The West Wing: Five Votes Down

Aaron Sorkin recycles a plot from his film The American President, but whereas in that film we saw the President and his lover fighting for different things, here we follow our guys as they struggle to recover five votes to get a gun control bill passed.

The variety of reasons the five people in question have for refusing to vote Bartlet’s way are interesting – one is against gun control because it’s impossible to get them all back and he wants to arm himself (and his entire family by the sounds of things), one is in favour of gun control but feels the bill doesn’t do enough and is therefore pointless, one is afraid that he’ll lose the next election if he supports it and another goes with him, while another is using it to blackmail the President into a photo-op.

In the midst of all of this, Leo’s marriage breaks down. It’s strangely early to be doing this story – this is the only episode in which his wife Jenny appears, so although we can sympathise with Leo’s plight as human beings we can’t really feel the loss of the character or the relationship. This is more about highlighting the sacrifices the staff, and especially Leo, make for the sake of running the country. The straw that broke the camel’s back for Jenny is the sitcom-staple that Leo forgot their anniversary, but the ensuing discussion reveals that Leo genuinely believes that the job he’s doing is, for the next few years, more important than his marriage. It’s an interesting issue – Leo’s job is certainly important. At what point does something become legitimately more important than an inter-personal relationship? Or will some relationships always be more important? (A theme the show would eventually return to regarding other family relationships).

This storyline also does something much more important, which is to humanise Hoynes, who was pretty much a cardboard cut-out villain in his appearance in the previous episode. He can tell straight away that there’s something wrong with Leo, he offers to listen, he solves the votes problem (for a price as it turns out, but he solves it) and he invites Leo to his secret AA meeting for high profile politicians and other people who need to keep secrets. We learn a lot more about both Leo and Hoynes in that one scene than we have about either of them in the previous three episodes, and it’s a sweet discussion, even if Hoynes does use it to his advantage.

In the midst of all this seriousness, Bartlet takes two different types of pain medication at once and goes completely loopy in the middle of the Oval Office. It’s kind of mad and kind of weird, but it is quite funny, and we get to see the President in jeans and a sweatshirt (we learn he went to Notre Dame, surprising no one), which further humanises him in its own way.

In everyone else’s news, Charlie gets a baptism of fire, with a really long (single steadicam shot) walk and talk in tuxedos, no less. CJ wears a gorgeous dress at the same event. This is also one of those periodic episodes where Josh acts like an ass. Everyone tells him not to but he does it anyway, and it goes horribly, predictably wrong. Luckily these episodes don’t come along too often, and somehow Bradley Whitford is so charming he gets away with it. Also, he snarks Hoynes at the end. Excellent.

Bits and pieces

 - I try to write these reviews as if watching the show for the first time, to avoid spoiling anyone who hasn’t seen it yet, so I will only say – Bartlet takes pills for back pain.

 - Also presented without comment – Hoynes is very confident that he’ll be President one day.

 - Mandy and Toby seem to think most of the staff are ‘broke’ (financially). I beg to differ, and not just because we see Leo’s provincial palace in this episode.

 - Toby has a problem with stocks. I have enough trouble trying to understand the politics of a foreign country, I’m not even going to try to understand the stock market. Fortunately, Toby feels the same way I do.

Quotes

Leo: There are two things in the world you never want to let people see how you make 'em - laws and sausages.

Toby: I'm telling you that not only didn't I know what he was going to say to the committee, not only didn't I care what he was going to say to the committee, but if he had sat in my office while I typed up his testimony for him, I wouldn't have understood what he was going to say to the committee!

Sam: Where are you going?
Josh: Where are you going?
Sam: I was following you.
Josh: I was following you. (beat) All right... don't tell anyone this happened, OK?

Toby: There’s literally no one that I don’t hate in the world right now.

Leo: Call me before you go to sleep.
Jenny: OK.

A bit uneven, but solid character-building stuff. Two and a half out of four votes.

Juliette Harrisson is a freelance writer, classicist and ancient historian who blogs about Greek and Roman Things in Stuff at Pop Classics.

6 comments:

sunbunny said...

Sam and Josh's walk and talk fail is one of my favorite moments of the series. I also really enjoyed a super loopy Bartlet.

The one senator who is against the gun bill because it doesn't do enough pisses me off. It honestly makes me want to smack him in the head. Baby out with the bathwater anyone?

ChrisB said...

I agree that this was on the weaker end of the spectrum, but it does move the characters forward.

I always want to smack Josh when he gets carried away as he did in this episode. Anyone can see how it will end, but he storms through anyway.

A stoned Bartlet is hilarious - especially when he hugs Toby.

Great review!

Juliette said...

I hummed and hawed between two and a half and three on this, because in any other show this would be a really good episode - I think I just hold season 1&2 West Wing episodes to a higher standard! ;)

Billie Doux said...

I really liked the way the VP treated Leo, and the existence of the secret AA meeting for people who can't afford for anyone to know that they go to AA meetings.

Poor Leo. These people work so hard, and it's the job of a lifetime. It's probably easy for me to say but shouldn't their spouses give them some support?

The president stoned was hilarious.

Josie Kafka said...

That Josh scene with the VP at the end was my favorite so far, although I think that I read it differently than you do, Juliette. I saw it as Josh taking a few minutes to tell the VP he understood his play and his plans, and wanted an "in" to be part of the potential legacy election after Bartlet serves out his terms. It was the first really cynical and political think we've seen these characters do, which was refreshing.

Marianna said...

To explain Toby's stock troubles, basically you're not allowed to do anything that a regular person wouldn't be able to do that causes a company's stock to rise or fall and profit off of it. You're also not allowed to profit off of knowledge that isn't available to the public that something is going to happen with a company. It's called insider trading.

Toby bought stock in a company and then arranged for someone to testify before Congress. That testimony caused the stock he bought to rise dramatically so he accidentally profited off his ability to arrange this person's testimony, which a regular person cannot do so it's illegal.