    The “freedom of” here is a bit gratuitous, but not ungrammatical. “fidelity to democracy is the code of our civic religion” seems fine. Democracy is a way of going about things, fidelity _to_ that way of going about things can be said to be a code — you shall go about things this way. So this proposition is roughly “we believe in democracy”, but phrased using religious metaphor.

    “the code of our humanity is faithful service to that unwritten commandment that says P” extends the metaphor. We were talking about a “the code of our civic religion”, now we’re talking about “the code of our humanity” — so ethics as opposed to political philosophy. “faithful service to …” is parallel to “fidelity to …”. “that unwritten commandment that says” puts a bit more of a religious gloss on the ethical claim — suggesting it is of the same order of the written commandments. The ethical proposition itself is “we shall give our children better than we ourselves received”, which is straightforward.

    So, the sentence expresses something like “if we are committed to democracy, then we are also committed to giving our children more than we had”. The phrasing is meant to bring religion to mind — and more particularly that not all ethical or religious commitments are written down. (Factually, the claim is almost certainly false as a necessary implication. But if we’re being picky, then if the consequent is true the whole is true considered as a material conditional.)

    Or perhaps you were being facetious.


    • John Perich OTI Staff #

      On any other website on the Internet, you would be roundly criticized for giving that level of detail in your response. Here, we say: “welcome home.”

      Anyhow, there was a punchier way to say it, is my point.


    • Chris Bowyer #

      I dig on the effort there, but I think the problem is linking the two thoughts. He starts with “If,” which means that, somehow, being committed to democracy must also mean being committed to giving our children more than we have. This seems like a non-sequitur. They’re both, ya’ know, really nice and good things, but I don’t see how the former demands the latter.


  5. Wenyip #

    “I can’t picture Bartlet smoking a cigar, or yelling at a valet, or coming to work upset because the Patriots lost last night, or anything else that doesn’t flow organically from his beliefs. (I may be proven wrong later this season, but that remains to be seen)

    If The West Wing is supposed to get me excited about democracy or America again, Bartlet is the wrong guy to do it. If the system needs a perfect man surrounded by a perfect team in order to work, then the system doesn’t really work. I would be much more impressed with a show about a centrist compromiser and his team of shopworn hacks who happen to produce progressive policy against everyone’s expectations.”

    The thing is, pretty much everything you’ve said there does happen, at least in my recollection of the show. Bartlett smokes on the sly when he’s stressed, he yells at people, and he does get into bad moods because of sports and other minor things. A lot of the time this is done in a somewhat stilted manner, but it’s there.

    Moreover, though, what you’ve missed in those two episodes is (to me, at least) one of the most essential parts of the show’s premise: that Bartlett is a Democrat president, but the Republicans have majorities in both houses. In his first term, he didn’t even have a majority of the vote. And that’s basically how the show works, with the protagonists constantly having to compromise and struggle to do anything at all. Every time I’ve watched it, the thing I’ve have most difficulty believing is the constant assertations that Bartlett’s staff, especially Lyman, are actually these supremely capable political operators, because they never seem to get anything done and get sidetracked and blindsided by every little thing you can think of.

    But despite this, the fact that they are continually stymied by America’s governmental system, they all do support it. I’m not sure what that’s saying about the system.


    • Shana Mlawski OTI Staff #

      Ugh, please don’t write “Democrat president.” The grammar nut in me can’t stand it. The adjective is “Democratic.” Nice comment otherwise, though.


      • Qwil man #

        I totally understand that it’s not grammatically correct, but the term “Democratic president” has too much precedent as a term meaning “President elected democratically” to read as “President who ran as a Democrat.” I’m not usually one to concede this, but that might be a case where language has gotten adapted to better serve the purpose of understanding.


  6. Chris Bowyer #

    Nice rundown, good idea. Looking forward to the others. This might convince me to go back and watch the season for a third (or fourth; not sure) time. I agree with almost all of it. Some random thoughts and addendums:

    1) You’re dead-on with the fantasy Bartlett is meant to represent. This is a common political delusion: that if only our ideals were articulated the right way, everyone would see how wise they are. I’m not sure if this is more prevalent on the left or the right, but it’s clearly going on here, and it’s clearly silly. No, Mr. Sorkin, the problem is not messaging or PR. The problem is that smart people are perfectly capable of being reasonable and still disagreeing with each other, because reality is freaking hard.

    2) Why the crap would voting against milk subsidies make it easier to buy milk? I don’t generally dig on subsidies, but I think Sorkin’s economics might be backwards here. There are plenty of arguments about the long-term effects of such subsidies, and you could make a strong case that milk subsidies will make milk scarcer at some point, I suppose, but I’m not sure how you could pretend that getting rid of them would make milk cheaper, at least not any time in the near future. Assuming I’m not missing something obvious, I guess you could say this is the inevitable problem when a character has a Nobel in Economics but the person writing them most emphatically does not.

    3) The gun control argument is kind of goofy for all the reasons you say, but also because the pro-gun argument isn’t “if you have a gun nobody can ever hurt you.” If someone wants to get YOU, specifically, then they probably can. But most gun owners aren’t trying to deter a highly-organized, highly-motivated group of political extremists, they’re just trying to deter random assailants or thieves, none of whom are likely to give a crap who they’re going after, and who would smartly and gladly move onto the next victim if they felt they were less likely to be armed.


    • Chris Bowyer #

      I should add that the milk subsidy thing could make sense if it’s accompanied by some kind of trade restriction, like sugar subsidies are. But seeing as how Bartlett was a Governor at the time, and not President, I’m not sure what kind of restriction could be there.

      He might be gaming it out really, really far: the subsidies first LOWER the costs, people buy far more of it, creating artificial shortages, which in turn raises the price. You could also say that the subsidies discourage innovation. That’s gaming it out pretty far, though.


  7. Ezra #

    One thing which always bothered me about Sorkin’s stories is that his characters are constantly sacrificing their own self-interest to stand up for their principles, but then they’d get the reward they thought they’d given up anyway. It’s been many years since I saw a WW episode, but I seem to remember most of them going like this: a character would be tempted to do something expedient, would wrestle with his conscience, and ultimately decide to do the right thing, but then the principled action, which everyone thought would cost them votes or political capital or whatever, turned out to be even more successful than the expedient qaction. It was a show about “big moral dilemmas” which always turned out to be nothing, because there were never any consequences–unless you count “even more success” as a consequence of sticking to your principles. The drama is supposed to be about the “tough choice” between following your conscience and getting the big payday, but the choice stops being tough if following your conscience actually leads to an even bigger payday.


  8. An Inside Joke #

    After reading your post last week and mulling it over a few days, I was struck by the similarities between Bartlet and. . . wait for it. . . David Palmer from 24.

    Now, I’ve never seen West Wing, so I’m just going by what I read in Perich’s article and the comments, but this idea of a charismatic, idealistic, and almost messianic presidential figure really seems descriptive of Palmer in the early seasons of 24. Given how to many people, 24 seems synonymous with right-wing conservative politics, I’d be interested to see a breakdown of how Palmer – also a democrat – embodied the idea of an effective, moral political figure we all wish we had but never quite do in real life.


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