The West Wing: Mr Willis of Ohio

Josh takes an eclectic group out for drinks, and Bartlet demonstrates that people skills are not always his forte when he learns of Leo’s upcoming divorce.

The opening sequence of this episode, in which we see how close the staff are as we watch them staying late at work playing poker, reminds me very much of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Clearly, late night poker games are the way people with stressful and demanding jobs unwind (how they aren’t so exhausted they just fall into bed is a mystery to me). The key difference between Bartlet and Captain Picard, though, is that Bartlet is right in there playing with them from the start. Well, sort of – his sneaky way of gaining the upper hand (following on from the previous episode’s classic ‘It was Steffi Graf, sir!’) is to distract everyone with trivia, which seems highly appropriate and characteristic. Toby wins anyway, which also seems characteristic – although he is established as a person who often loses in life, he is also a determined person who will not be put off by an attempt to name all the punctuation marks (and knows them all off by heart anyway).

Much of this episode isn’t very kind to Bartlet as a character, as his reaction to the collapse of his best friend’s marriage is about as awful as it could possibly get. It’s just about comprehensible on the grounds that he feels that his job has been part of the problem and is trying to place the blame elsewhere (and I suppose maybe he’s a stricter Catholic than he usually lets on) but it’s a wonder Leo is still talking to him at the end of the episode, apology or no apology. His interactions with Zoey are much more successful though, as he explains in excruciating detail exactly why he’s a bit over-protective at times.

And talking of protective, Charlie gets to show how awesome he is here, when, as Josh puts it, he doesn’t ‘blink before [putting] his body between danger and Zoey.’ Josh shows his awesome too, solving the problem with brain rather than brawn when Jesse-from-Buffy starts to get aggressive. There’s a sense of the danger inherent in taking on such a high-stakes job that runs through the episode from beginning to end – early on we see a security lock-down for the first time, though it’s apparently not the first time for the characters. (Mandy whines that this didn’t happen at her old job, thus proving once again that she is one of the most irritating characters ever written – you work for the President, there’s a level of security risk involved. Shut up and get on with your job!) As long as Josh and Charlie are around, though, surely all will be well…

The nominal subject of the episode is the census, the taking of it, understanding it, and, through Mr Willis, a moment of connection with one of the people in it. CJ has to ask Sam for help understanding it because it’s her turn to play what’s usually Donna’s role and get another character to explain what’s going on and why it matters to the audience. I have some reservations about the fact it’s always a female character who has to do this (and seriously, the White House Press Secretary doesn’t understand the census?) but at least it’s pretty funny. Donna, meanwhile, is busy complaining that she wants her taxes back (I have some sympathy there) and dating the show with her outlandish, extravagant desire for a DVD player.

I’ve always liked this episode a lot, and the guest character of Mr Willis, played by Al Fann, is a big reason for that. His storyline makes even less real-world sense than CJ’s (you can’t just replace deceased elected representatives with their spouses) but the scenes between him and Toby are just so beautiful, with Toby finding his hard edges softened a bit by meeting someone who really cares, that it’s all worth it. I may even have learned something about the US census. Shame I’m not a US citizen but never mind, useful knowledge anyway!

Bits ‘n’ pieces

 - Although it doesn’t reflect my politics, I rather like Donna’s little ‘lesson’ at the end.

 - Ron Butterfield appears! I love Ron. Congressman Skinner returns a couple of times as well, most memorably in Season 2’s ‘The Portland Trip.’

 - Isn’t Zoey underage for the States? Why is she buying CJ a drink? Won’t she get ID’d?

 - SPOILER WARNING It’s our policy to avoid spoilers for future episodes in these reviews but I just have to say – Bartlet’s speech/rant at Zoey at the end of this episode. Man.

Quotes

Bartlet: Just trying to kill me isn’t necessarily evidence of being mentally unbalanced.

CJ: I don’t understand certain nuances... like the census.

CJ: I’ve been faking it.

CJ: I'm a person saying there's something I do not know, will you teach me. It's hard to admit you don't know something. That makes me submissive.
Sam: What exactly is it you’re asking me to do?

CJ: I now know everything there is to know about the Census. Go ahead, you can ask me anything.
Bartlet: How many people live in the United States?
Sam: There is some material we haven't covered yet.

Logically flawed but sweet and rich in character. Three and a half out of four inaccurate censuses. Censi. Whatever.

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

10 comments:

sunbunny said...

Again, there's the whole sexism thing. CJ, who is a bright, strong, powerful, professional woman doesn't understand...the census? Her job is hard and requires knowing (or seeming to know) a lot and it would make sense she needs something to be explained at some point, but the census? Thanks for making her seem like a complete ditz.

I really liked Bartlet's reaction to Leo's marriage ending. I'm sure it's guilt. He has to know Leo's highly stressful and demanding job is part of it, but he'd rather blame it on the shortcomings of others to insulate himself from the guilt. One of my problems with West Wing is that Bartlet is all too often a paragon of perfection. He always makes the right choices and says the right things (if not immediately, then at least by the end of the episode). So I enjoy him making a mistake.

I can't remember if Willis was a Representative or a Senator. Empty seats in the House of Representatives can ONLY be filled by a special election. Empty seats in the Senate are generally filled by an appointment by the governor of that state. Some states, however, require a special election. Even if Willis was a senator, it's weird the governor would appoint the husband of a deceased politician, someone with no political experience at all.

You should move here, Juliette, and put your US civics knowledge to good use. It's fun here. We put bacon on everything.

Juliette said...

Haha! I would say I probably know more about the US government than my own, but I also own all of Yes (Prime) Minister on DVD so I'm probably good either side of the pond. We are sadly lacking in good bagel shops though. Or frozen yogurt (which I'm not sure I've ever eaten).

CJ not understanding the census is insane - one of the redeeming features of the later, Sorkin-less seasons is definitely CJ finally getting to be her most awesomest (non-patronised) self.

sunbunny said...

You've never had frozen yogurt!?! That might be the saddest thing I've ever heard.

ChrisB said...

The sexism in this episode doesn't bother me too much as it is tempered by the fact that Sam has to help Josh understand it the night before he helps CJ. It is a throw away exchange right at the end of the poker game, but it is there.

I love this episode because, like Toby, I love Mr. Willis. I love the way he tells them all he is staying in town and I love the way he talks about his wife. Lovely, lovely man.

Donna's keeping the change always makes me laugh. The chemistry between Josh and her is great fun to watch.

Iago said...

Forgive me if I'm looking at this from a position of male privilege, but I genuinely don't see sexism in CJ having the details of the census explained to her. She's asking for help with complex questions, questions that vex really smart, real world people. I've got a degree in politics (aided in no small part by this show) and I couldn't give the ins and outs of the British census.

Donna gets used as the vehicle for exposition a lot because she never finished university and she works with a very smart, very nerdy bloke. Even still, she beats Josh regularly. Donna's consistently shown as very smart and very capable. Once I can do it without fear of spoilers, I can discuss the Donna theory of the West Wing.

One of my favourite bits of this episode is Josh and Sam having rings run around them by Zoe and Mallory. Mrs Landingham does a great job at pointing out Josh's immaturity too.

I do love the dated details of the series, such as the pagers and the fantastic new technology of DVDs. Then I weep because it makes me realise how old I am.

sunbunny said...

Iago - I don't know ANYTHING about the British census, but the American census is really simple. Every ten years we count people. There are finer points (i.e. what is done with those numbers) but nothing that merits CJ (or Josh, for that matter) being that confused in my opinion.

I honestly don't mind as much when Donna is confused. She's smart in a different way from most of the other characters. I forget the episode, but at some point someone comments that with all the graduate degrees between the WH staff, no one would be able to buy a plane ticket without Donna.

Juliette said...

Iago, for me, it's more the fact that, if anyone has to be the person people deliver exposition to, it tends to be a woman. I don't mind when it's Donna, that makes sense, but it seems weird that CJ doesn't know this already. It's also exacerbated by coming right after the toe-curlingly patronising 'these women' speech in the previous episode. It gets better as the show goes on though.

ChrisB said...

Fantastic exchange on a recent episode of Psych:

Gus: "You know, Shawn, I could've made it all the way to the White House."
Shawn: "Yeah, maybe as an aide."
Gus: "Of course."
Shawn: "Say, 'Yes, Mr. President.'"
Gus (in Charlie's tone): "Yes, Mr. President."
Shawn: "Sorry, Charlie."
Gus: "Man, you don't know."

The best part about this was that Dulé Hill was grinning throughout.

sunbunny said...

Chris - I got so excited when that happened! It was just adorable. I''m surprised it took them this long to make a West Wing reference.

It's so weird to go back and forth watching Psych and West Wing. Charlie and Gus are so different!!

Billie Doux said...

I can tell a lot of my West Wing comments are going to be "I loved this" and "I loved that."

Loved:

-- The poker game with the president quizzing them to throw Toby off -- wonderful.

-- Mr. Willis. Of course, every congressperson should be like Mr. Willis. It's so sad that none of them are.

-- Learning about the census. Sam teaching CJ was just adorable, although CJ getting Sam to teach her was even more adorable.

-- The extent to which Bartlet thought about what might happen to his daughter Zoey just because he's the president.

-- Charlie taking a lot of crap and refusing to back down because of Zoey. There's a reason why I love Charlie. What a sweetie.